Arms Sales Fuel Middle East Conflicts

William Hartung says Saudi Arabia has become the second leading arms importer in the world

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. On Sunday, the Arab League announced the creation of a unified, pan-Arab military force that’s going to intervene in various countries that are being destabilized, they say. Many people see this as another way to wage proxy war against Iran. All of this sounds like a wet dream for arms manufacturers.

Now joining us to talk about all of this from New York is William Hartung. William is the director of the Arms and Security project at the Center for International Policy. He’s the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

Thanks very much for joining us.

WILLIAM HARTUNG, DIR. ARMS AND SECURITY PROJECT, CENTER FOR INTERNATIONAL POLICY: Yes, thanks for having me.

JAY: So if I’m sitting back and I have investments in arms manufacturing, would seem to me this is a very good development. More, even more sales to GCC countries. What are the sales like now?

HARTUNG: Well, they’ve been huge in the last few years. Just a couple years ago, the Obama administration made a $60 billion deal with the Saudis to sell them fighter planes and attack helicopters. Practically everything but naval ships. And that’s still working its way through the system. But the Gulf as a whole has accounted for about two thirds of U.S. sales in recent years. So they’re looking for more, but they’re already selling tens of billions of dollars already.

JAY: Yeah, from 2010-2014, apparently, to Saudi Arabia alone, about $90 billion. The Saudis vied to be number one in the world for arms importing, vie with India, is that right?

HARTUNG: That’s right. And you know, despite the oil prices, they’re willing to spend almost anything to beef up their military, and also to cement their relationship with the United States.

JAY: Now they’re, one of the reasons they’re saying for this intervention is Libya, which has gone into chaos since the NATO intervention. Also Yemen is the, there even the possibility of them, this united Arab front putting ground troops into Yemen. Many people calling this the beginnings, or further development, I should say, of proxy war with Iran. Do you think that’s the case?

HARTUNG: I think there’s a little bit of an exaggeration there in the sense that the Houthis are not just a puppet of Iran. They’ve got their own internal grievances, historically. Land, representation in government, and so forth. So I think it’s true that the Saudis are concerned about Iranian influence, but I think they’re overstating the role of Iran in supporting the Houthis in this particular conflict.

JAY: Same issue as in Bahrain, where the Saudis and GCC countries tried to suggest that Iran’s behind all the uprisings in Bahrain, but every journalist I talk to say that’s not the case.

HARTUNG: That’s right. There’s an attempt to sort of regionalize the Shia-Sunni conflict, but it doesn’t really necessarily reflect conditions on the ground in each of the countries.

JAY: So why do the GCC countries want so many guns and planes and stuff? What are they going to do with them all?

HARTUNG: Well, I think there’s two elements. One is there’s kind of this implicit understanding with the United States, that if you buy weapons from us we will protect you in a jam. And so it’s almost like a tacit alliance, but it’s built on arms sales instead of written pieces of paper, which would not go over well in those countries.

But also, there’s cases like this where they’re actually using the weapons. It’s actually been unusual over the years that they would use some of this big equipment like fighter planes. They’ve used a lot of things for internal repression, but this is one of the first times that the Saudi air force has come out in force in a major bombing campaign. So that, they may have had that in the back of their minds. But over many years, this stuff, the bigger stuff was mostly sort of sitting there, either for deterrent purposes or just kind of toys for the Saudi military.

JAY: When you read some of the military think tank documents that come out of the GCC countries, particularly the Saudis, the withering critique of U.S. policy for daring to have an accommodation with Iran, and more or less saying if the United States makes a deal with Iran, it’s actually going to lead to heightened Shia-Sunni conflict. They suggest it might even lead to this all-out conflagration. Real warfare, Sunni-Shia warfare, which by that they mean Saudi Arabia warfare.

I mean, how real is that? But even more so, this again, doesn’t this sound pretty good if you’re making and selling arms?

HARTUNG: I think the Saudis are maybe yelling louder than they will deliver. I don’t imagine them going into a direct war with Iran. And I think some of the places they’re defining as Iranian surrogates, they have other reasons for going up against them.

I mean, in terms of arms manufacturers, there was an exchange between the CEO of Lockheed Martin and an investor from Deutsche Bank recently that was written up in The Intercept. Basically he said, well, if they cut a deal with Iran won’t that reduce tensions, and therefore make it harder for Lockheed Martin to sell arms? The CEO said oh no, it’s such a turbulent region, we’ll be able to do quite well under any foreseeable circumstances.

So certainly they have different opinions of which way it might turn, what’s going to create more tensions. But obviously, Lockheed Martin’s sales prospects are hooked to ongoing tensions in the region.

JAY: And how much do you think that drives U.S. foreign policy?

HARTUNG: Well, I think it’s secondary. I mean, I think in the Middle East, I think there’s oil, there’s commitments to long-standing allies. There’s concerns about, you know, movements that might come into power that would take a different approach to controlling the resources of the area. And then I think the push from the arms industry, both to raise the Pentagon budget and to sell weapons, it’s kind of a reinforcing factor. I mean, mostly they would like tension. Whether they go to war or not, if the Pentagon budget is high, they can make good money. And there’s a lot of things they can do in terms of trying to weaken U.S. export laws, trying to pump up the war budget of the Pentagon, which is inflated far beyond what they’re using for actual conflicts.

So they’re mostly looking at money. And they can make money on fear as much as they can make it on actual conflict.

JAY: And then right now the Pentagon purchasing of arms is a little bit down without big full-scale wars as we had before. So this export market is even more important to these companies, and there’s nothing more tense than the Middle East.

HARTUNG: Right. Right. You know, the Saudi market alone has accounted for about two thirds of U.S. sales of all the Gulf countries put together in recent years. And they’re trying to jack that up further by selling them things like ballistic missile defense systems, new ships for their navies, and so forth. So they view this as an almost bottomless market, which it may or may not be, but it’s, a company like Lockheed Martin’s trying to up its exports to 15-20% or more of its revenues.

So there’s a big push on. And the Obama administration is quite supportive of that. In fact, there’s been testimony by people from the State Department saying how they’ll do almost anything to get U.S. companies new business.

Now of course, their argument is that they’re on the good side here. They’re selling to create stability, and so forth. But I think, you know, given the state of the region, that’s certainly subject to question.

JAY: Yeah, I mean, Syria’s a wonderful example of the Saudis creating stability. Now, it seems to me the real prize if you’re selling arms is Iraq, because the potential, both proxy and who knows, even real war over Iraq could take place. I mean, Iraq borders Iran, it borders Saudi Arabia, and most of the oil, if I understand correctly, is in Shia hands … where Shias live, I should say. It is, just with ISIS, and apparently the Saudis had something to do with the original creation of ISIS, there’s some debate about what Isis is now. I mean, it all makes for the development of an extremely explosive, and as I again, I’ll say, very profitable situation for some.

HARTUNG: Well yeah, so be interesting to see what happens in Iraq, because there’s a little bit of concern, given that the $25 billion in arms and training that went in during the Bush years and shortly thereafter lead to them abandoning much of their weaponry to ISIS.

So I think at the governmental level there’s a little bit of concern about how quickly to push sales. But certainly there’s been many, many deals with Iraq that have been approved by Congress that never came to fruition in terms of actual money flowing. So some of those are sitting around, could in theory be revived.

JAY: But Iran, if the sanctions are dropped against Iran, I guess it’s possible Iran comes back into the purchasing of Western arms, as well. Or do you think they would stay with Russian and Chinese?

HARTUNG: I think initially they might stay with the Russian and Chinese markets. I think the Obama administration would be hard-pressed to make arms deals with Iran, given the amount of flak they’re taking over the nuclear deal.

JAY: But some of the Europeans might

HARTUNG: Europeans would certainly be open to looking at that. And I think also, arms sales is a long-term business. They’re looking at the next ten, fifteen, twenty-five years. So we may have a new administration who looks at this differently, and certainly Iran, because it’s been under sanctions of various sorts for quite a while, there would be sort of pent-up demand for conventional weaponry that they might well decide to fill by spending a fair amount of money.

JAY: And all these arms purchases, particularly the Saudis, what kind of influence does that give them in Washington?

HARTUNG: Well, I think it does create some influence, simply because they’re a big trade partner. And if you combine that with their oil politics, I think that’s one of the few reasons that the United States would be supporting such a horrific, repressive regime at this late date in our history.

But I think there’s also, obviously, tensions over the Iran talks, over some of the other conflicts in the region. The Saudis have been complaining that the United States is not supportive enough. Of course, that hasn’t stopped the arms flow.

JAY: Now, I don’t know if you followed the story. We’ve done it many times, with Senator Bob Graham and the Joint Congressional Investigation into 9/11. The twenty-eight redacted pages, pages redacted by the White House, which according to people that have seen them, and pretty much according to Senator Graham, named the Saudi government as having actually been involved in the 9/11 attacks. Using Graham’s words, facilitated and funded.

If that’s true, and I’ve asked him and others, why has this not become a bigger issue? Many people point to the arms sales.

HARTUNG: I think it, that could be part of it. I mean there’s, you know, there’s different opinions as to did they directly do it, did they let the Sheikhs do it, how exactly that connection may have happened. But certainly they’ve gotten off the hook, as has Pakistan, compared to countries like Iraq, which actually had nothing to do with it.

So there’s a very backwards policy that we’ve seen for the last decade that’s cost a lot of money and a lot of lives, and hasn’t really reduced the threat of terrorism.

JAY: All right, thanks for joining us, William.

HARTUNG: Okay, thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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