This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.
Honestly, if a single corporate entity controlled three-quarters of the global market in a product, you'd call it a monopoly, right? Well, in 2011, that was the situation of the United States when it came to the arms trade. This country sold more than three-quarters of the weapons on the global arms market (a significant proportion of them into the already violent Middle East). And that should still be stunning. But I'd bet top dollars that, while you could read about it then, that remarkable fact wasn't a front-page story. It wasn't, in fact, much of a story at all. In the intervening years, as the arms trade has grown back to near Cold War levels, especially in the Middle East, the U.S. has solidified its position as the planet's major arms salesman, sending weaponry to at least 98 countries. In 2018, for instance, 54% of the weaponry going into the Middle Eastern arms market was ours and yet while this information is available, in a world where the cheers, boos, and chants that now greet any public appearance by Donald Trump are a top news story, America's role in the global weapons trade is, at best, an afterthought. (It matters little that, in polls, 70% of Americans oppose our selling arms to any other country at all as a danger to the world.)
Don't you consider it just a tad strange that the media of the nation that -- no matter the president in these years -- continues to flood the world with weaponry of just about every imaginable sort, pays remarkably little attention to that fact?
Fortunately, TomDispatch has Pentagon expert William Hartung, author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex, to fill the void. For this website at least, Washington's urge to constantly supply the planet with devastating kinds of weaponry (often used on innocent civilians) in grim wars that shouldn't be fought remains a story of the first order. Tom
America's Arms Sales Addiction
The 50-Year History of U.S. Dominance of the Middle Eastern Arms Trade
By William D. Hartung
It's no secret that Donald Trump is one of the most aggressive arms salesmen in history. How do we know? Because he tells us so at every conceivable opportunity. It started with his much exaggerated "$110 billion arms deal" with Saudi Arabia, announced on his first foreign trip as president. It continued with his White House photo op with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in which he brandished a map with a state-by-state rundown of American jobs supposedly tied to arms sales to the kingdom. And it's never ended. In these years in office, in fact, the president has been a staunch advocate for his good friends at Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and General Dynamics -- the main corporate beneficiaries of the U.S.-Saudi arms trade (unlike the thousands of American soldiers the president recently sent into that country's desert landscapes to defend its oil facilities).
All the American arms sales to the Middle East have had a severe and lasting set of consequences in the region in, as a start, the brutal Saudi/United Arab Emirates war in Yemen, which has killed thousands of civilians via air strikes using U.S. weaponry and pushed millions of Yemenis to the brink of famine. And don't forget the recent Turkish invasion of Syria in which both the Turkish forces and the Kurdish-led militias they attacked relied heavily on U.S.-supplied weaponry.
Donald Trump has made it abundantly clear that he cares far more about making deals for that weaponry than who uses any of it against whom. It's important to note, however, that, historically speaking, he's been anything but unique in his obsession with promoting such weapons exports (though he is uniquely loud about doing so).
Despite its supposedly strained relationship with the Saudi regime, the Obama administration, for example, still managed to offer the royals of that kingdom a record $136 billion in U.S. weapons between 2009 and 2017. Not all of those offers resulted in final sales, but striking numbers did. Items sold included Boeing F-15 combat aircraft and Apache attack helicopters, General Dynamics M-1 tanks, Raytheon precision-guided bombs, and Lockheed Martin bombs, combat ships, and missile defense systems. Many of those weapons have since been put to use in the war in Yemen.
To its credit, the Obama administration did at least have an internal debate on the wisdom of continuing such a trade. In December 2016, late in his second term, the president finally did suspend the sale of precision-guided bombs to the Royal Saudi Air Force due to a mounting toll of Yemeni civilian deaths in U.S.-supplied Saudi air strikes. This was, however, truly late in the game, given that the Saudi regime first intervened in Yemen in March 2015 and the slaughter of civilians began soon after that.
By then, of course, Washington's dominance of the Mideast arms trade was taken for granted, despite an occasional large British or French deal like the scandal-plagued Al Yamamah sale of fighter planes and other equipment to the Saudis, the largest arms deal in the history of the United Kingdom. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, from 2014 to 2018 the United States accounted for more than 54% of known arms deliveries to the Middle East. Russia lagged far behind with a 9.5% share of the trade, followed by France (8.6%), England (7.2%), and Germany (4.6%). China, often cited as a possible substitute supplier, should the U.S. ever decide to stop arming repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia, came in at less than 1%.
The U.S. government's stated rationales for pouring arms into that ever-more-embattled region include: building partnerships with countries theoretically willing to fight alongside U.S. forces in a crisis; swapping arms for access to military bases in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and other Persian Gulf states; creating "stability" by building up allied militaries to be stronger than those of potential adversaries like Iran; and generating revenue for U.S. weapons contractors, as well as jobs for American workers. Of course, such sales have indeed benefited those contractors and secured access to bases in the region, but when it comes to promoting stability and security, historically it's been another story entirely.
The Nixon Doctrine and the Initial Surge in Mideast Arms Sales
Washington's role as the Middle East's top arms supplier has its roots in remarks made by Richard Nixon half a century ago on the island of Guam. It was the Vietnam War era and the president was on his way to South Vietnam. Casualties there were mounting rapidly with no clear end to the conflict in sight. During that stopover in Guam, Nixon assured reporters accompanying him that it was high time to end the practice of sending large numbers of U.S troops to overseas battlefields. To "avoid another war like Vietnam anywhere in the world," he was instead putting a new policy in place, later described by a Pentagon official as "sending arms instead of sending troops."
The core of what came to be known as the Nixon Doctrine was the arming of regional surrogates, countries with sympathetic rulers or governments that could promote U.S. interests without major contingents of the American military being on hand. Of such potential surrogates at that moment, the most important was the Shah of Iran, with whom a CIA-British intelligence coup replaced a civilian government back in 1953 and who proved to have an insatiable appetite for top-of-the-line U.S. weaponry.
The Shah's idea of a good time was curling up with the latest copy of Aviation Week and Space Technology and perusing glossy photos of combat planes. Egged on by the Nixon administration, his was the first and only country to buy the costly Grumman F-14 combat aircraft at a time when that company desperately needed foreign sales to bolster the program. And the Shah put his U.S.-supplied weapons to use, too, helping, for instance, to put down an anti-government uprising in nearby Oman (a short skip across the Persian Gulf), while repressing his own population at the same time.
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