The Islamic State that Buys Our Weapons

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Last year, Saudi Arabia became the United State’s largest purchaser of arms, enshrining the untouchable status of a ruling monarchy that many accuse of fanning the flames of extremism in the Middle East

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Story Transcript

THOMAS HEDGES, TRNN: Two weeks ago, the the United States approved a $1.3 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. But the deal is minuscule compared to existing contracts between the two countries: over $100 billion in arms deals that have cleared Congress in the last five years or so.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: There’s this huge amount of weaponry in the pipeline which is going to go on for years and years, barring some sort of action from Congress to roll back on these things.

HEDGES: William Hartung, a leading policy expert on arms and security, says that the weapons we give Saudi Arabia are all encompassing.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: And it’s things like giving them a whole new airfare, training their national guard, giving them new combat vehicles. Now they’re talking about a big missile defense system. So other than restocking the Saudi navy, the U.S. has almost remade the Saudi armed forces in these last number of years. The sales that have gone through–they’re not using them in ways that contribute to stability or security in that part of the world.

HEDGES: President Obama’s administration has presided over the biggest arms sales boom since World War II, about $30 billion more in contracts in the first six years of Obama than in the totality of the Bush administration.

HARTUNG: When Obama ran for office, when he first came in, he wanted to be perceived as the president who ends wars. He wasn’t going to send tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of troops to Iraq. He was going to get out of Afghanistan. But what happened was he just decided to use force in a different way. So he went for drone strikes. He went for arms sales and training. The U.S. has provided training to 163 countries in 2014. So there’s hardly anywhere in the world that’s not getting some kind of military help from the United States–either weapons or training. And so the idea is if the United States doesn’t send troops, they’ll arm allies to carry out some of the same functions. Unfortunately, a lot of times awry as in the case of the Saudis, where allegedly this equipment was to help them fight ISIS, and now they’re using it to prosecute this horrible war in Yemen.

HEDGES: Now that the United States is fighting less, weapons manufacturing companies are targeting foreign markets, like Saudi Arabia in an effort to expand its revenue. When asked about the Iran deal and the diffusion of tensions in the Middle East earlier this year, Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson reassured investors in a phone conversation that the world was unstable enough.

MARILLYN HEWSON: You could take that same argument to the Asia Pacific region, which is another growth area for us. A lot of volatility, a lot of instability, a lot of things that are happening both with North Korea as well as some of the tensions between China and Japan. So in both of those regions which are growth areas for us, we expect that there’s going to continue to be opportunities for us to bring our capabilities to them.

HARTUNG: All the big contractors–Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Dynamics–have made it a goal to increase their exports in the next few years. The Pentagon budget sort of leveled off, at least in terms of spending on major weapons in the last few years, so they’re looking for foreign sales for growth, sometimes raising their sales 25 percent or more […] So bad news for the world, in a sense, is good news for the bottom line of companies like Lockheed Martin.

HEDGES: That means Saudi Arabia’s use of force, whether through repressing its own population, attacking Yemen, or funneling arms to militants in Iraq and Syria, is a boon for weapons contractors, and not just in the United States. Last year Canada signed a $15 billion contract, its largest in history, with Saudi Arabia for the Canadian-based company GD Land Systems to build an undisclosed amount of Light Armored Vehicles, the same types already used in Bahrain on civilians in its 2011 crackdown on protesters and public dissent. The United Kingdom and its largest contractor BAE Systems also want to expand its £4 billion, or $6 billion “priority market” with Saudi Arabia, centered around BAE’s Eurofighter Typhoon jet. And France signed a $12 billion deal over the summer that includes a fleet of patrol boats made by the french company DCNS.

The immensity of these contracts means that governments in these countries won’t criticize Saudi behavior. Here in the United States especially, politicians are silent on the use of arms in Saudi human rights violations, for example, because speaking out means losing hefty campaign contributions from the defense industry.

HARTUNG: The contractors give $20 million or so per election cycle and a lot of it goes to the members of the Armed Services Committee or members with military plants in their districts. So people like Mac Thornberry who runs Armed Services in the House got a big boost in his contractor contributions when he took over the chair there. The former chair Buck McKeon was the biggest recipient of the entire industry. So they hone in on people that they think can help them. And as a result you’ll see members from places like Michigan and Ohio wanting to push tank sales to Saudi Arabia to keep factories open or Boeing in St. Louis getting the Missouri delegation behind a sale to Kuwait that will keep their F-18 combat aircraft program going. So there’s this kind of economic dependency that’s developed over the years so that certain communities in certain states–if the Pentagon’s not keeping those production lines open–they have this urgent economic push to press for exports.

HEDGES: And because the Saudis purchase their weapons directly from the United States, and aren’t aid recipients like Egypt and Israel, congress can’t politicize these arms deals even as a taxpayer issue.

HARTUNG: At least there’s a nexus in Congress when the aid package goes through […] When it’s a sale–Saudi Arabia just pays money for these things, they don’t get any aid–Congress pays less attention. There’s no taxpayer dollars involved. It’s good for American weapons manufacturers. So, unfortunately, it’s a rare occasion when one of these Saudi deals gets scrutiny from Congress of any sort […] If it were aid to Saudis, if there were billions of dollars going to support this of taxpayer money, I think it might get more attention from the public, from the press, and from Congress than we’re getting now.

HEDGES: Hartung hopes to see a coalition of senators and representatives come together to challenge the role Saudi Arabia plays not only in the Middle East but also in American politics and our dependency on them through our military industrial complex.

HARTUNG: What’s missing here is some sort of leadership in Congress. It wouldn’t take a lot of members. If a few senators, a few members of the House followed through: what are the Saudis doing with these weapons? What does it mean for people in that part of the world? What does it mean for the United States reputation for human rights? I think they could make some noise and maybe slow up some of these sales and reduce the impact on civilians in the area.

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