On the same day as President Barack Obama's inauguration,
China issued a white paper outlining its national defense strategy. In that
paper, China pointed to a security situation that was "improving steadily"
overall. At the same time, the paper explicitly referred to the growing threat
from increased U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Over Beijing's protest, the Pentagon
announced last October a deal for the sale of $6.5 billion in arms to Taiwan,
including 30 Apache attack helicopters, 330 Patriot missiles, and 32 Harpoon
missiles. Beijing referred to the deal as a "violation" of established principles
that would cause "serious harm to the China-U.S. relations as well as to peace
and stability across the Taiwan Straits."
The Taiwan sale is but one of hundreds of deals the Bush administration made
in its two terms. In 2008, as in each of the previous seven years, the United
States led the world in arms sales at $32 billion. In 2006-2007, the U.S. sold
weapons to more than 170 nations, up from 123 at the start of the Bush administration.
These arms deals are supposed to accomplish a range of foreign policy goals:
winning influence, gaining access, maintaining and encouraging friendly regimes,
as well as bolstering the U.S. balance of payments and domestic economy. At
the same time, these large-scale weapons sales prop up teetering regimes and
dictatorships, sow discord, promote violent solutions to international problems,
and result in widespread civilian suffering. In fact, U.S. weapons "played
a role in 20 of the world's 27 major wars in 2006-07," according to a December
from the New American Foundation. Weapons from the United States are now present
in half of the major armed conflicts currently taking place worldwide. And
13 of the 25 leading U.S. clients were either undemocratic and/or guilty of
human rights violations, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Korea, Kuwait,
Egypt, and Colombia.
One obvious omission from this abbreviated list
is Iraq. Having supported Saddam Hussein with arms exports, as did other Security
Council members, the United States is now sending into Iraq an enormous volume
of weapons. Aside from those destined for the U.S. military, hundreds of millions
of dollars in weapons have gone to arm the Iraqi army and its police and security
forces. In the last four years, the Pentagon financed the shipment of more
than 1 million rifles, pistols, and infantry weapons to Iraqi forces. These
shipments are largely the responsibility of private arms firms such as Taos
Industries. Taos alone received contracts totaling more than $95 million for
supplying arms to Iraq. All told, the Pentagon oversaw the signing of 47 weapons-supply
contracts amounting to nearly $220 million since 2003. Due to little oversight
and widespread corruption, now as many as several hundred thousand of those
weapons have been "lost." Unable to account for the distribution of these weapons
inside Iraq, many officials have concluded that some have found their way into
the hands of insurgents.
One overarching and troubling pattern in all of this has been the shift in
responsibility from the State Department to the Defense Department since 9/11.
This shift has meant, among other things, vastly increased arms available to
a wider range of clients (an additional $40 billion in new funding for arms
sales), less oversight from State Department (whose regulations include at
least a nod to human rights), and less congressional scrutiny (the responsible
congressional committees differ substantially from State to Defense).
This isn't a new phenomenon. However, U.S. arms sales grew in importance in
American foreign policy in the fairly recent past. Following the Vietnam War
and amid a faltering economy, Richard Nixon ordered the Pentagon to relax and/or
remove the barriers to international arms sales in 1974. As the result of that
decision, coupled with aggressive marketing from U.S. arms suppliers and the
new wealth of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC),
arms sales skyrocketed. In the 20 years leading to 1969, U.S. arms sales totaled
less than $12 billion – and $9 billion of that went to the "developed" world.
From this low, the numbers quickly climbed: $1.4 billion in 1971, $3 billion
in 1972, $5.3 billion in 1973, $10 billion in 1974. Added up, the U.S. shipped
$49.8 billion in arms in 1974-1977. U.S. arms shipments to Persian Gulf countries
alone shot up 2,500 percent.
Some at the time recognized the contradictory nature of these deals and the
resulting blowback. The shah of Iran was the lead recipient of U.S. arms. "We
kidded ourselves," Sen. Joseph Biden complained in 1982. "We had close to $30
billion worth of the most sophisticated arms in the world in Iran." And yet,
"without a shot being fired, the shah was marched out of the country." Now,
"all those weapons are either lying dormant or have become accessible to the
Soviet Union." Indeed, massive arms sales proved better instruments for dealing
with balance of payments problems than for charting a sustainable foreign policy.
Though the years immediately after the end of the Cold War brought a sharp
decline in arms sales, this trend was soon reversed. Within a few short years
arms-makers adapted, and the administration of Bill Clinton obliged with aggressive
marketing and massive subsidies. Presidential Decision Directive 34, issued
in February 1995, articulated
the new strategy of promotion of arms sales: "the United States continues to
view transfers of conventional arms as a legitimate instrument of U.S. foreign
policy – deserving U.S. government support – when they enable us to help friends
and allies deter aggression, promote regional security, and increase interoperability
of U.S. forces and allied forces." Both directly and indirectly, neoliberalism
and globalization of the post-Cold War decade were very good to arms exporters.
Building on this trend – and spurred by the events of 9/11 – the Bush administration
took arms exports to a new level.
With considerably more political capital than
its predecessor, the new administration now has a choice to make. President
Obama has talked about a less militarized foreign policy. He admonished
the Bush administration for too often seeing international problems as "amenable
to military solutions." So there is at least an opening to raise this issue
of continued and expanded arms sales. However, the last Democrat in the White
House, Clinton, dramatically increased arms exports. He did this largely to
compensate the arms industry for the loss of contracts connected to the post-Cold
War downsizing. Obama may well be tempted to do something similar by relying
on military Keynesianism to help pull the U.S. economy out of recession.
Still, the sale of a large volume of arms to Taiwan seems an appropriate place
to start. Though there will no doubt be entrenched opposition, the Obama administration
should signal a new policy by reducing the flow of arms to Taiwan. At this
time of global economic crisis, the Obama administration will need China's
cooperation far more than revenues generated from the arms deal with Taiwan.
The Taiwan Strait would be an ideal place to apply the new diplomatic approach
that both Obama and his new secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, have promised.
Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy