imagesCAAJ1FH4Most media accounts of U.S. arms sales policy have focused on two issues.  First, will Washington cut off military assistance to the military regime in Egypt? And second, what kinds of weapon systems will the United States supply to the Syrian opposition?

But U.S. arms transfer policies toward Egypt and Syria offer only a small window into the burgeoning arms trade that has been actively promoted by the Obama administration since it took office in 2009.  The main difference in the cases of Egypt and Syria is that they have generated some public debate.  This is not the case for the bulk of U.S. transfers. For example, in 2011 along — the most recent year for which full statistics are available — the United States sold over $66 billion in weapons worldwide, for a record 78 per cent of the global arms market.  U.S. arms and training are being supplied to over 140 of the 195 United Nations member states.

The question isn’t who is the United States arming, it is who hasn’t it been arming – and what are the consequences of this unrestrained weapons trafficking for global security and human rights.

One recent deal offers an insight into the underside of U.S. arms policy.  On  August 20th, the Pentagon quietly announced its intention to sell 1,300 Textron, Inc. cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia, in a deal worth $640 million.  The timing could not be worse.  At the same time that the U.S.-armed regime in Egypt was using U.S. tanks, armored personnel carriers and guns to kill protesters in the streets of Cairo, the Pentagon was brokering a deal to sell one of the world’s deadliest weapon systems to another repressive regime in the region.  Not only has Saudi Arabia put down its own fledgling democracy movement without the kind of attention that has been generated by similar activity in other parts of the region, but it has also sent in armored vehicles to help crush the protest movement in Bahrain.

How could the United States sell cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia even as that regime distinguishes itself as one of the most dogged opponents of democracy in the Middle East?  The short answer is easy – money.  Over the past few years the regime in Riyadh has ordered tens of billions of dollars in weaponry from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and other U.S. arms manufacturers.  The deals couldn’t come at a better time for these firms as they seek to bolster their bottom lines with foreign sales to make up for any reductions in contracts that may come as a result of the current budget battles in Washington.

Boeing explicitly sold the Saudi deal to Congress as a way to create U.S. jobs – a longstanding tactic that ignores the fact that virtually any other form of spending creates more jobs than spending on weapons.  If the Obama administration could find a way to boost civilian exports in areas like environmental technology, it could create far more jobs than can be created by any arms deal.  Doing so would mean a fight with Congress, but it is a fight worth having, and one that could yield strong public support if President Obama put on a strong public push for it.

But instead of developing civilian export markets, the Obama administration has been working overtime to convince other governments to buy U.S. weapons.  As State Department official Tom Kelly noted in testimony delivered to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 24th of this year, promoting U.S. arms sales is  “an issue that has the attention of every top-level official who’s working on foreign policy throughout the government, including the top officials at the State Department …in advocating on behalf of our companies and doing everything we can to make sure that these sales go through.”  This means that everyone from President Obama to Secretary of State John Kerry to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to embassy officials around the world act, in effect, as sales representatives for U.S. arms companies.

While the administration’s arms export promotion policy may be good for Pentagon contractors, it has negative consequences for human rights and global security.  A June 2012 report by the Washington, DC-based Center for Public Integrity has documented the fact that a majority of U.S. arms transfers go to countries that its own State Department has identified as major human rights abusers, from Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to Honduras and Peru.  Not only are these weapons used to fuel repressive policies, but they undermine U.S. credibility in convincing other nations to stop their sales to undemocratic regimes, such as Russian weapons transfers to Syria.

While no current U.S. arms client has done anything approaching the horror unleashed by the Assad regime – up to and including the use of chemical weapons – the lack of consistency in U.S. policy has been seized upon by Russia and other Syrian suppliers as justification for their own actions.  Aligning U.S. arms sales decisions with its human rights rhetoric may not spur an immediate change in Russian behavior, but it could set the stage for more effective international action to stop weapons flows to dictatorships and human rights abusers in the future.

Another negative consequence of unrestrained U.S. arms sales is that these weapons often find their way into the hands of U.S. adversaries.  The most extreme case was in Afghanistan, where supplies to extremist factions fighting the Soviet occupation of that country ended up being transferred to individuals and organizations that went on to form the Al Qaeda network.  More recently, U.S. arms supplies to opposition factions in Libya have found their way to Islamic fundamentalist groups in Mali that have been killing civilians and have kidnapped U.S. citizens.

An enlightened view of U.S. and global security – rather than one driven by money and commitments to undemocratic allies that no longer deserve U.S. support, if they ever did – would call for a reduction in U.S. arms sales as a force for human rights and a lever in convincing other nations to stop their own sales to repressive regimes.  If the United States were to commence such a policy soon, while hastening its signing of the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty, it could make an immense difference in the causes of human rights and peace.  But the Obama administration, like any other, will have to be pushed by the public to do the right thing.


William D. Hartung is the director of the Common Defense Campaign: Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. He has also been the director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation as well as the director of the Arms Trade Resource Center at the World Policy Institute. Bill Hartung’s latest book is Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex (Nation Books, 2011). He has been published and featured in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The World Policy Journal, CBS 60 Minutes, NBC Nightly News, and is a columnist for the Americas Program.


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