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November 17, 2019
The 50-Year History of U.S. Dominance of the Middle Eastern Arms Trade
By William D. Hartung
Honestly, if a single corporate entity controlled three-quarters of the global market in a product, you’d call it a monopoly, right? Well, in 2011, that was the situation of the United States when it came to the arms trade. This country sold more than three-quarters of the weapons on the global arms market (a significant proportion of them into the already violent Middle East). And that should still be stunning. But I’d bet top dollars that, while you could read about it then, that remarkable fact wasn’t a front-page story. It wasn’t, in fact, much of a story at all. In the intervening years, as the arms trade has grown back to near Cold War levels, especially in the Middle East, the U.S. has solidified its position as the planet’s major arms salesman, sending weaponry to at least 98 countries. In 2018, for instance, 54% of the weaponry going into the Middle Eastern arms market was ours and yet while this information is available, in a world where the cheers, boos, and chants that now greet any public appearance by Donald Trump are a top news story, America’s role in the global weapons trade is, at best, an afterthought. (It matters little that, in polls, 70% of Americans oppose our selling arms to any other country at all as a danger to the world.)
Don’t you consider it just a tad strange that the media of the nation that — no matter the president in these years — continues to flood the world with weaponry of just about every imaginable sort, pays remarkably little attention to that fact?
Fortunately, TomDispatch has Pentagon expert William Hartung, author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex, to fill the void. For this website at least, Washington’s urge to constantly supply the planet with devastating kinds of weaponry (often used on innocent civilians) in grim wars that shouldn’t be fought remains a story of the first order. Tom
photo above: “All the American arms sales to the Middle East have had a severe and lasting set of consequences in the region,” writes Hartung. (Photo: Chayak/Flickr/cc)
WN: Words fail: We just keep going on with the craziness of the self-styled “bastion of democracy and freedom” chronically binge-weaponizing the world with all the horror of mass killing and mayhem, and ever-escalating conflict raised to fever-pitch throughout the Middle East–to name but one area of the Planet, 98 countries in all that multiplied billions of dollars of arms sales recipients hell-bent to bomb the hell out of enemies, including vast numbers of innocents. With virtually no accountability from Congress or mainline press.
In my long paper, “Is There a Place for Dreaming?“, I discuss war in the context of a “process addiction”, in which I develop the understanding that violence is humanity’s ultimate process addiction. Alcohol and drug counsellor and radical feminist Anne Wilson Schaef, writes:
[P]rocess addiction… is more lethal than physical addictions. This is the real drug problem – greater than alcohol, tobacco, valium, and crack – from which the war on drugs [and the war on crime generally] aims to divert our attention (Criminology as Peacemaking, edited by Harold Pepinsky and Richard Quinney, 1991, p. 325).”
In this context, the United States has been on a binge drunk since before inception . . . For this reason alone, America is the most dangerous country on the planet.
It’s no secret that Donald Trump is one of the most aggressive arms salesmen in history. How do we know? Because he tells us so at every conceivable opportunity. It started with his much exaggerated “$110 billion arms deal” with Saudi Arabia, announced on his first foreign trip as president. It continued with his White House photo op with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in which he brandished a map with a state-by-state rundown of American jobs supposedly tied to arms sales to the kingdom. And it’s never ended. In these years in office, in fact, the president has been a staunch advocate for his good friends at Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and General Dynamics — the main corporate beneficiaries of the U.S.-Saudi arms trade (unlike the thousands of American soldiers the president recently sent into that country’s desert landscapes to defend its oil facilities).
All the American arms sales to the Middle East have had a severe and lasting set of consequences in the region in, as a start, the brutal Saudi/United Arab Emirates war in Yemen, which has killed thousands of civilians via air strikes using U.S. weaponry and pushed millions of Yemenis to the brink of famine. And don’t forget the recent Turkish invasion of Syria in which both the Turkish forces and the Kurdish-led militias they attacked relied heavily on U.S.-supplied weaponry.
Donald Trump has made it abundantly clear that he cares far more about making deals for that weaponry than who uses any of it against whom. It’s important to note, however, that, historically speaking, he’s been anything but unique in his obsession with promoting such weapons exports (though he is uniquely loud about doing so).
The U.S. government’s stated rationales for pouring arms into that ever-more-embattled region include: building partnerships with countries theoretically willing to fight alongside U.S. forces in a crisis; swapping arms for access to military bases in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and other Persian Gulf states; creating “stability” by building up allied militaries to be stronger than those of potential adversaries like Iran; and generating revenue for U.S. weapons contractors, as well as jobs for American workers. Of course, such sales have indeed benefited those contractors and secured access to bases in the region, but when it comes to promoting stability and security, historically it’s been another story entirely.
The Nixon Doctrine and the Initial Surge in Mideast Arms Sales
Washington’s role as the Middle East’s top arms supplier has its roots in remarks made by Richard Nixon half a century ago on the island of Guam. It was the Vietnam War era and the president was on his way to South Vietnam. Casualties there were mounting rapidly with no clear end to the conflict in sight. During that stopover in Guam, Nixon assured reporters accompanying him that it was high time to end the practice of sending large numbers of U.S troops to overseas battlefields. To “avoid another war like Vietnam anywhere in the world,” he was instead putting a new policy in place, later described by a Pentagon official as “sending arms instead of sending troops.”
The core of what came to be known as the Nixon Doctrine was the arming of regional surrogates, countries with sympathetic rulers or governments that could promote U.S. interests without major contingents of the American military being on hand. Of such potential surrogates at that moment, the most important was the Shah of Iran, with whom a CIA-British intelligence coup replaced a civilian government back in 1953 and who proved to have an insatiable appetite for top-of-the-line U.S. weaponry.
The Shah’s idea of a good time was curling up with the latest copy of Aviation Week and Space Technology and perusing glossy photos of combat planes. Egged on by the Nixon administration, his was the first and only country to buy the costly Grumman F-14 combat aircraft at a time when that company desperately needed foreign sales to bolster the program. And the Shah put his U.S.-supplied weapons to use, too, helping, for instance, to put down an anti-government uprising in nearby Oman (a short skip across the Persian Gulf), while repressing his own population at the same time.
Who Armed Saddam Hussein?
While the volume of those arms sales didn’t spike dramatically under President Ronald Reagan, his determination to weaponize anti-communist “freedom fighters” from Afghanistan to Nicaragua sparked the Iran-Contra scandal. At its heart lay a bizarre and elaborate covert effort led by National Security Council staff member Oliver North and a band of shadowy middlemen to supply U.S. weapons to the hostile regime of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. The hope was to gain Tehran’s help in freeing U.S. hostages in Lebanon. North and company then used the proceeds from those sales to arm anti-government Contra rebels in Nicaragua in violation of an explicit Congressional ban on such aid.
Worse yet, the Reagan administration transferred arms and provided training to extremist mujahedeen factions in Afghanistan, acts which would, in the end, help arm groups and individuals that later formed al-Qaeda (and similar groups). That would, of course, prove a colossal example of the kind of blowback that unrestricted arms trading too often generates.
Even as the exposure of North’s operation highlighted U.S. arms transfers to Iran, the Reagan administration and the following one of President George H.W. Bush would directly and indirectly supply nearly half a billion dollars worth of arms and arms-making technology to Iran’s sworn enemy, Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein. Those arms would bolster Saddam’s regime both in its war with Iran in the 1980s and in its 1991 invasion of Kuwait that led to Washington’s first Gulf War. The U.S. was admittedly hardly alone in fueling the buildup of the Iraqi military. All five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the U.S., the Soviet Union, France, the United Kingdom, and China) provided weapons or weapons technology to that country in the run-up to its intervention in Kuwait.
The Addiction Continues
Donald Trump has carried on the practice of offering weaponry in quantity to allies in the Middle East, especially the Saudis, though his major rationale for the deals is to generate domestic jobs and revenues for the major weapons contractors. In fact, investing money and effort in almost anything else, from infrastructure to renewable energy technologies, would produce more jobs in the U.S. No matter though, the beat just goes on.
One notable development of the Trump years has been a revived Congressional interest in curbing weapons sales, with a particular focus on ending support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. (Watching Turkish and Kurdish forces face off, each armed in a major way by the U.S., should certainly add to that desire.) Under the leadership of Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA), and Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA), Congress has voted to block bomb sales and other forms of military support for Saudi Arabia, only to have their efforts vetoed by President Trump, that country’s main protector in Washington. Still, congressional action on Saudi sales has been unprecedented in its persistence and scope. It may yet prevail, if a Democrat wins the presidency in 2020. After all, every one of the major presidential contenders has pledged to end arms sales that support the Saudi war effort in Yemen.
Such deals with Saudi Arabia and other Mideast states may be hugely popular with the companies that profit from the trade, but the vast majority of Americans oppose runaway arms trading on the sensible grounds that it makes the world less safe. The question now is: Will Congress play a greater role in attempting to block such weapons deals with the Saudis and human-rights abusers or will America’s weapons-sales addiction and its monopoly position in the Middle Eastern arms trade simply continue, setting the stage for future disasters of every sort?
William D. Hartung, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.
Copyright 2019 William Hartung
Please click on: America’s Arms Sales Addiction