The Pentagon as a Global NRA
For Washington, There Is No Arms Control Abroad
By Tom Engelhardt
Given these last weeks, who doesn't know what an AR-15 is? Who hasn't seen the mind-boggling stats on the way assault rifles have flooded this country, or tabulations of accumulating Newtown-style mass killings, or noted that there are barely more gas stations nationwide than federally licensed firearms dealers, or heard the renewed debates over the Second Amendment, or been struck by the rapid shifts in public opinion on gun control, or checked out the disputes over how effective an assault-rifle ban was the last time around? Who doesn't know about the NRA's suggestion to weaponize schools, or about the price poor neighborhoods may be paying in gun deaths for the present expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment? Who hasn't seen the legions of stories about how, in the wake of the Newtown slaughter, sales of guns, especially AR-15 assault rifles, have soared, ammunition sales have surged, background checks for future gun purchases have risen sharply, and gun shows have been besieged with customers?
If you haven't stumbled across figures on gun violence in America or on suicide-by-gun, you've been hiding under a rock. If you haven't heard about Chicago's soaring and Washington D.C.'s plunging gun-death stats (and that both towns have relatively strict gun laws), where have you been?
Has there, in fact, been any aspect of the weaponization of the United States that, since the Newtown massacre, hasn't been discussed? Are you the only person in the country, for instance, who doesn't know that Vice President Joe Biden has been assigned the task of coming up with an administration gun-control agenda before Barack Obama is inaugurated for his second term? And can you honestly tell me that you haven't seen global comparisons of killing rates in countries that have tight gun laws and the U.S., or read at least one discussion about life in countries like Colombia or Guatemala, where armed guards are omnipresent?
After years of mass killings that resulted in next to no national dialogue about the role of guns and how to control them, the subject is back on the American agenda in a significant way and -- by all signs -- isn't about to leave town anytime soon. The discussion has been so expansive after years in a well-armed wilderness that it's easy to miss what still isn't being discussed, and in some sense just how narrow our focus remains.
Think of it this way: the Obama administration is reportedly going to call on Congress to pass a new ban on assault weapons, as well as one on high-capacity ammunition magazines, and to close the loopholes that allow certain gun purchasers to avoid background checks. But Biden has already conceded, at least implicitly, that facing a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a filibuster-prone Senate, the administration's ability to make much of this happen -- as on so many domestic issues -- is limited.
That will shock few Americans. After all, the most essential fact about the Obama presidency is this: at home, the president is a hamstrung weakling; abroad, in terms of his ability to choose a course of action and -- from drones strikes and special ops raids to cyberwar and other matters -- simply act, he's closer to Superman. So here's a question: while the administration is pledging to try to curb the wholesale spread of ever more powerful weaponry at home, what is it doing about the same issue abroad where it has so much more power to pursue the agenda it prefers?
Flooding the World With the Most Advanced Weaponry Money Can Buy
As a start, it's worth noting that no one ever mentions the domestic gun control debate in the same breath with the dominant role the U.S. plays in what's called the global arms trade. And yet, the link between the two should be obvious enough.
In the U.S., the National Rifle Association (NRA), an ultra-powerful lobbying group closely allied with weapons-making companies, has a strong grip on Congress -- it gives 288 members of that body its top "A-rating" -- and is in a combative relationship with the White House. Abroad, it's so much simpler and less contested. Beyond U.S. borders, the reality is: the Pentagon, with the White House in tow, is the functional equivalent of the NRA, and like that organization, it has been working tirelessly in recent years in close alliance with major weapons-makers to ensure that there are ever less controls on the ever more powerful weaponry it wants to see sold abroad.
Between them, the White House and the Pentagon -- with a helping hand from the State Department -- ensure that the U.S. remains by far the leading purveyor of the "right to bear arms" globally. Year in, year out, in countries around the world, they do their best to pave the way (as the NRA does domestically) for the almost unfettered sales of ever more lethal weapons. In fact, the U.S. now has something remarkably close to a monopoly on what's politely called the "transfer" of weaponry on a global scale. In 1990, as the Cold War was ending, the U.S. had cornered an impressive 37% of the global weapons trade. By 2011, the last year for which we have figures, that percentage had reached a near-monopolistic 78% ($66.3 billion in weapons sales), with the Russians coming in a distant second at 5.6% ($4.8 billion).
Admittedly, that figure was improbably inflated, thanks to the Saudis who decided to spend a pile of their oil money as if there were no tomorrow. In doing so, they created a bonanza year abroad for the major weapons-makers. They sealed deals on $33.4 billion in U.S. arms in 2011, including 84 of Boeing's F-15 fighter jets and dozens of that company's Apache attack helicopters as well as Sikorsky Blackhawk helicopters -- and those were just the highest-end items in a striking set of purchases. But if 2011 was a year of break-the-bank arms-deals with the Saudis, 2012 doesn't look bad either. As it ended, the Pentagon announced that they hadn't turned off the oil spigot. They agreed to ante up another $4 billion to Boeing for upgrades on their armada of jet fighters and were planning to spend up to $6.7 billion for 20 Lockheed 25 C-130J transport and refueling planes. Some of this weaponry could, of course, be used in any Saudi conflict with Iran (or any other Middle Eastern state), but some could simply ensure future Newtown-like carnage in restive areas of that autocratic, fundamentalist regime's land or in policing actions in neighboring small states like Bahrain.
And don't think the Saudis were alone in the region. When it came to U.S. weapons-makers flooding the Middle East with firepower, they were in good company. Among states purchasing (or simply getting) infusions of U.S. arms in recent years were Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Tunisia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Yemen. As Nick Turse has written, "When it comes to the Middle East, the Pentagon acts not as a buyer, but as a broker and shill, clearing the way for its Middle Eastern partners to buy some of the world's most advanced weaponry."
Typically, for instance, on Christmas Day in 2011, the U.S. signed a deal with the UAE in which, for $3.5 billion, it would receive Lockheed Martin's Theater High Altitude Area Defense, an advanced antimissile interception system, part of what Reuters termed "an accelerating military buildup of its friends and allies near Iran." Of course, selling to Arab allies without offering Israel something even better would be out of the question, so in mid-2012 it was announced that Israel would purchase 20 of Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, America's most advanced jet (and weapons boondoggle), still in development, for $2.7 billion.
From tanks to littoral combat ships, it would be easy to go on, but you get the idea. Of course, U.S. weapons-makers in Pentagon-brokered or facilitated deals sell their weaponry and military supplies to countries planet-wide, ranging from Brazil to Singapore to Australia. But it generally seems that the biggest deals and the most advanced weaponry follow in the wake of Washington's latest crises. In the Middle East at the moment, that would be the ongoing U.S.-Israeli confrontation with Iran, for which Washington has long been building up a massive military presence in the Persian Gulf and on bases in allied countries around that land.