President George W Bush announced during his recent
Middle East trip that he is formally serving notice to Congress of his administration's
decision to approve the sale of bomb-guidance kits to Saudi Arabia. This announcement
follows notification on five other arms deals to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab
Emirates and Kuwait that are part of a $20 billion package of additional armaments
over the next decade to the family dictatorships of Saudi Arabia and other Persian
Gulf emirates announced by President George W. Bush last summer.
At that time, the Bush administration also announced taxpayer-funded military
assistance totaling an additional $13 billion over this same period to the Mubarak
dictatorship in Egypt. Also part of this package is an additional $30 billion
worth of sophisticated weaponry bound for Israel.
Altogether, these arms deals represent a major setback for those struggling
to promote peace and democracy in that volatile region.
The Democratic-controlled Congress has the authority to block any or all of
these proposed sales. It could also refuse to approve the military assistance
packages, which altogether total $63 billion. Congress has until February 13
to block the latest portion of the arms package, consisting of 900 Joint Direct
Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, valued at $123 million. In addition to these highly
advanced satellite-guided bombs, the Bush administration's proposed arms sales
to the Gulf monarchies include sophisticated guided missiles, new naval ships,
and upgrades to fighter aircraft for Saudi Arabia and the five other Gulf monarchies.
However, no one among the top House or Senate leadership in either party has
yet to come out in opposition to any aspect of the administration's plans to
dangerously escalate the regional arms race.
Still More Arms
Arms control analysts have consistently argued
that the Middle East is too militarized already and the recipient governments
already possess military capabilities well in excess of their legitimate security
needs. Yet President Bush is effectively insisting that this volatile region
does not yet have enough armaments, and the United States must send even more.
As disturbing as this is – depending on the time frame for the arms sales
– it does not necessarily represent a dramatic increase in the rate of
arms transfers. For example, since 1998, the United States has sent over $15
billion of American weaponry to Saudi Arabia alone. By contrast, even though
Israel's strategic superiority vis-à-vis all its potential regional
adversaries is stronger than ever and Israel is already by far the highest recipient
of U.S. military assistance, the proposed arms package to Israel marks a dramatic
25% increase over current levels.
The administration has claimed in recent years that it has disavowed the policies
of its predecessors that propped up undemocratic regimes in the name of regional
stability and was now dedicated to promoting freedom and democracy in the Middle
East. Nevertheless, all seven of the Arab countries included in the proposed
arms packages are led by autocratic governments that have engaged in consistent
patterns of gross and persistent human rights abuses. In addition, Israel –
while having the only democratically elected government among the recipients
– remains in belligerent occupation of much of Palestine's West
Bank and Syria's Golan Heights and has a longstanding history of using
American weapons against civilians and related violations of international humanitarian
Though supporters of the recently announced arms sales to the Gulf argue that
if the United States did not sell weapons to these oil-rich nations someone
else would, neither the Bush administration nor its predecessors have ever expressed
interest in pursuing any kind of arms control agreement with other arms exporting
countries. A number of other arms exporters, such as Germany, are now expressing
their opposition to further arms transfers to the region due to the risks of
exacerbating tensions and promoting a regional arms race.
The United States is by far the largest arms exporter in the world, surpassing
Russia – the second largest arms exporter – by nearly
two to one.
The Iranian Rationalization
The ostensible reason for the proposed arms packages
is to counter Iran's growing military procurement in recent years, though Iranian
military spending is actually substantially less than it was 20 years ago. Furthermore,
Iran's current military buildup is based primarily on the perceived need to
respond to the threatened U.S. attack against that country, a concern made all
the more real by the U.S. invasion and occupation of two countries bordering
Iran on both its east and west in recent years.
This U.S. insistence on countering Iran through further militarizing this already
overly militarized region is particularly provocative. Not only has the United
States refused to engage in serious negotiations with Iran regarding mutual
security concerns but it has discouraged its regional allies from pursuing arms
control talks or other negotiations that could ease tensions between the Arab
monarchies and the Islamic Republic. If the Bush administration were really
interested in addressing its purported concerns regarding Iranian militarization,
it would be willing to at least give diplomacy a chance first.
In addition to alleged worries about Iran as a military threat to the region,
U.S. officials have also tried to justify the arms package as a means to respond
to Iran's growing political influence. However, most of Iran's enhanced
role in the region in recent years is a direct consequence of the U.S. decision
to overthrow the anti-Iranian regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and its replacement
by a new government dominated by pro-Iranian Shi'ite parties. Another key element
of Iran's growing influence is the earlier U.S. decision to oust the anti-Iranian
Taliban of Afghanistan and replace it with a regime dominated by tribal war
lords, a number of whom have close Iranian ties. Similarly, Iranian influence
has also increased in the Levant as a direct consequence of U.S.-backed Israeli
attacks on the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, which have strengthened popular political
support for Hamas and Hezbollah and their ties to Iran.
Iran's emergence as a major regional military power also took place as
a result of American arms transfers. Over a 25-year period, the United States
pushed the autocratic regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi to purchase today's
equivalent of over $100 billion worth of American armaments, weapons systems,
and support, creating a formidable military apparatus that ended up in the hands
of radically anti-American Shi'ite clerics following that country's 1979
Rather than respond to these setbacks by further militarization, the United
States should instead seriously re-evaluate its counter-productive propensity
to try to resolve Middle Eastern security concerns primarily through military
means. Instead of meeting the legitimate defensive needs of America's
allies, the proposed deal is yet another arrogant assertion of American military
hegemony. As U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns put
it, the arms package "says to the Iranians and Syrians that the United
States is the major power in the Middle East and will continue to be and is
not going away."
Little Strategic Merit
The administration's other rationales for the
new arms transfers also have little merit. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice,
for instance, claims that they are necessary to counter the influences of al-Qaeda
and Hezbollah. In reality, these sophisticated conventional weapons systems
would be of little use against Osama bin Laden's decentralized network of underground
terrorist cells or the Lebanese Shi'ite party's popular militia.
As exiled Saudi activist Ali Alyami of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights
in Saudi Arabia put it, "Appeasing
and protecting the autocratic Saudi dynasty and other tyrannical regimes in
the Arab world will not bring peace, stability, or an end to extremism and terrorism."
There is also the possibility that, as with Iran following the 1979 revolution,
U.S. arms provided to one or more of these autocratic Arab regimes could end
up in the hands of radical anti-American forces should the government be overthrown.
Indeed, seeing their countries' wealth squandered on unnecessary weapons
systems pushed on them by the U.S. government and suffering under their despotic
rulers kept in power in large part through such military support are major causes
of the growing appeal of anti-American extremism among the peoples of Middle
The Democratic Response
Despite holding a majority of seats in Congress,
the Democratic majority will likely allow the administration to go ahead with
these massive arms transfers. Representative Tom Lantos (D-CA), who chairs the
House Foreign Affairs Committee, apparently has no plans to take up a resolution
blocking the proposed sale. Without action by that committee, Congress will
not be able to vote on the matter.
For years, calls for the Democratic congressional leadership to eliminate or
even scale back this kind of taxpayer subsidy for wealthy and powerful U.S.
military contractors – referred to by critics as "merchants of death"
– have been summarily rejected. Indeed, since first being elected to Congress
in the late 1980s, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has voted in favor of over $50
billion of taxpayer-funded arms transfers to Middle Eastern countries that have
engaged in gross and systematic violations of international humanitarian law.
In her time in the leadership, she has never seriously challenged any arms transfers
to the region.
When the proposal was originally outlined last summer, a group of congressional
Democrats did sign a letter expressing opposition. The leading Democratic presidential
contenders announced their reservations as well. However, these objections were
only in regard to the proposed arms sales for Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf
monarchies. There were no objections to the much larger taxpayer funded arms
package to Israel.
In defending the Israeli part of the proposed package, all three major Democratic
presidential candidates have placed themselves in opposition to repeated calls
by human rights activists to restrict military assistance to any government
that uses American weaponry against civilian targets in violation of international
Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards argue that additional military
aid is necessary to protect Israel from potentially hostile Arab states. However,
given that the arsenals of most of these Arab countries are of U.S. origin,
it would make more sense to simply call for an end to the large-scale arms transfers
to these regimes. Furthermore, every Arab state is now on record agreeing to
security guarantees and normal relations with Israel in return for a full Israeli
withdrawal from Arab lands seized in the June 1967 war. If these presidential
hopefuls were really interested in Israel's security, they would encourage
the Bush administration to pressure Israel to enter into serious negotiations
based on the longstanding principle of land for peace.
Last summer's letter by House members opposing the proposed arms sales
to Saudi Arabia totaled 141 members, less than half of what is needed to block
the sales. Ironically, a reading of the letter and accompanying press release
appears to indicate that the main objections these Democrats had to sending
additional arms to Saudi Arabia was the government's opposition to the
U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, its efforts to reconcile warring Palestinian
parties, and its insistence on Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands conquered
in the 1967 war in return for peace.
More Arms, Less Security
U.S. officials insist that the Saudis alone are
responsible for their procurement of these sophisticated weapons. Yet underneath
this convenient claim of Saudi sovereignty that supposedly absolves the United
States of any responsibility in the arms purchases and their deleterious effects
lies a practice that can be traced as far back as the 1940s: The U.S Defense
Department routinely defines the kingdom's security needs, often providing a
far more pessimistic analysis of the country's security situation than do more
objective strategic analyses. Conveniently, these alleged needs lead directly
to purchases of specific U.S. weapons.
As Robert Vitalis, director of the Middle East Center at the University of
"If the billions have not been useful to the Saudis, they were a
gold mine for Congresspersons compelled to cast pro-Saudi votes, along with
cabinet officials and party leaders worried about the economy of key states
and electoral districts. To the extent that the regime faces politically destabilizing
cutbacks in social spending, a proximate cause is the strong bipartisan push
for arms exports to the Gulf as a means to bolster the sagging fortunes of
key constituents and regions – the 'gun belt' – that represents
the domestic face of internationalism."
These military expenditures place a major toll on the fiscal well-being of
Middle Eastern countries. Military expenditures often total half of central
government outlays. Many senior observers believe that debt financing in Saudi
Arabia that has been used in the past to finance arms purchases has threatened
the kingdom's fragile social pact of distributing oil rents to favored
constituents and regions.
A very important factor, often overlooked, is that a number of Middle Eastern
states – such as Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, and Morocco – are highly
dependent on Saudi Arabia for financial assistance. As Saudi Arabia spends more
and more on arms acquisitions, it becomes less generous, leading to serious
budget shortfalls throughout the Arab world. The result is that these arms sales
may be causing more instability and thereby threatening these countries'
security interests more than they are protecting them.
Even Middle Eastern countries that do not have to buy their American weapons
suffer the economic consequences. For example, U.S. arms transfers cost the
Israelis two to three times their value in maintenance, spare parts, training
of personnel, and related expenses. It drains their economy and increases their
dependency on the United States.
The implications of these ongoing arms purchases are ominous on several levels.
For example, one of the most striking but least talked about for the Middle
East is the "food deficit," the amount of food produced relative
to demand. With continued high military spending – combined with rapid
population growth and increased urbanization – the resulting low investments
in agriculture have made this deficit the fastest growing in the world.
For these and other reasons, ultimately the largest number of civilian casualties,
the greatest amount of social disorder, and the strongest anti-American sentiment
that results may come as a consequence of U.S.-supplied weapons systems and
ordinance that are never actually used in combat.
Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy