Pundits these days warn of a Middle East arms
race if Iran brings its alleged nuclear weapons program to fruition, while others
fear that missile defense in Eastern Europe could spark escalation involving
But despite all the fear in Washington, it turns out that the US need look
no farther than its own shores to find the greatest single source of weapons
proliferation around the globe.
It's the US, according to a new report from the New America Foundation, which
"is the world's largest arms supplier." And with 23 billion dollars
in receipts in 2007 and 32 billion dollars in 2008, including only foreign sales,
the US is also cashing in.
From escalating hostilities to encouraging human rights abuses, these arms
deals have a plethora of potential negative effects.
"Arms transfers can serve as a US government 'seal of approval' for
governments engaged in unacceptable behavior, not to mention being used as tools
of internal repression and instruments of warfare with neighboring states,"
said the report.
But with a change of administration rapidly approaching, and President-elect
Barack Obama ready to take the helm of government, the US's unique and dominant
position in the global arms industry could be ripe for a change.
"We are at another moment when we can reevaluate what our role [ought
to be]," said the director of New America's Arms and Security Initiative,
William Hartung, during a press conference on the report Wednesday.
The last shift, said Hartung, came under outgoing Pres. George W. Bush, who
"subsumed [the arms trade] under the global war on terror" so that
if a country could make the case of being an ally in the effort, it could get
arms and perhaps even subsidies towards their purchase.
"As the size, scope, and sophistication of US transfers has increased
during the Bush administration, so have the risks," says the report, especially
in the developing world, where most violent conflicts occur and where the US
does billions in sales.
While arms sales are usually thought of as a defensive or preventative matter
lopsided support by the world's preeminent military power should clearly
be a deterrent the fact of the matter is that US deals play a major role
in fighting around the globe.
"US arms and military training played a role in 20 of the world's 27 major
wars in 2007," said the report, co-authored by New America's Hartung and
One of the risks is that the sale of arms remains "relatively unregulated,"
according to Hartung, who noted the hypocrisy of regulating chemical and biological
weapons, but not small arms.
It is, after all, traditional weapons that are used "day-to-day"
in conflicts, said Hartung.
"Small arms and light weapons have a more immediate impact" due to
the ability to inject them into a conflict and have them spread quickly because
they are small, light, and cheap, said Hartung.
The US has signed more than twice as many arms transfer agreements over the
past eight years (2000-2007) than its nearest competition. In that time, the
US made nearly 124,000 deals, compared to the Russia, which has made just over
In the past two years for which figures are available, 2006 and 2007, three
of the top four largest US buyers in the developing world were Middle East
Saudi Arabia acquired 2.5 billion dollars worth of US arms, with Israel dishing
out just over 2.0 billion dollars. The post-invasion Iraqi government spent
nearly 1.5 billion dollars on weapons.
But the US biggest arms client is turbulent Pakistan, which spent more than
3.5 billion dollars on US weapons.
And while weapons often go to US allies in hotspots or nations actively engaged
in combat (sometimes with the US in coalitions, where sales help "interoperability"),
weapons sometimes are used as political currency as well.
"Politically, arms and training can be used as leverage for everything
from gaining preferential access to oil and other strategic resources to persuading
other countries to vote with the United States in international and regional
bodies like the United Nations and the Organization of American States,"
said the report.
Hartung, at the conference for the report, emphasized the point. "Each
of these deals has its own logic," he said. Some deals are based on US
access to military facilities, some to support a coalition ally, and some with
an eye to the future and deterrence, as with proposed missile defense systems."
But, said Hartung, "human rights concerns have gotten pushed aside for
these [various logics]," noting that 13 of the top 25 US arms recipients
are "undemocratic regimes and/or human rights abusers."
"There is less concern in policymaking circles about the negative impacts
of arms sales, from fueling conflict to enabling major human rights abuses,"
said the report.
Hartung noted that human rights issues needn't be a deal-breaker for military
support and arms deals, but rather it just needs to be a more prominent, legitimate
consideration. Though he does point out, as does the report, that it is actually
meant to be a deal-breaker, according to the US Foreign Assistance Act of
"In the case of the United States, this is true despite the fact that
US law calls for curbs on sales to countries engaged in a 'gross and consistent'
pattern of human rights abuses or to countries using US weapons for aggressive
purposes. More often than not, these reasonable requirements are set aside in
favor of the short-term strategic, political, and economic objectives,"
said the report.
With the Bush administration in a lame-duck lull, the report makes a series
of recommendations to the incoming Obama administration.
It should, says the report, create a clear policy directive for arms transfers
within the first six months in office; return the State Department to its former
lead (or at least equal) role in foreign assistance, in contrast to the Bush
policy of empowering the Department of Defense to make these decisions at the
expense of State; and "endorse and/or ratify key international initiatives"
that regulate arms in warfare and the global arms trade.
(Inter Press Service)