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Tomgram: William Hartung, Selling Arms as if There Were No Tomorrow

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

Few American exports are more successful globally than things that go boom in the night: Hollywood movies -- especially, of course, superhero films, which regularly garner vast international audiences -- and advanced weaponry of just about every imaginable kind. As TomDispatch regular and Pentagon expert William Hartung points out today, while Donald Trump has been hot to trot when it comes to selling American arms to the world, it will take no small push on his part to match Barack Obama's record arms sales, as our former president oversaw the dispatching of staggering quantities of weaponry to global hotspots of every sort, especially in the Middle East.

Fortunately, there is one area where Donald Trump and American weapons makers could really make some new music: selling surveillance drones as well as armed drones to the world. Reuters recently reported that the Trump administration was planning to loosen restrictions on drone sales in the immediate future. In recent years, U.S. drone makers have labored under grievous restrictions when it came to peddling their wares to anyplace but the Pentagon. They, in fact, sold their products only to Italy and Great Britain, despite demand being, if you'll excuse the expression, sky high. After all, who wouldn't want to own the most impressive extrajudicial assassins on the planet?

Nor can this change come soon enough -- American drone makers have been pleading and pressuring for it for years -- since Israel, a pioneer in the drone-assassin field, and more recently China, have been expanding their armed drone sales globally, leaving American weapons makers in the lurch. As Hartung makes clear today, it's been rare indeed in the twenty-first century for the U.S. to find itself in such a position. A range of countries -- the Saudis, various other Persian Gulf states, Jordan, and India -- has been clamoring for their very own American surveillance drones and armed assassins and both, it seems, will soon be on the world market, though not (yet) the larger armed Predators and Reapers that the U.S. has deployed ever more widely and actively across the Greater Middle East and Africa.

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Soon enough, thanks to Donald Trump, the U.S. will be back in the game. Meanwhile, from Libya to Somalia to Yemen to Afghanistan to Pakistan, in the first year-plus of the Trump era, American drone strikes have leaped (as have the deaths of civilians). In other words, The Donald has taken his place as this country's assassin-in-chief with impressive alacrity. Tom

Weapons for Anyone
Donald Trump and the Art of the Arms Deal
By William D. Hartung

It's one of those stories of the century that somehow never gets treated that way. For an astounding 25 of the past 26 years, the United States has been the leading arms dealer on the planet, at some moments in near monopolistic fashion. Its major weapons-producers, including Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin, regularly pour the latest in high-tech arms and munitions into the most explosive areas of the planet with ample assistance from the Pentagon. In recent years, the bulk of those arms have gone to the Greater Middle East. Donald Trump is only the latest American president to preside over a global arms sales bonanza. With remarkable enthusiasm, he's appointed himself America's number one weapons salesman and he couldn't be prouder of the job he's doing.

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Earlier this month, for instance, on the very day Congress was debating whether to end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia's brutal war in Yemen, Trump engaged in one of his favorite presidential activities:bragging about the economic benefits of the American arms sales he's been promoting. He was joined in his moment of braggadocio by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the chief architect of that war. That grim conflict has killed thousands of civilians through indiscriminate air strikes, while putting millions at risk of death from famine, cholera, and other "natural" disasters caused at least in part by a Saudi-led blockade of that country's ports.

That Washington-enabled humanitarian crisis provided the backdrop for the Senate's consideration of a bill co-sponsored by Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders, Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee, and Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy. It was aimed at ending U.S. mid-air refueling of Saudi war planes and Washington's additional assistance for the Saudi war effort (at least until the war is explicitly authorized by Congress). The bill generated a vigorous debate. In the end, on an issue that wouldn't have even come to the floor two years ago, an unprecedented 44 senators voted to halt this country's support for the Saudi war effort. The bill nonetheless went down to defeat and the suffering in Yemen continues.

Debate about the merits of that brutal war was, however, the last thing on the mind of a president who views his bear-hug embrace of the Saudi regime as a straightforward business proposition. He's so enthusiastic about selling arms to Riyadh that he even brought his very own prop to the White House meeting with bin Salman: a U.S. map highlighting which of the 50 states would benefit most from pending weapons sales to the prince's country.

You undoubtedly won't be surprised to learn that Michigan, Ohio, and Florida, the three crucial swing states in the 2016 presidential election, were specially highlighted. His latest stunt only underscored a simple fact of his presidency: Trump's arms sales are meant to promote pork-barrel politics, while pumping up the profits of U.S. weapons manufacturers. As for human rights or human lives, who cares?

To be fair, Donald Trump is hardly the first American president to make it his business to aggressively promote weapons exports. Though seldom a highlighted part of his presidency, Barack Obama proved to be a weapons salesman par excellence. He made more arms offers in his two terms in office than any U.S. president since World War II, including an astounding $115 billion in weapons deals with Saudi Arabia. For the tiny group of us who follow such things, that map of Trump's only underscored a familiar reality.

On it, in addition to the map linking U.S. jobs and arms transfers to the Saudis, were little boxes that highlighted four specific weapons sales worth tens of billions of dollars. Three of those that included the THAAD missile defense system, C-130 transport planes, P-8 anti-submarine warfare planes, and Bradley armored vehicles were, in fact, completed during the Obama years. So much for Donald Trump's claim to be a deal maker the likes of which we've never seen before. You might, in fact, say that the truest arms race these days is between American presidents, not the United States and other countries. Not only has the U.S. been the world's top arms exporting nation throughout this century, but last year it sold one and a half times as much weaponry as its closest rival, Russia.

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Embracing Lockheed Martin

It's worth noting that three of those four Saudi deals involved weapons made by Lockheed Martin. Admittedly, Trump's relationship with Lockheed got off to a rocky start in December 2016 when he tweeted his displeasure over the cost of that company's F-35 combat aircraft, the most expensive weapons program ever undertaken by the Pentagon. Since then, however, relations between the nation's largest defense contractor and America's most self-involved president have warmed considerably.

Before Trump's May 2017 visit to Saudi Arabia, his son-in-law, Jared Kusher, new best buddy to Mohammed bin Salman, was put in charge of cobbling together a smoke-and-mirrors, wildly exaggerated $100 billion-plus arms package that Trump could announce in Riyadh. What Kushner needed was a list of sales or potential sales that his father-in-law could boast about (even if many of the deals had been made by Obama). So he called Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson to ask if she could cut the price of a THAAD anti-missile system that the administration wanted to include in the package. She agreed and the $15 billion THAAD deal -- still a huge price tag and the most lucrative sale to the Saudis made by the Trump administration -- went forward. To sweeten the pot for the Saudi royals, the Pentagon even waived a $3.5 billion fee normally required by law and designed to reimburse the Treasury for the cost to American taxpayers of developing such a major weapons system. General Joseph Rixey, until recently the director of the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which granted that waiver, has since gone directly through Washington's revolving door and been hired by -- you guessed it -- Lockheed Martin.

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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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