F-35A. Photo: Staff Sgt. Madelyn Brown/U.S. Air Force.
For the past several decades, the United States has been the world’s leading producer of major weapons systems and the leader in global arms sales. More of these sales have taken place in the globe’s most volatile region, the Middle East, than in any other region of the world. The so-called peace deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which were brokered by the United States, were business deals designed to expand U.S. arms sales in the Persian Gulf. The Trump administration has made arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Middle East countries the focus of its foreign policy in the region.
No sooner had the ink dried on these agreements than disputes emerged over whether Israel had agreed to permit the sale of U.S. F-35 fighter aircraft—the most expensive weapons system in the U.S. arsenal and the most sophisticated jet fighter in the world—to the United Arab Emirates. Israel has 20 F-35s, which it has flown over Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. Until now, no Arab country had been allowed access to this aircraft.
As part of an U.S.-Israeli arms agreement in 2008, the United States agreed to make sure that Israel would maintain a “qualitative military edge” in the Middle East, which gave it a virtual veto power over arms deals with Arab states. For example, when Egypt was permitted to buy the U.S. F-16 jet fighter, it had to agree to basing arrangements that the Israelis imposed.
U.S. arms sales generally have contributed to tensions in some of the world’s most sensitive arenas. Saudi Arabia’s misuse of U.S.-supplied fighter aircraft in Yemen, the world’s worst humanitarian nightmare, has contributed to the rising civilian death toll there. For the past five years, the United States has earned billions of dollars in sales to the Saudis, whose coalition has considerable responsibility for many of the deaths of more than 127,000 Yemenis, including more than 15,000 civilians.
In 2016, the Department of State’s legal office concluded, in fact, that U.S. officials could be charged with war crimes for approving bomb sales to the Saudis and their partners. As a result, in his last month in office, President Barack Obama blocked a shipment of precision-guided bombs that he had agreed to sell to the Saudis. Recently, investigators from the United Nations asked the Security Council to refer actions by all parties to an international tribunal for potential war crimes prosecution, according to the New York Times.
The Trump administration is currently taking on a great risk in proposing seven large weapons packages to Taiwan. This would violate agreements with China that require the sale of only defensive weaponry to the self-governing island. The weapons would represent one of the largest sales to Taiwan, and would include long-range missiles—Boeing’s AGM-84H—that would allow Taiwanese fighter aircraft—Lockheed Martin’s F-16—to hit distant targets in China. Last year’s sale of 66 F-16s for $8 billion represented one of the largest arms packages to Taiwan in history,
There have already been consequences. Beijing has sent two anti-submarine aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, which led the Taiwanese air force to scramble against them. Chinese fighter jets have crossed the median line in the Taiwan Straits, and a Chinese military exercise conducted a series of anti-ship ballistic missile tests, which were intended as a signal to the United States. The risk of an accidental military clash has increased. China has also threatened sanctions against both Lockheed Martin and Boeing; Lockheed Martin does little business in China and is not vulnerable to sanctions, but Boeing sells commercial jets to China and would definitely suffer.
The increased militarization of national security policy over the past decade has found the Department of Defense taking much of the turf of the Department of State in engaging allied nations regarding security assistance. Recent defense authorization bills have given the Pentagon control of certain aid programs as well as greater flexibility in supporting counterterrorism activities overseas. Pentagon military aid programs, moreover, ignore key human rights or governance concerns that once upon a time drew scrutiny from the State Department. The Pentagon has always held an advantage over the State Department, a much more cumbersome and slower-moving bureaucracy than the Defense Department. Also, the State Department has never been aggressive in protecting its equities, unlike the Pentagon.
Military assistance, as opposed to military sales, has created problems and disappointments as well. The top six recipients of U.S. military assistance in recent years (Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, and Turkey) provide little return, let alone leverage, to the United States. Israel has military dominance in the Middle East, and shouldn’t be receiving military assistance. President Barack Obama instituted record levels of assistance, but the Benjamin Netanyahu government typically timed announcements of settlement expansion on the West Bank to do the most harm to U.S. interests. Settlement activity was announced during a visit by then vice president Joe Biden in 2010, then secretary of state Hillary Clinton in 2011, and even on the eve of a summit meeting between Obama and Netanyahu in 2011.
Pentagon speakers at the National War College, where I taught for 18 years, argued that U.S. military assistance programs “suffused Third World armies with U.S. values.” This would be difficult to ascertain in Egypt, Turkey, and Afghanistan. A retired commandant of the U.S. Army War College argued that “they learn our way of war….but they also learn our philosophies of civil-military relations.” There’s a particular conceit in that statement in view of the growing imbalance in U.S. civil-military relations in recent years as well as the dominant role of the military in Egypt and Pakistan.
The Trump administration launched what Donald Trump calls a “great rebuilding of the Armed Forces” as well as politicizing the military bureaucracy and enhancement of the role of the Pentagon in state-to-state diplomacy. The current dialogue between civilian officials and general officers on international security has become unequal. The fact that Mark Esper, the former vice president for government relations at Raytheon, one of the largest weapons manufacturers, is Secretary of Defense provides added heft to Pentagon arguments for greater weapons sales. Meanwhile, the Department of State must deal with the greater points of friction in the global community created by increased sales of sophisticated weaponry.
The Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress published an annual review of conventional arms transfers until 2017, when the Trump administration blocked such information from the general public. The last CRS summary appeared in 2018 and recorded that the United States ranked first in arms transfer agreements (nearly half the global total) and first in value of arms deliveries (more than one-third of global sales). Deliveries to Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia dominated U.S. sales.
Israel does not even appear on the list of weapons recipients in view of U.S. largesse, which includes President Obama’s 2016 record-breaking $38 billion deal over a ten-year period. The deal with Israel was followed by the sale of 36 Boeing F-15 fighters to Qatar and 24 Boeing F/A18 Super Hornets to Kuwait.
There has never been a more important time to debate President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warning about the insidious economic, political, and even spiritual effects of what he called the “military-industrial-congressional complex.” For the past twenty years, the United States has been in a permanent state of war with a government, an economy, and a global system of military bases that virtually ensures conflict. The fact that this important issue is not part of the presidential debate of 2020 is particularly regrettable. It’s long past time for congressional leadership to take on this “complex.”