1981: Saudi Arms Sales

Joe Biden tried to stop the U.S. from selling attack planes to Saudi Arabia because he thought it was bad for the U.S. and Israel.

Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., left, and John Glenn, D-Ohio confer during a session of the panel concerning the sale of the AWACS Radar Plane to Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Oct. 15, 1981, Washington, D.C. It is expected that this committee will not support the proposed sale. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty)
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., left, and John Glenn, D-Ohio, confer during a session of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee concerning the sale of a radar plane to Saudi Arabia on Oct. 15, 1981, in Washington, D.C. Photo: Bob Daugherty/AP

Joe Biden was an opponent of Reagan-era plans to sell advanced fighter and surveillance aircraft to Saudi Arabia on the grounds that it would undercut Israel’s military advantage in the region. From his position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden opposed a proposed sale of F-15s and airborne warning and control system, or AWACS, aircraft, arguing that the sale was “not in America’s national interest, it is not in Israel’s interest, nor is it even in the best interest of Saudi Arabia.” Biden said the proposal would hurt U.S. ties with Israel, which was a vocal opponent of the sale, while expressing skepticism that deepening the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia was worth the trade-off. “That’s too high a price for me to pay for friendship,” he said. “It’s destabilizing. I just think it’s a mistake.”

An account from a 1986 meeting between Biden and then-Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Meir Rosenne includes comments from Biden describing the importance of maintaining the primacy of the U.S.-Israel relationship in the Middle East and expressing continued skepticism on the issue of arms sales to the Saudis. According to notes from that meeting, Biden told the ambassador, “Saudi Arabia is no more than a collection of 500 princes and their families.” In regard to the fight over the warplane sales, Biden said, “The fatal mistake in U.S. policy occurred in 1982, when it decided to strive for strategic consensus in the Persian Gulf. The result was a shift of the center of gravity from America’s true friend, Israel, to others.”

Biden continued to hold critical views of weapons sales to wealthy Gulf Arab states into the early 1990s. In 1991, he argued for linking continued arms sales to promises from these states to invest in the economic development of their neighbors. “Stability in the Middle East requires a greater investment by the oil-rich states in the poorer Arab nations,” Biden said in a statement proposing to add conditions to an upcoming foreign aid bill. “If another Saddam Hussein is not to exploit this resentment in the future, the Middle East needs pervasive economic and political progress far more than it needs a new infusion of arms.” Biden added that the wealth of the Gulf Arab countries was itself a product of luck, stating that “virtually all their GNP is unearned oil wealth, a geological fluke that cannot be equated with the product of millions of hard-working laborers in the United States and other Western countries.”

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