Perhaps no single policy is more at odds with President Bush’s pledge to “end tyranny in our world” than the United States’ role as the world’s leading arms exporting nation. Although arms sales are often justified on the basis of their purported benefits, from securing access to overseas military facilities to rewarding coalition allies in conflicts such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, these alleged benefits often come at a high price. All too often, U.S. arms transfers end up fueling conflict, arming human rights abusers, or falling into the hands of U.S. adversaries. As in the case of recent decisions to provide new F-16 fighter planes to Pakistan, while pledging comparable high-tech military hardware to its rival India, U.S. arms sometimes go to both sides in long brewing conflicts, ratcheting up tensions and giving both sides better firepower with which to threaten each other. Far from serving as a force for security and stability, U.S. weapons sales frequently serve to empower unstable, undemocratic regimes to the detriment of U.S. and global security.
Among the key findings of this report are the following:
In 2003, the last year for which full information is available, the United States transferred weaponry to 18 of the 25 countries involved in active conflicts. From Angola, Chad and Ethiopia, to Colombia, Pakistan and the Philippines, transfers through the two largest U.S. arms sales programs (Foreign Military Sales and Commercial Sales) to these conflict nations totaled nearly $1 billion in 2003, with the vast bulk of the dollar volume going to Israel ($845.6 million).
In 2003, more than half of the top 25 recipients of U.S. arms transfers in the developing world (13 of 25) were defined as undemocratic by the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Report: in the sense that “citizens do not have the right to change their own government” or that right was seriously abridged. These 13 nations received over $2.7 billion in U.S. arms transfers under the Foreign Military Sales and Commercial Sales programs in 2003, with the top recipients including Saudi Arabia ($1.1 billion), Egypt ($1.0 billion), Kuwait ($153 million), the United Arab Emirates ($110 million) and Uzbekistan ($33 million).
When countries designated by the State Department’s Human Rights Report to have poor human rights records or serious patterns of abuse are factored in, 20 of the top 25 U.S. arms clients in the developing world in 2003– a full 80%– were either undemocratic regimes or governments with records of major human rights abuses.
The largest U.S. military aid program, Foreign Military Financing (FMF), increased by 68% between 2001 and 2003, from $3.5 billion to nearly $6 billion. These years coincided with the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the run-up to the U.S. intervention in Iraq. The biggest increases in dollar terms went to countries that were directly or indirectly engaged as U.S. allies in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, including Jordan ($525 million increase from 2001 to 2003), Afghanistan ($191 million increase), Pakistan ($224 million increase) and Bahrain ($90 million increase). The Philippines, where the United States stepped up joint operations against a local terrorist group with alleged links to al-Qaeda, also received a substantial increase of FMF funding ($47 million) from 2001 to 2003. Military aid totals have leveled off slightly since their FY 2003 peak, coming in at a requested $4.5 billion for 2006. This is still a full $1 billion more than 2001 levels. The number of countries receiving FMF assistance nearly doubled from FY 2001 to FY 2006– from 48 to 71.
The greatest danger emanating U.S. arms transfers and military aid programs is not in the numbers, but in the potential impacts on the image, credibility and security of the United States. Arming repressive regimes in all corners of the globe while simultaneously proclaiming a campaign for democracy and against tyranny undermines the credibility of the United States in international forums and makes it harder to hold other nations to high standards of conduct on human rights and other key issues. Arming undemocratic governments all too often helps to enhance their power, frequently fueling conflict or enabling human rights abuses in the process. These blows to the reputation of the United States are in turn impediments to winning the “war of ideas” in the Muslim world and beyond, a critical element in drying up financial and political support for terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda. Last but not least, in all too many cases, U.S. arms and military technology can end up in the hands of U.S. adversaries, as happened in the 1980s in Iraq and Panama, as well as with the right-wing fundamentalist “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan, many of whom are now supporters of al-Qaeda.
At a minimum, the time has come to impose greater scrutiny on U.S. arms transfers and military aid programs. The facile assumption that they are simply another tool in the foreign policy toolbox, to be used to win friends and intimidate adversaries as needed, must be challenged in this new era in U.S. security policy. A good starting point would be to find a way to reinforce and implement the underlying assumptions of U.S. arms export law, which calls for arming nations only for purposes of self-defense, and avoiding arms sales to nations that engage in patterns of systematic human rights abuses, either via new legislation or Executive Branch policy initiatives. Equally important, the automatic assumption that arms transfers are the preferred “barter” for access to military facilities or other security “goods” sought from other nations should be seriously re-considered. Economic aid, political support and other forms of support and engagement should be explored as alternatives whenever possible.