The Pentagon's weapons trafficking arm -- the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) -- announced last week that it brokered $34 billion in arms deals in fiscal year 2014, one of the highest totals in the history of the agency. It's no match for the record $69 billion in sales agreements the agency secured in 2012, but it still gives the United States the dubious distinction of being the world's largest arms merchant. And all of this activity involves just one program -- the Pentagon's Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. It doesn't even include billions in additional, commercial deals that are licensed by the State Department.
What is the official rationale for this boom in sales? In the words of DSCA director Vice Adm. Joseph Rixey:
"FMS agreements result in more-capable partners who are able to take on missions that might otherwise fall to US forces. In the broader foreign policy realm, FMS often serves as the basis for long-term relationships between partner countries and the United States. In a relationship context, every single sale is important to us."
Rixey's assertions raise two questions.
First, how many missions might really require the direct involvement of U.S. forces? According to its own "facts book," the Pentagon brokered FMS agreements with 111 countries in 2013. Surely they don't all involve situations in which the U.S. military might be called into action. If the Pentagon thinks we do need to be poised to intervene in that many countries, we need a radical rethinking of U.S. strategy.
Second, how valuable have the "long-term relationships" based on U.S. arms transfers been?
In Iraq, U.S. arms and training didn't prevent the al-Maliki regime from engaging in a campaign of sectarian repression that alienated the Sunni population and helped pave the way for Islamic State (also known as ISIS). And the promise of additional assistance hasn't kept the new Iraqi government from appointing an Interior Minister with a longstanding association with Shiite death squads. If the point of U.S. military aid to Iraq was to foster the development of a democratic, accountable government that is in close alliance with the United States, that aid would have to be judged a failure.
In Egypt, tens of billions of dollars in arms and training stretching back decades did not provide Washington with the influence to head off a military coup that brought to power an anti-democratic regime that has been cracking down on dissent and press freedom. The much-touted "moderating" effect of U.S. aid -- not to mention the common claim that U.S. training helps inculcate democratic values -- did not occur in the Egyptian case.
In Mali, U.S.-trained officers joined together in 2012 to overthrow a democratic government. In Bahrain, U.S.-supplied weapons have been used to put down the local democracy movement, a campaign that was aided by forces from neighboring Saudi Arabia, the largest recipient of U.S. weapons transfers in the world. In Morocco, the government has used U.S. arms to illegally occupy the Western Sahara for four decades. And despite being its main arms supplier, Washington had virtually no influence in restraining Israel's recent, devastating attacks in Gaza.
This is not to suggest that U.S. policy caused the above-mentioned conflicts, all of which are grounded in part in local and regional dynamics. And countries like Russia and Iran that have supplied weapons to the Assad regime in Syria have even worse records of enabling repression. But in far too many situations, U.S. arms supplies have made matters worse by strengthening repressive regimes that are at war with their own people. The harder work of promoting peace and stability using diplomatic, economic, and other non-military tools has taken a back seat to a "sell first, ask questions later" policy on weapons transfers.
The next time the Pentagon congratulates itself on another "good year" for arms transfers, Congress, the public, and the press should take a closer look at how those arms are being used. Being the world's leading arms trading nation is nothing to brag about.