On October 2, journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared into Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Turkey. While Saudi Arabian authorities initially asserted that Khashoggi left unharmed, they have since admitted that he was murdered inside the consulate. Khashoggi was a noted critic of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which suggests that the killing had a political motivation, but the Saudi Arabian government has insisted alternately that the killing was either accidental or orchestrated without the knowledge of Mohammed bin Salman.
On the international stage, many nations, human rights groups and politicians condemned the Saudi Arabian government for Khashoggi’s murder. Among them, President Donald Trump was conspicuous in his reluctance to end the American government’s sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia, even as more evidence came out supporting the murder allegation. The arms deal between the United States and Saudi Arabia, signed in May 2017, is one of the largest in U.S. history. Although the actual value of the deal may fall short of the promised $350 billion or even $110 billion, it nevertheless constitutes a significant tie between the two countries, both politically and economically. While President Trump seems unwilling to let the deal go, a bill was recently introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives that would end the deal and any future arms sales. Meanwhile, the European Union has passed a nonbinding resolution to ban the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia.
Should the United States continue selling weapons to the Saudis? There are certainly significant strategic arguments on both sides. The deal has economic benefits to the United States and does help us control the Middle East, but it also allows Saudi Arabia to threaten our allies in the area, particularly Israel. Absent from many discussions of the deal—and similar arms sales—are the ethical considerations. Is it ethically permissible to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, or to anyone?
The 2017 deal with Saudi Arabia may have been one of the largest weapons sales in U.S. history, but it was certainly not the first. Since World War II, the United States has used arms sales as a tool to advance both foreign policy and its own economic standing. The United States is also not the only country to engage in arms exports: Russia exports a similar volume of arms, and about 44% of global weapons sales are by countries other than the U.S. and Russia. What are the consequences of such sales? It would seem likely that the distribution of weapons facilitates or even promotes war; if one considers war inherently unethical, then it would be difficult to regard arms sales as ethical. The economic benefits of arms sales also come into question: if the United States’ economy is boosted by arms sales, this provides a perverse incentive for the U.S. to promote war, even when such war has negative humanitarian consequences.
There is also the matter of agency and self-determination for individual nations. It is conspicuous that the United States and Russia account for the majority of weapons sales. Arms sales were a tool during the Cold War for the United States and the Soviet Union to promote their own political aims without engaging directly in war. This practice continues to influence foreign policy today. By selling arms to weaker nations, the United States and Russia exert outsize influence on smaller countries and tip the scales of global politics. This reduces nations to mere pawns in a global political game. Some maintain that this defies the moral imperative of countries and groups of people to exist and act on their own terms, without foreign influence.
The case of Saudi Arabia presents additional issues beyond the arms deal itself, and not just the Khashoggi case. Saudi Arabia is currently involved in a war in Yemen labeled by the United Nations Secretary-General as “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” The precise conditions of the war are complex, but the significant result is that civilians have been targeted en masse, and 22 million people are currently in need of humanitarian aid and protection. This was enough to give pause to the Obama administration, which initially approved a similar arms deal to the one the Trump administration signed in 2017. Unlike the case of Khashoggi, which is horrific but largely unrelated to arms sales, the weapons sold to the Saudi government directly contribute to the death of civilians in Yemen. Even if war in general is ethically permissible, the use of American weapons in a war with such obvious ethical conflicts seems unacceptable.
On the other hand, some would argue that the U.S. government is beholden first and foremost to its own people. Saudi Arabia and Yemen are both foreign countries, so the behavior of Saudi Arabia and the well-being of Yemenis should be secondary concerns. Perhaps the economic benefits of arms sales should outweigh humanitarian conflicts in foreign countries. This appears to be President Trump’s own reasoning. However, if that is the case, one must then consider the fate of Jamal Khashoggi, a permanent resident of the United States. Though he was not a legal citizen, his relationship with the U.S. might still carry some ethical weight. Moreover, an attack on a journalist constitutes an attack on the free press, ostensibly one of the founding virtues of the United States.
Finally, there is the notion that, were the United States to cease sales to Saudi Arabia, another country, such as Russia, would step in and reap the strategic and economic benefits. This does not truly absolve the United States, however. By contributing weapons, the U.S. is complicit in any actions committed by the Saudis. Furthermore, the United States is in a sufficient position of power on the global stage to orchestrate a concerted ban on arms sales. Certainly, trade sanctions have been used on enemies of the United States to great effect before.