What Trump should not do when he meets Saudis

President Trump makes first overseas trip
President Trump makes first overseas trip

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Story highlights

  • President Trump is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia later this week
  • William Hartung: When Trump arrives, he should hold back sale of laser-guided bombs and call for cease-fire in Yemen

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)When President Donald Trump touches down in Saudi Arabia this week, he will be bearing gifts in the form of a massive arms package worth up to $100 billion, a senior White House official told Reuters.

As with all things Trump, the figure is likely an exaggeration, because it reportedly includes major offers made during the Obama administration. But it is a huge deal nonetheless, said to include a THAAD missile defense system, armored personnel carriers, long-range artillery, combat ships and possibly a controversial sale of laser-guided bombs.
While far from the most lucrative element of the package, the potential sale of laser-guided bombs is the most troubling. The deal was suspended by the Obama administration last December because of what it described as "systematic, endemic problems in Saudi Arabia's targeting" in its airstrikes in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting a force made up of Houthi rebels and fighters loyal to former Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh.
    William Hartung
    Saudi Arabia's brutal bombing campaign has killed thousands of civilians, hitting marketplaces, hospitals and even a funeral in strikes that Rep. Ted Lieu, D-California, has said "look like war crimes to me."
    Last week, the Trump administration also announced a $2 billion deal to sell a Patriot missile defense system to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia's main partner in the Yemen war. The UAE has been the primary player in the coalition's land war in the south of the country, and is seeking US support for an attack on the southern port of Hodeida, the primary location for the import of humanitarian aid to Yemen -- which is on the brink of famine as a result of the war.
    The Yemen war will be at the top of President Trump's agenda in meetings with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The administration has been debating taking a more direct role in the war there by expanding the US effort beyond the Obama administration's two-track approach of drone strikes against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and indirect support of the Saudi-led intervention through arms supplies and refueling of coalition aircraft.
    At issue is whether and at what level the administration should increase US military action against the Houthis, who are seen by the Trump team as a proxy of Iran.
    The UAE would like the United States to go all in, including supplying US Special Forces to join in an attack on Hodeida. As of mid-March, The Washington Post reported internal disagreements within the Trump administration as to how far to go in expanding the US role in the war, with Secretary of Defense James Mattis suggesting "limited support," such as increasing the gathering and sharing of intelligence and providing planning support without direct involvement of US troops.
    But the truth is that any US support for an attack on Hodeida would be a humanitarian and security disaster, putting millions at risk of starvation while leaving space for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to expand its influence in the country while the Houthi and Saudi coalitions are busy fighting each other.
    If the Trump administration stumbles into a greater role in the Saudi/Emirati-led war in Yemen, it will no doubt be driven by the administration's exaggerated view of the role of Iran in the conflict. While Tehran has supplied some weapons to the Houthi side, the Houthis are not "puppets" or "proxies" of Iran. The Houthis have longstanding political and economic grievances that predate the current conflict, and that have fueled numerous armed rebellions on their part, including several against the regime of Saleh, who for the moment is their ally in the war against the Saudi coalition.
    If anything, it is Saudi intervention that has strengthened Iran's position in Yemen by driving the Houthis into the arms of Tehran.
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    No good can come from a greater US role in the Yemen war. If President Trump wants to promote security in Yemen and the region, he should hold back on the sale of laser-guided bombs that can be used in the Saudi bombing campaign, as members of Congress led by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, have suggested. And he should push for a cease-fire that restrains the UAE from going ahead with its proposed attack on the port of Hodeida.
    As Nadwa al-Dawsari of the Project on Middle East Democracy has noted, a successful peace agreement in Yemen will ultimately depend on bringing in other parties beyond the Houthi and Saudi coalitions. But a cease-fire and a suspension of US support for the Saudi bombing campaign are the most urgent priorities.