STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Why are U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia such a big deal? President Trump brought them up after the Saudi government was suspected of having a journalist killed. The president said he would look into that accusation, but he wasn't willing to halt U.S. weapons deals over it. Jennifer Spindel is an expert in international arms transfers and is at the University of Oklahoma, from which she joins us.
JENNIFER SPINDEL: Good morning. Thanks for having me.
INSKEEP: What does the U.S. sell the Saudis exactly?
SPINDEL: So the U.S. sells a lot of different weapons to Saudi Arabia - precision-guided munitions, helicopters, missiles, jets - a wide range of weapons that we've sold to the Saudis in the past.
INSKEEP: You know, when we were covering the Saudi involvement in the war in Yemen, someone put us, at one point, on a C-130 transport plane, which is an American transport plane.
INSKEEP: So it's American stuff all the way through. Does this make the Saudis dependent on the United States, or is it the other way around?
SPINDEL: You know, I think that there's a little bit of both. Saudi Arabia definitely gets both military power and a degree of political support from being able to receive arms from the United States. And equally, I think the U.S., in the past, has been hesitant to stop arms sales for fear of angering Saudi Arabia and having that affect other U.S. foreign policy goals in the region.
INSKEEP: You know, they're not the world's biggest country, but they're one of the world's richest countries. Does that make them a really lucrative market for weapons?
SPINDEL: You know, you might think so. But in general, what we've seen is that arms sales are a pretty inefficient employment mechanism. Part of that's because sometimes weapons are given on grant or on favorable credit terms. But you know, in general, this isn't like selling oranges or chairs or some other good. There's a very different logic of both trade and politics. That means that arms sales aren't this lucrative big deal for the United States.
INSKEEP: Oh. If you talk about jobs, which is what the president says he's concerned about, you're saying there aren't actually that many jobs at stake?
SPINDEL: That's what we've seen in the past, you know? And previously, Saudi Arabia had signed a $6 billion for Lockheed Martin helicopters. And that was supposed to support 400 jobs. So there isn't quite the direct correlation between the amount of money that we're told that these arms deals amount to and the number of jobs that we see at home.
INSKEEP: Sure - important to those 400 people but not world-changing for the U.S. economy. So if the president wanted, if he thought it was in U.S. interests - is it possible to halt arms sales, even to an ally like Saudi Arabia?
SPINDEL: You know, I think it absolutely would be possible. And thinking about the broader political context, that could be a really important signal for the United States to send - you know, that the abduction and murder of Khashoggi is not acceptable, that Saudi human rights violations in Yemen with continued aerial operations are not something that the U.S. supports. And there's actually precedent for the U.S. doing that to friendly states and allies. Under President Obama in August 2014, the U.S. actually stopped the transfer of Hellfire missiles precisely because of Israeli operations in the Gaza Strip. That stoppage was supposed to signal U.S. displeasure and that Israel didn't have a sort of blank check to keep asking for U.S. weapons.
INSKEEP: Although President Trump has said - hey, wait a minute - if I stop U.S. arms sales because of concern about Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudis will just buy them from the Russians or somebody else. Is that really possible?
SPINDEL: I'm fairly skeptical that that could be a feasible opportunity for Saudi Arabia. In arms sales, you know, U.S. and Russian or Chinese systems don't talk to one another, which means it would be really costly and time intensive for Saudi Arabia to buy and then learn new weapons systems. These things aren't interchangeable.
INSKEEP: Oh - because they've already got so many U.S. weapons systems, they would have trouble backing out of U.S. weapon systems at this point.
SPINDEL: Exactly. So the dependence works both ways there.
INSKEEP: Jennifer Spindel, thanks so much.
SPINDEL: Thanks for having me.
INSKEEP: She is an expert on weapons transfers and is at the University of Oklahoma. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.