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Tomgram: William Hartung, How to Stuff the Middle East With Weaponry

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Yes, his first act on returning to the White House from Walter Reed Medical Center was to step out on a balcony and rip off his face mask to display to the world that thoroughly contagious look of his. He's been a killer president in all sorts of ways (as I wrote recently), including his drone assassination of the second most powerful man in Iran, Major General Qassem Suleimani, knocked off by an MQ-9 Reaper's Hellfire missile just as he was leaving Baghdad International Airport.

Ripping off far more than masks has been the name of the game for Commander-in-Chief Trump from that first tax cut of his for the country's billionaires and corporate execs, which, historically enough, left the truly wealthy with a lower tax rate than American workers. While his white working-class base has supported him (despite a few recent hesitations) with a faith that's been little short of evangelical, he's continued to rip them and anyone else in sight off. The exceptions, of course, have been his fellow billionaires (if he is actually a billionaire) and a set of favored CEOs, among them, as TomDispatch regular and Pentagon specialist William Hartung has been reporting for years, the top execs of America's giant weapons makers.

When it comes to selling American weaponry, more or less anything except (so far) nuclear weapons seems to go. It doesn't matter how they might be used or against whom. This summer, for instance, his administration opened the way to sell those Reapers and other armed drones to "allies," ensuring that ever more leaders leaving airports had better watch out. His urge to peddle the deadliest sorts of weaponry to just about any bloody regime around, the Saudis above all, is a grim tale indeed and the result has been, as Hartung reports today, a remarkable domination of the arms trade (or perhaps racket) in one of the world's bloodiest regions, the Middle East. Tom

The U.S. of A(rms)
The Art of the Weapons Deal in the Age of Trump
By William D. Hartung

The United States has the dubious distinction of being the world's leading arms dealer. It dominates the global trade in a historic fashion and nowhere is that domination more complete than in the endlessly war-torn Middle East. There, believe it or not, the U.S. controls nearly half the arms market. From Yemen to Libya to Egypt, sales by this country and its allies are playing a significant role in fueling some of the world's most devastating conflicts. But Donald Trump, even before he was felled by Covid-19 and sent to Walter Reed Medical Center, could not have cared less, as long as he thought such trafficking in the tools of death and destruction would help his political prospects.

Look, for example, at the recent "normalization" of relations between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel he helped to broker, which has set the stage for yet another surge in American arms exports. To hear Trump and his supporters tell it, he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for the deal, dubbed "the Abraham Accords." In fact, using it, he was eager to brand himself as "Donald Trump, peacemaker" in advance of the November election. This, believe me, was absurd on the face of it. Until the pandemic swept everything in the White House away, it was just another day in Trump World and another example of the president's penchant for exploiting foreign and military policy for his own domestic political gain.

If the narcissist-in-chief had been honest for a change, he would have dubbed those Abraham Accords the "Arms Sales Accords." The UAE was, in part, induced to participate in hopes of receiving Lockheed Martin's F-35 combat aircraft and advanced armed drones as a reward. For his part, after some grumbling, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to one-up the UAE and seek a new $8 billion arms package from the Trump administration, including an additional squadron of Lockheed Martin's F-35s (beyond those already on order), a fleet of Boeing attack helicopters, and so much more. Were that deal to go through, it would undoubtedly involve an increase in Israel's more than ample military aid commitment from the United States, already slated to total $3.8 billion annually for the next decade.

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

This wasn't the first time President Trump tried to capitalize on arms sales to the Middle East to consolidate his political position at home and his posture as this country's dealmaker par excellence. Such gestures began in May 2017, during his very first official overseas trip to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis greeted him then with ego-boosting fanfare, putting banners featuring his face along roadways leading into their capital, Riyadh; projecting a giant image of that same face on the hotel where he was staying; and presenting him with a medal in a surreal ceremony at one of the kingdom's many palaces. For his part, Trump came bearing arms in the form of a supposed $110 billion weapons package. Never mind that the size of the deal was vastly exaggerated. It allowed the president to gloat that his sales deal there would mean "jobs, jobs, jobs" in the United States. If he had to work with one of the most repressive regimes in the world to bring those jobs home, who cared? Not he and certainly not his son-in-law Jared Kushner who would develop a special relationship with the cruel Saudi Crown Prince and heir apparent to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman.

Trump doubled down on his jobs argument in a March 2018 White House meeting with bin Salman. The president came armed with a prop for the cameras: a map of the U.S. showing the states that (he swore) would benefit most from Saudi arms sales, including -- you won't be surprised to learn -- the crucial election swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

Nor will it surprise you that Trump's jobs claims from those Saudi arms sales are almost entirely fraudulent. In fits of fancy, he's even insisted that he's creating as many as half a million jobs linked to weapons exports to that repressive regime. The real number is less than one-tenth that amount -- and far less than one-tenth of one percent of U.S. employment. But why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

American Arms Dominance

Donald Trump is far from the first president to push tens of billions of dollars of arms into the Middle East. The Obama administration, for example, made a record $115 billion in arms offers to Saudi Arabia during its eight years in office, including combat aircraft, attack helicopters, armored vehicles, military ships, missile defense systems, bombs, guns, and ammunition.

Those sales solidified Washington's position as the Saudis' primary arms supplier. Two-thirds of its air force consists of Boeing F-15 aircraft, the vast bulk of its tanks are General Dynamics M-1s, and most of its air-to-ground missiles come from Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. And mind you, those weapons aren't just sitting in warehouses or being displayed in military parades. They've been among the principal killers in a brutal Saudi intervention in Yemen that has sparked the world's worst humanitarian catastrophe.

A new report from the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy (which I co-authored) underscores just how stunningly the U.S. dominates the Middle Eastern weapons market. According to data from the arms transfer database compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in the period from 2015 to 2019 the United States accounted for 48% of major weapons deliveries to the Middle East and North Africa, or (as that vast region is sometimes known acronymically) MENA. Those figures leave deliveries from the next largest suppliers in the dust. They represent nearly three times the arms Russia supplied to MENA, five times what France contributed, 10 times what the United Kingdom exported, and 16 times China's contribution.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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