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Donald Trump drops human rights demand in bid to sell F-16 fighters

LiveMint logoLiveMint 30-03-2017 Tony Capaccio

Washington: The US State Department told Congress it backs the sale of 19 Lockheed Martin Corp. F-16 fighters to Bahrain without preconditions on improved human rights previously demanded by the Obama administration, according to two people familiar with the proposal.

The request of support for the sale of up to $2.7 billion in jets doesn’t include a package to upgrade older F-16s, which officials said last year could bring the proposal to as much as $4 billion, according to the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The Wednesday’s request triggers a roughly three-week informal notification period that will be followed by a formal, publicly released document that Congress has 30 days to approve.

The decision highlights the Trump administration’s outreach to traditional Gulf Arab allies, which the White House sees as a bulwark against Iranian expansion and a partner in the fight against terrorism. Trump met earlier this month with Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince in Washington, while secretary of state Rex Tillerson met UAE foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed.

The notice also came the same day the commander of US forces in the Middle East, Army General Joseph Votel, told a House committee that foreign arms sales to allies shouldn’t be burdened with preconditions tied to human rights because they could damage military-to-military ties. Votel, who heads the US Central Command, singled out Bahrain as an example.

‘Strain our relationship’

“While we have historically enjoyed a strong mil-to-mil relationship with our Bahraini counterparts, the slow progress on key FMS cases, specifically additional F-16 aircraft and upgrades to Bahrain’s existing F-16 fleet, due to concerns of potential human rights abuses in the country, continues to strain our relationship,” Votel said in prepared testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, referring to the Pentagon’s foreign military sales programme.

The Obama administration told Congress in September it wouldn’t complete approval of the sale until Bahrain demonstrated progress on human rights issues after its Sunni-dominated government suppressed non-violent opposition and dissolved the main opposition group of the country’s Shiite majority.

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Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement this week that “there are more effective ways to seek changes in partner policies than publicly conditioning weapons transfers in this manner.”

In its 2016 human rights report, issued after Trump took office, the State Department cited restrictions on free expression, “lack of judicial accountability for security officers” accused of human rights violations, and limitations on “citizens’ ability to choose their government peacefully” as among the nation’s most serious human rights problems. It did say the government has taken steps to carry out recommendations aimed at reviewing allegations of police brutality and torture following mass protests beginning in 2011.

Political reforms

And while the Trump administration has emphasized “hard power” over “soft power” goals, such as encouraging democracy abroad, Votel didn’t dismiss human rights concerns altogether.

“We continue to urge the government of Bahrain to reverse steps it has taken over the past year to reduce the space for peaceful political expression in its Shia population and have encouraged the Bahrainis to implement needed political reforms while assuring them of our strong commitment,” he said.

Bahrain is a key US partner in the Middle East, hosting the US Navy Fifth Fleet headquarters and the “Combined Maritime Forces” in Manama. Bahrain also has actively supported US-led military operations against Islamic State terrorists in Syria since September 2014, primarily by allowing the US continued use and access to its facilities.

Using military sales “to achieve changes in behaviour has questionable effectiveness and can have unintended consequences,” Votel said. “We need to carefully balance these concerns against our desired outcomes for U.S. security assistance programs” and “we should avoid using the programs as a lever of influence or denial to our own detriment.”

‘Even chance’

Bruce Tanner, Lockheed’s chief financial officer, said in an interview last week that he remained “cautiously optimistic” the potential sale would eventually be approved by the US. “I know people like to overuse that term,” he said. “If you’d asked me a year ago, I would have said it’s dead in the water probably. Now I think there is at least an even chance that’s going to happen.”

Lockheed’s backlog of orders for the F-16, which was long its best-selling fighter, had shrunk to eight jets as of February. Without additional orders, production would end in August or September, Tanner said. Landing the deal with Bahrain could keep Lockheed’s assembly line in Fort Worth, Texas, running for another year to 18 months.

The single-engine supersonic fighter is still attracting interest from overseas customers, although the U.S. government hasn’t ordered the F-16 in almost two decades. Lockheed is exploring shifting production to India in exchange for a large order.

“For every month extension we can get on the production line, that helps to keep our pricing down for future customers,” Tanner said. “There is still interest around the world.” Bloomberg

Julie Johnsson also contributed to this story.

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