For a president who, within his first 20 days in office, announced an end to “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales,” his record of arms trade restraint is mixed at best. It now looks unlikely that efforts to more highly consider human rights and protection of civilians will be what marks Joe Biden’s presidency. Instead, his fourth year may cement a legacy of working to expand the transfer of U.S. arms, even in the face of misuse and opposition.
It feels much longer than three years ago that President Joe Biden on Feb. 4, 2021, gave a major foreign policy speech at the State Department, stressing a commitment to democracy and the aforementioned pledge on limiting support to Saudi Arabia. Later in that first year, he made the difficult decision to withdraw from Afghanistan in an apparent effort to extract the United States from what were being called endless wars. He also broke with his predecessor’s approach and committed the country to an international political declaration that sought to better protect civilians in populated areas from the harm caused by explosive weapons, adopted in November 2021.
In December 2021, he championed the creation of and hosted the Summit for Democracy in an effort to promote shared values for human rights — (and co-hosted again in 2023).
As early as 2021, his administration also hinted at a new conventional arms transfer policy. Released in February 2023, it includes a standard that, if implemented, would mean U.S. arms would not be provided to countries that are “more likely than not” to use them for a range of abuses, including “attacks intentionally directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such; or other serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law.”
All of the above, including additional Defense Department guidance announced this month furthering better civilian harm and response policies, indicates an administration seeking to restrain problematic weapons sales and militarized approaches.
Toward the end of 2021, however, it became clear Russia might invade Ukraine, and the Biden administration began an effort to arm Kyiv that has been central to his presidency. Just this week, the Defense Department announced another $250 million in new military assistance to Ukraine, marking the 54th drawdown from U.S. stocks and more than $44 billion in total U.S. military assistance since Russia’s Feb. 24, 2022, invasion.
While the U.S. media, the public and the global response to Ukraine’s warfighting has not been nearly as critical as they have of Israel’s in Gaza, Biden’s support for Ukraine has undermined initial efforts at restraint.
As the war has progressed, his administration has authorized the transfer of weapons it originally held back, whether that be tanks, more sophisticated and longer-range weapons, or F-16 fighter jets that are expected soon (with U.S. blessing). No decision was perhaps more problematic than the summer 2023 decision to provide cluster munitions, an indiscriminate weapon banned by more than 110 states parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, including the vast majority of America’s NATO allies.
Whether current — primarily Republican — opposition to the president’s latest roughly $60 billion supplemental aid request for Ukraine is based on actual concern about U.S. weapons exports or instead a way to exact a political cost and change border policy, the fight for approval has also seen the president and his advisers more fully adopt language that makes future restraint more difficult: namely, the argument that defense production is good for the economy.
In his Oct. 19 address to the nation, Biden said that “patriotic American workers are building the arsenal of democracy” and listed states where weapons were produced. Since then, U.S. officials have more fully emphasized the economic benefit of weapons production. While the evidence suggests government expenditures in activities other than defense create many more jobs, a greater challenge with taking this approach is that it makes it harder in the future to promote restraint. Doing so requires addressing arguments about job losses, when arms trade decisions should truly be based on security and other concerns.
A partial indication of a ramped-up arms trade is that in 2022 and 2023, the Biden administration notified Congress of more than $188 billion in government-to-government foreign military sales, including more than $106 billion in 2023 alone — a dramatic increase compared to $36 billion in 2021. In part to resupply allies for their contributions to Ukraine or to move others off legacy Soviet or Russian systems, more than half of those potential sales are to NATO countries. Yet, included also are nearly $30 billion in arms and services to countries not invited to the 2021 or 2023 Summit for Democracy events — a failure to align democratic ideals with policy practice.
During the course of the war, the president has also walked back from the distance he tried to maintain with Saudi Arabia. He famously fist-bumped Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in July 2022, who still went on to work with Russia months later to keep oil prices high.
And until the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, 2023, the president’s team appeared to be promoting a grand bargain that would provide more weapons and defense guarantees to Saudi Arabia in an effort to expand the Abraham Accords to normalize Saudi-Israeli relations. While that deal may appear unlikely at this moment, it may reemerge in the coming months.
His administration has already notified Congress of more than $6 billion in arms and services to Saudi Arabia via the FMS process, including $1 billion in training buried by being announced the Friday before Christmas. Media are also reporting the administration is seriously considering the resumption of “offensive” weapon transfers that have thus far been withheld. New transfers or a grand new bargain with Saudi Arabia in 2024 could indicate just how little restraint the president puts on the arms trade to repressive countries that have shown no real progress in promoting human rights.
It is, however, support to Israel that is testing U.S. commitments to a more humane arms trade policy. Recognizing that Hamas’ attacks on Israeli citizens is odious and merits condemnation does not require approval of an Israeli response that has destroyed civilian infrastructure, cut off basic humanitarian supplies and by current reports resulted in more than 21,000 deaths. While the administration has publicly said it has concerns about Israel’s actions, suggesting it is being even more forthright behind closed doors, it has shielded or watered down important U.N. resolutions and not indicated a desire to condition or suspend military aid.
Given how Israel is conducting its assault on Gaza, it strains credulity to believe they are meeting the Biden administration’s “more likely than not” standard for not providing arms to partners who misuse them. A recent report in Israeli media that the U.S. has thus far not approved a request for Apache helicopters may indicate the Biden administration has limits to its support. While the administration has set a high standard for transparency in weapons provision to Ukraine, that is sorely lacking for Israel.
The initial days and weeks of 2024 — with ongoing decisions on support to Israel and Ukraine, and possible developments with Saudi Arabia — are critical ones for the Biden administration. They will be telling for assessing an administration that has put in place policies that should promote human rights and protection of civilians, but in practice has often failed to apply those policies.
Jeff Abramson is a senior nonresident fellow at the Center for International Policy. He also directs the Forum on the Arms Trade.