War and Armaments: What Interests Underlie International Arms Sales?

War and Armaments:

What Interests Underlie Unprecedented

Levels of International Arms Sales?

                                                                                         By Allen Ferguson, JD, MFA

World War I saw tremendous increases in the types, numbers and cruelty of weapons of war.  This escalation was a matter of grave concern to the international community in 1919 when the allied nations and Germany signed the Versailles Treaty, formally ending the war.  That treaty drew a direct connection between armaments and war: “the maintenance of peace requires the reduction of national armaments to the lowest point consistent with national safety and the enforcement by common action of international obligations.”  In other words, disarmament is essential to peace and, implicitly, weapons are conducive to war. 

The Versailles Treaty also revealed deep concern about one likely cause of arms escalation and war.  “The manufacture by private enterprise of munitions and implements of war is open to grave objections.  The Council [of the League of Nations] shall advise how the evil effects attendant upon such manufacture can be prevented.”  If the Council of the League ever did advise the nations about how to prevent the evil effects of the private manufacture of arms, either it was bad advice or it was not followed.

Again after World War II, in the UN Charter, the world community adopted the goal of achieving “the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources” consistent with international peace and security.  Sixteen years after the Charter was adopted, President John F. Kennedy went much further and proposed to the United Nations a “program for general and complete disarmament,” of both nuclear and conventional weapons “under effective international control,” which would proceed “until it has abolished all armies and all weapons except those needed for internal order and a new United Nations Peace Force.”  Kennedy’s vision of world-wide general and complete disarmament found its way into the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (“NPT”), the primary international agreement aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.  In addition to prohibiting transfers of nuclear weapons, the NPT requires the signatory nations to “pursue negotiations in good faith” on “nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

Today, even though the NTP and other widely adopted treaties envision world-wide disarmament or both conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction, we hear almost nothing about that proclaimed goal. Far from moving toward general and complete disarmament, many nations continue to manufacture, buy and sell billions of dollars worth of weapons of war, even in times of relative peace. And the manufacture of these weapons continues to be done by private enterprise, where profit-making rather than peace is the bottom line.

In 2011, the value of world-wide international weapons sales agreements rose to $ 85.3 billion, the highest level since 2004 when the Iraq war was in full swing.  The lion’s share of the 2011 weapons sales, a record-setting $66.3 billion, consisted of sales by the United States — three times as high as U.S. weapons sales in the previous year. Most of the U.S. weapons sales in 2011 went to the Middle East.  About half of the total sales, $33.4 billion, went to a single Middle Eastern nation, Saudi Arabia — one of the least democratic and most repressive nations in the world.  Billions of dollars in U.S. arms sales also went to each of Egypt, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Iraq.  These figures refer to government-to -government sales and do not include government-licensed commercial exports by U.S. private companies.  Therefore, the total dollars for U.S. arms sales abroad in 2011 exceeded those cited above. [“Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2004-2011,” August 24, 2012, Congressional Research Service, Richard F. Grimmett et al.]

In addition, the U.S. was and still is militarily involved in Afghanistan and continues to prop up the government there.  It also provides overt and covert military aid and other support to Syrian rebels, while Russia, the second largest arms supplier in the world, supports and supplies the Syrian government.  Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, by far the largest purchaser of American arms in the Middle East, uses its military might to help Bahrain put down pro-democracy demonstrations; provides military support to fundamentalist Syrian rebels; and sells billions of dollars worth of weapons to Lebanon.

Looking at the picture of the Middle East as a whole, two key facts become unmistakably clear.  First, the region is fraught with sectarian, ethnic, tribal and national tensions that often rise to the level of suicide bombings, armed rebellion, warfare, and other forms of mass homicide.  Second, the weapons-exporting nations, especially the United States, are arming everyone in region to the teeth.  Is this very different from a forest fire fighting unit pouring gasoline on smoldering embers?  What are the stated goals, and the actual motivations, for the enormous, unprecedented levels of arms sales abroad by the U.S.?

One stated policy objective of the U.S. in its international arms sales is “stability.”  What is stability?  Can it be achieved by supplying undemocratic regimes such as those in Saudi Arabia and Egypt with guns, tanks, attack helicopters, jet fighters, etc.?  Does experience bear out the underlying assumption that the more weapons a nation has (or the more weapons are used by other nations to support it), the more stable it will be?

Iraq is a case in point.  Today, after hundreds of billions of dollars worth of weapons were deployed and hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in the Iraq war, and after more billions of dollars worth of arms were sold to Iraq following the war, the U.S. is rushing shipments of arms to that nation and urging the government to pass the weapons on to Sunni tribal fighters battling the Al Qaeda-affiliated militants who have taken over much of Anbar Province.  Have we gone mad?  Did all the weapons used in the Iraq War, and all the weapons sold to Iraq after the war to prop up the post-Saddam governments achieve the stated goal of stability?  Clearly they did not.  Will this new effort by the U.S. to shore up the Iraqi government with even more arms stabilize either Iraq or the region?  That seems more than unlikely.

It appears that in Iraq and throughout the Middle East today, the smoldering tensions along sectarian, tribal, and national lines are flaring up into massive violence due in part to the huge and growing quantities of weapons that the different parties in the region have acquired from arms exporting nations. This increasingly volatile situation creates the very opposite of stability, threatening international instability in and beyond the region.   It is also antithetical to other supposed policy objectives of the U.S. in the Middle East, such as democracy, rule of law and human rights.

If the stated policy objectives are not the true objectives, what are the true motives behind the record levels of arms sales by the United States to a wide range of players in the Middle East and elsewhere?

In his January, 1961 farewell address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke of a new “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry” whose “total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government.”  He warned that “in the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence . . . by the military industrial complex,” because “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

Given the clout in the councils of government wielded by the Defense Department and by arms manufacturers such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, are we now witnessing “the disastrous rise of misplaced power” that Eisenhower warned about?  Do the true policies behind the tens of billions of dollars in foreign arms sales include furthering the interests of the military industrial complex, namely profits for the arms industry and budgetary dollars for the Defense Department?  Isn’t it time, nearly a hundred years after World War I, to expose and eliminate what the Versailles Treaty referred to as the “evil effects attendant upon the manufacture by private enterprise of munitions and implements of war”?


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