GUEST COMMENTARY--A springtime wedding in Northern Yemen’s Al-Raqah village took place in April 2018, a moment of reprieve from the turmoil and devastation of that war-torn country, a moment to celebrate life, love, and the birth of a new family.
From the tents constructed for the event, music flooded into the village and, as at any good wedding, exuberant dancing was a central part of the festivities.
Unbeknownst to the guests, the music masked the buzzing of a warplane overhead. Suddenly, in a horrific turn of events, Saudi-led forces launched a deadly airstrike and 20-year-old groom Yahya Ja’afar’s wedding was transformed into a scene of carnage. Deafened by the explosion, guests fearfully searched for loved ones in a sea of confusion and body parts. In a telling photo, the flowery wreaths worn by celebrants lie atop a landscape of rubble. At least 20 wedding-goers lost their lives to the Saudi-led coalition’s now four-year-old brutal campaign in that country.
Shortly thereafter, media reports identified the bomb as American-made -- a GBU-12 Paveway II linked to Raytheon, one of the Pentagon’s largest defense contractors. Tragedies like this, however, didn’t stop President Trump from exercising his veto power on April 16th to reject a resolution passed by Congress to end American involvement in the Yemeni conflict. Nor did they sway most Republicans in Congress to use their override power to kill the veto on May 2nd. After all, for many of Washington’s actors, such tragedies, while devastating, are part of a remarkably lucrative business model.
Obviously, this is the case for the American defense companies that have been supplying weapons and equipment of all sorts to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in their ongoing war. But it’s no less so for the little-publicized lobbying groups that represent them. In 2018, more than a dozen such firms were working on behalf of the Saudis or the Emiratis, while also providing their services to defense contractors whose weapons are being used in the conflict.
Two prominent examples of lobbying firms with significant stakes in the Yemen War are the McKeon Group and American Defense International (ADI). Both firms have cleverly managed to represent both the most powerful U.S. arms manufacturers and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This lobbying model, which allows them to satisfy multiple clients at the same time -- contractors eager to secure arms deals and foreign powers that depend on American political and military support -- has played a significant role in keeping the United States rooted in the Yemen conflict.
A Lobbying Model for Profiting from Yemen
Yahya Ja’afar’s wedding illustrates a disturbing pattern. Reports indicate that, at the sites of many Saudi-UAE coalition airstrikes in Yemen, evidence of munitions produced by the big four American defense contractors -- Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, and Raytheon -- can be found. These four companies represent the largest suppliers of weapons to the Saudi and UAE coalition and have spent millions of dollars on lobbying efforts to retain political support in Washington. Their arsenal of lobbyists works tenaciously on the Hill, securing meetings with top officials on key congressional committees to advocate and push for increased arms sales.
In 2018, according to the Lobbying Disclosure Act website, which provides information on such firms and their domestic clients, Boeing spent $15 million on lobbyists, Lockheed Martin $13.2 million, General Dynamics $11.9 million, and Raytheon $4.4 million. While this may seem like an exorbitant amount of money, such expenses have yielded an extraordinary return on investment via arms sales to the Saudis and Emiratis. A report published by the Center for International Policy last year documented that such companies and others like them sold $4.5 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia and $1.2 billion to the United Arab Emirates in 2018 alone. And at the heart of this web of money are firms like ADI and the McKeon Group that make their profits off both the weapon-makers and the war makers.
Led by former Republican congressman and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Howard “Buck” McKeon, the McKeon Group has double-dipped in this “forgotten war” for three years now. After all, the firm represents many of the top sellers of arms and munitions, including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Orbital ATK, MBDA, and L3 Technologies, as well as Saudi Arabia. In other words, the McKeon Group lobbies Washington’s political machine for both the sellers and the buyer.
From his earliest days in the House, Buck McKeon has had ties to the U.S. defense industry. His trajectory into and out of Congress offers, in fact, a perfect example of what Washington’s military-industrial “revolving door” looks like. From 1991 to 2014, years when he held California’s 25th Congressional district seat, McKeon receivedcampaign contributions totaling $192,900 from Lockheed Martin and $190,200 from Northrop Grumman. Those two companies were then his top campaign contributors and are now his current clients. In return, he advanced their interests inside Congress, especially as the powerful chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and now does the same from the outside as a major lobbyist. His firm receives an annual retainer of $190,000from Lockheed Martin and $110,000 from Northrop Grumman for its efforts on the Hill. In 2018 alone, in fact, the firm took in a whopping $1,697,000from 10 of the largest defense contractors to, among other objectives, continue the flow of arms to Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, McKeon and his firm also work directly for Saudi Arabia, which just happens to be one of the biggest foreign buyers of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman weaponry. The records of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) reveal that, last year, the McKeon Group was paid$920,148.21 by the Kingdom and engaged in aggressive political lobbying in Congress against bills that would have adversely affected the U.S. arms trade with the Saudis. Above all, there was S.J. 54, the Yemen Resolution jointly sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), meant to end American involvement in that war. FARA filings indicate that the firm made numerous phone calls and sent multiple emails to members of the Senate and House as key votes approached. Most notably, on November 14, 2018, exactly two weeks before a vote on the resolution was to take place, the McKeon Group contacted Oklahoma Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, the current chairman of the Armed Services Committee, on behalf of the Saudis. Inhofe’s congressional office was called in “regards to the KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia]” and again on November 29th, the day after the vote, “regarding S.J. Res. 54.” On the 14th, the firm also gave a $1,000 donation to the Senator. Ultimately, Inhofe voted in favor of continuing military support for the Saudis, undeterred by the thousands of civilian deaths the war has caused.
When the McKeon Group succeeds in advancing the agenda of the Saudis and the giant weapons makers in Washington, it proves its value and receives significant compensation. And nothing, including the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul or continued reports on the country’s brutal war and blockade in Yemen, which has left significant numbers of Yemenis dead of, or at the edge of, starvation, has stopped Buck McKeon and his firm from continuing to ramp up their lobbying activities.
As for American Defense International, it has similarly double-dipped in the Yemen war. It, too, represents an impressive list of defense contractors, including Raytheon, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, L3 Technologies, and General Atomics -- and also the United Arab Emirates, the Saudi-war coalition member that often slides under the media radar.
At a moment filled with harrowing reports of death, starvation, and devastation in Yemen, ADI’s lobbyists spent their days aggressively advancing the interests of their Emirati and defense contractor clients. For instance, FARA reports reveal that, in September 2018, ADI called the office of New Mexico Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich, a member of the Armed Services Committee, on behalf of the UAE embassy in Washington. The discussion, according to FARA, focused on the “situation in Yemen” and the “Paveway sale to the UAE” -- in other words, on the sale of the very kind of Raytheon bomb that turned Yahya Ja’afar’s wedding into the scene of a deadly airstrike. FARA filings also indicate, for example, that during the same month, ADI met with the policy adviser for Louisiana Republican Congressman Steve Scalise to lobby against the congressional resolution on Yemen. For these and similar efforts, the UAE continued to pump $45,000 a month into ADI. At the same time, such lobbying efforts clearly benefited another client of the firm: Raytheon. The manufacturer of Paveway bombs paid ADI $120,000 in 2018.
For firms like American Defense International and the McKeon Group, war is a matter of profits and clients and little else.
The Uncertain Future of Yemen
President Trump’s veto of the resolution to end American support for the Saudi-UAE coalition in Yemen and Congress’s inability to override it (against the wishes of much of the American public) have, for the moment, left lobbying outfits like the McKeon Group and ADI in the driver’s seat. That veto, after all, made it clear that, for Donald Trump and many congressional Republicans, the well-being of the Saudi royals and of defense contractors matters more than a bus carrying school children destroyed by a laser-guided MK-82 bomb made by Lockheed Martin; that the wellbeing of Raytheon is of far greater importance than a family traveling in their car hit by a GBU-12laser-guided bomb made by that very company; that the profits of such defense contractors are so much more important than the lives of the men, women, and children who were in a marketplace in Yemen on a quiet afternoon in March 2016, when another MK-82 bomb took the lives of at least 80 of them.
In addition to being used repeatedly in air strikes that have killed civilians, American munitions have also evidently made it into the hands of terrorist organizations in Yemen. Reports indicate that the very weapons that companies like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are selling to the Saudis and Emiratis have, in some instances, been stolen or even sold to organizations linked to al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, arms that could someday even be used against U.S. military personnel.
Today, with the President’s veto and Congress’s failure to override it, the Saudi-UAE coalition, U.S. defense contractors, and their American lobbyists have, in essence, been given a green light to proceed with a business model that counts innocent Yemenis' deaths as the cost of doing business. Still, though yet another battle has been lost in that war at home, opposition to it may not yet be relegated to the dustbin of history. Certain members of Congress are still looking for new ways of tackling the issue, including the possibility of defunding American involvement in the war and the human rights violations that go with it.
Clearly, there are still opportunities to send a message that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates can no longer simply write checks to lobbying firms like the McKeon Group and ADI to purchase influence and ensure that American politicians look the other way. Someday perhaps the United States will no longer allow itself to be implicated in tragedies like Yahya Ja’afar’s wedding that end with a landscape of rubble and the remnants of an American bomb.
(Mashal Hashem and James Allen are research associates with the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy.)