How Congress can reform America's security partnerships to protect civilians

How Congress can reform America's security partnerships to protect civilians
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The Trump administration is locked in a battle with Congress over arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Last week, President TrumpDonald TrumpLil Wayne gets 11th hour Trump pardon Trump grants clemency to more than 100 people, including Bannon Trump expected to pardon Bannon: reports MORE vetoed a bipartisan measure in Congress to block the sale of $8.1 billion in weapons to Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Pushing through the sale without congressional approval may give President Trump a short-term political win, but it ultimately will hurt long-term U.S. national security objectives. 

When America’s security partners harm civilians with “Made in the USA” weapons, training, and support — as Saudi Arabia has — it carries steep strategic, political and moral costs. Although members of Congress may not be able to stop this sale, they can lead efforts to bring greater accountability to America’s security partnerships.  

Congress rightly has focused on curbing cooperation with Saudi Arabia, whose egregious bombing campaign in Yemen has caused two-thirds of documented civilian casualties in attacks on schools, hospitals and markets. But too little attention has been paid to the broader problem of the increased risk to civilian populations when the United States arms and supports partners who are unwilling or unable to protect civilians during conflict. 


Today, American weapons and assistance flow to over 150 countries under a complex patchwork of authorities spanning multiple agencies. The number and scope of these authorities exploded after Sept. 11, 2001 — as did the role of arms sales in U.S. foreign policy. Yet this growth has not been accompanied by an increase in oversight, or any meaningful evaluation of how security assistance actually advances U.S. strategic objectives.

As powerful constituencies on the left and right seek to pull the United States back from overseas entanglements, U.S. foreign and defense policy increasingly seeks to empower partners to confront their own security challenges, rather than solving them through American force alone. U.S. strategy calls for working “by, with and through” partners, thereby limiting the deployment of U.S. forces and reducing the need for costly, large-scale interventions. But this “outsourcing” of American security objectives creates profound questions of accountability and a host of potential risks.

When the United States does not fully control, monitor or understand the actions of its partners, civilians pay the price. Many of America’s security partners suffer from weak defense institutions in which civilian protection norms are not institutionalized or enforced. Worse still, American partners may perpetrate civilian harm in support of political objectives, such as when U.S.-supported sectarian Iraqi militias were implicated in serious, systemic abuses of civilians. In situations where the United States has a limited ground presence, the military is dependent on partners for wartime information and thus vulnerable to faulty intelligence or manipulation. Finally, U.S. officials might be unwilling to pressure certain partners on civilian protection for fear of losing cooperation in other areas.

These partnerships are the wave of the future, which creates profound implications for U.S. national security. When partner forces abuse or kill civilians with American weapons, training  and support, U.S. engagement with those forces can alienate local populations, drive support for terrorist groups, and reduce U.S. credibility, ultimately undermining American military action and diplomatic efforts. In Yemen, investigators report that civilians largely blame the United States for the conflict because of America’s materiel support for the coalition.

President Trump often argues that American weapons and assistance must flow freely to prevent partners from turning to rivals such as Russia or China. But the reality is that, for many partners, high-quality American equipment and a good relationship with Washington are more desirable than what Beijing or Moscow can offer (not to mention that integrating Russian or Chinese weapons systems would be an operational and logistical nightmare for militaries that primarily buy American).


Congress has been critical to checking misguided executive branch policies on security assistance in the past. In a new report published by Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, we provide a slate of recommendations for Congress to overhaul U.S. security assistance. Reform starts with more consistent and transparent oversight. Congress should streamline the patchwork of notification and reporting requirements for security assistance and demand more information on weapons and training for partners with patterns of abusive behavior. Reform also must include closing loopholes in existing legislation. 

For example, the Leahy laws were created to prevent American military aid from flowing to abusive foreign security force units. But the current implementation of Leahy does not restrict commercial sales on the basis of human rights violations, or include vetting for assistance that goes directly to a partner’s ministry of defense. These changes — and others recommended in our report — would help ensure U.S. security assistance is better built to protect civilians, rather than political relationships.

When armed forces inflict indiscriminate harm on civilian populations, it carries steep costs beyond the obvious human toll on affected populations. The United States understands this strategic proposition and has learned valuable lessons from nearly two decades in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is long overdue for American officials to pay the same careful consideration to the increased risk to civilians in security partnerships. Families and children in conflict zones can’t afford to wait any longer.

Alexandra Schmitt is a researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She previously was the advocacy coordinator in the Washington, D.C., office of Human Rights Watch. Follow her on Twitter @AlexCSchmitt.

Gabrielle Tarini is a researcher at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She previously was a Harold W. Rosenthal Fellow in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy/Security Cooperation. Follow her on Twitter @gabbytarini.