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Bahrain Arms Sale Challenges Congress

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The Obama Administration has been planning to send a supply of spare parts and maintenance equipment to Bahrain without triggering requirements of the Arms Export Control Act of 1976 (AECA), asserting that "none can be used against protesters." In stating that the Bahrain sale does not meet the AECA threshold, the Administration has not publicly noticed the proposed sale or notified Congress as the AECA requires.

A spokesperson at the State Department confirmed that the U.S. is maintaining "a pause on most security cooperation pending further progress on reform while supplying some items on a case-by-case basis that directly affect U.S. national security interests."

Since last fall, a $53 million shipment of helicopters, advanced missiles and high-mobility, multi-purpose Humvee tanks to that small island Kingdom with a population of less than half a million has been on hold but the Administration's current efforts have stirred Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass) and Sen. Ron Wyden (R-Ore) to circulate a letter to colleagues in opposition to the sale that will be sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, Bahrain made headlines in 2011 with its own Arab Spring pro-democracy protests, and when the government prosecuted medical personnel for treating injured and tortured protesters. According to McGovern, Bahrain recently denied entry to several human rights monitors and on Monday, police tear-gassed mourners attending a funeral for a teenager who died in police custody.

With the road to hell paved with good intentions and strewn with bricks of gold, the Arms Export Control Act of 1976 was adopted in recognition of the need for Congress to reassert its authority in foreign policy decisions as the sale of U.S. weapons to foreign countries escalated after the Vietnam War.

In what was originally intended to control armament export from the U.S. military industrial complex as well as act as a diplomatic tool with the ultimate goal of 'reducing international trade of weapons and to lessen the danger of regional conflicts,' the Act, with the noble goal of a 'world free from the scourge of war,' has instead transformed the United States into the global tooth fairy for armaments and other military toys as the AECA has become little more than a rubber stamp for the country's weapons industry.

In adopting the AECA, the 94th Congress urged the president to 'maintain adherence to a policy of restraint' solely for the purpose of 'specific national defense requirements' including consideration of whether those exports would "contribute to an arms race, aid in the development of weapons of mass destruction, support international terrorism, increase the possibility of outbreak or escalation of conflict."

Yet, despite words of peace and reconciliation, the AECA also included the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) Program within the Pentagon to provide loans and grants to countries like Bahrain to purchase American made weapons and military equipment.

While the AECA requires the president to provide Congress with written notification of its 'intent to sell,' in December 2011 alone, President Obama notified Congress of five possible foreign military sales (FMS) including a continuation of its PATRIOT system to Saudi Arabia, FMS of C27J aircraft to Australia, Javelin anti-tank guided missiles to the UAE, F161Q aircraft to Iraq, and UH-1N helicopters to Hungary.

In a maze of alphabet-soup acronyms, the FMF is a central program within the Defense Department's Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) which under its "Scope of our Business" cites "13,000 active FMS (foreign military sales) valued at $327 billion" A separate fund from the State Department's humanitarian or economic development foreign aid, the FMF's $5 billion in 2008 included assistance to Israel as its top beneficiary until 2003 when Iraq received the most military assistance from 2003 - 2007 with Afghanistan now the top recipient of U.S. military support.

While the president has the ultimate authority to approve a weapon 'transfer' after advance notice to Congress, the Act also gave Congress the oversight power to deny (but not approve) the sale. The presidential role of using weapon sales as a diplomatic tool to influence foreign policy with potentially complicated implications involving the State Department has been sufficient reason for many in Congress to accept their limited role. While objection to any sale requires a simple majority vote via a joint Congressional resolution, rejections or even modification of a weapons sale continues to be rare.

As currently written, supporters of maintaining the AECA's status quo would argue that for Congress to have a more comprehensive role in the process, to vote aye or nay on each weapon sale, is to risk politicizing sensitive foreign policy discussions while each weapon sale decision may be unique with a very different set of policy ramifications. For instance, would it be reasonable to expect that a Congressional denial of the recent $30 billion sale of F-15 jets to Saudi Arabia might negatively impact US - Saudi relationship given that country's reliable standing as the second highest importer of petroleum to the US.? The potential sale of a weapon may be used to positively influence a foreign country to improve its human rights record as in the case of Bahrain or to allow for democratic elections or whatever other goal may be in our 'national security interests.'

On the other hand, given a more complex and challenging world since 1976, without a broader role, the AECA allows little -- no room for meaningful congressional negotiation on any sale, whether it should be modified in some appropriate way that better reflects international realities. For instance, a congressional debate on why a petite country like Bahrain, located in the Persian Gulf, dependent on annual U.S. military assistance, would benefit the American taxpayer's understanding of 'foreign aid.' In addition, if each weapon sale was publicly debated and voted on the floor of Congress, presumably fewer weapon sales would occur and the nature of many foreign policy decisions now made behind closed doors without public or, in some cases, Congressional input, would be open and transparent.

The fact is that the Bahrain request for military assistance is but a drop-in-the-bucket, the tip-of-the-iceberg when it comes to US funding and facilitating the sale of "Made in USA" military equipment to foreign countries. The list of "Congressional Notification" that reads like a who's who of nations of the world indicates little discretion at determining if a country's FMS requests meet the in-their-defense-only goals set out in the AECA.

Rep. McGovern's point that to approve the Bahrain request "sends the wrong message by giving any type of military equipment to Bahrain while the Bahraini government fails to meet its human rights obligations and promises" is a principle for the U.S. to follow in every FMS request.