My colleague Jeff Abramson of the Arms Control Association calls it the Obama arms bazaar -- tens of billions of dollars of new weapons export deals concluded over the past two years with the assistance of the U.S. government. Many of these deals involve sales to the Middle East, including a record multi-year deal for fighter planes, attack helicopters, bombs and guns to Saudi Arabia. But they also include guns and ammunition to Bahrain; armored vehicle components to Yemen; and. just this week, offers of $355 million worth of cluster bombs and $263 million worth of light armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia, which has sent in troops to help put down the democracy uprising in neighboring Bahrain.
These deals add up. The Los Angeles Times reported this week that U.S. arms manufacturers are expected to rack up a record $46 billion in weapons exports this year, roughly 50% more than in 2010. The sales may be good for companies like Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin, but they raise troubling questions about the potential role of U.S. weaponry in fueling repression and promoting instability in key regions. This is particularly true now, as U.S.-made equipment bolsters regimes in Bahrain and Yemen that have killed, wounded and jailed democracy protesters.
The Obama administration's response to these events has not been to curb arms sales, but to study them. As Andrew Shapiro, the assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs, put it last month, "While the impact of our defense relations and defense trade is uncertain, changes in the region may lead to changes in policy and therefore changes in how we do business." Contrast this to the approach of allies like the UK, which has suspended sales to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, Boeing has set a goal of making foreign sales 25% of its total sales, and a company official notes that weapons sales that were once viewed as "icing on the cake" are now "essential." And the arms makers couldn't be happier with the Obama approach thus far. Northrop Grumman CEO Wesley Bush has singled the administration out to praise for its "serious attempts to reform the laws and regulations governing our export control." While reforming regulations isn't necessarily a bad thing, Wesley Bush's enthusiasm is just one sign that the Obama administration's approach is liable to be particularly industry friendly.
Do we really want our country to be the world's biggest weapons trafficking nation? If not, the administration needs to hear from us, not just from the industry that profits from these deadly deals.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex (Nation Books).