Trump Greenlights Arms Sales to Bahrain and Many Other Countries
The decision to increase US arms sales to human rights violators and conflict zones places Trump on the side of those inflicting suffering and does not help the US economy much says William Hartung
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
The Trump administration informed Congress on Wednesday, that it plans to approve the sale of 19 F-16 fighter jets, to the small Arab kingdom of Bahrain. The multi-billion dollar sale had been held up by President Obama because of human rights concerns in the island nation. The approval of the sale is just the latest in a series of signs that the Trump administration is loosening human rights considerations, when it comes to promoting U.S. arms deals. Other potential buyers of U.S. arms that had been previously been put on hold, include Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Taiwan.
Joining us now, to discuss the latest development in U.S. arms sales, from New York, is William Hartung. William is a Senior Advisor with the Security Assistance Monitor, and the Director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. He’s also the author of, “Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and The Making of The Military-Industrial Complex.”
William, thank you so much for joining us today.
WILLIAM HARTUNG: Yes, thank you.
SHARMINI PERIES: William, what do you think will be the consequences of Trump jettisoning the Obama administration’s halt on Bahrain’s arms sales?
WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, I think it’s interesting to note that it took a lot of pressure from NGOs, and civil society, to get the Obama administration to take the couple of steps that it did. To suspend the sale to Bahrain, and also hold back on some precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, that would’ve been used in their bombing in Yemen.
But the overall plan under Obama was quite robust sales. In fact, record numbers of new orders to the Saudis and others in the region. So, we have a situation where the U.S. was already a major supplier, and the few signals that perhaps there was concern about human rights, are exactly what the Trump administration is eliminating.
So, it doesn’t bode well for, I think, a democracy movement in the region, in terms of any pressure from the U.S. to kind of curb, or attempt to curb, human rights abuses by regimes, like the one in Bahrain, or like the Saudis.
SHARMINI PERIES: So, William, are you saying that the Obama administration’s measures to sanction Bahrain, because of human rights violations, was somewhat superficial?
WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, I think it was significant in the U.S. context, in the sense that it’s rare that such a thing is done, especially an ally that hosts major U.S. naval bases, and so forth, so I wouldn’t completely dismiss it. I was thinking more in terms of their overall policy towards the region, that it was one of the few examples where they were, in essence doing the right thing.
SHARMINI PERIES: In terms of the human rights violations of Bahrain, how grave were they? And, as you just said, the Obama administration had no problem selling arms to Saudi Arabia, and others in the Gulf, billions of dollars worth of arms, in spite of their human rights violations. So, why did they isolate Bahrain in this way?
WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, Bahrain cracked down heavily on the democracy movement at the time of the Arab Spring, with help from the Saudis, in fact. And they’ve basically jailed a non-violent activist; they’ve closed opposition political parties.
They’ve engaged in torture, so, you know, are they worse than the Saudis? Well, perhaps only in the sense that there was a democracy movement that had the chance to make a difference that they put down rather viciously.
So, I think partly, it was lobbying by human rights groups, I think partly it was that the Saudis are a bigger players. They have more clout. It’s harder to get a U.S. government to take strong action against them. So, I think there was some inequities of power that allowed restrictions on Bahrain, that should also have been in place on the Saudis.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And as I mentioned in the introduction, other countries that Trump wants to provide a green light for, in terms of arms sales, is Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Taiwan. Saudi Arabia is currently involved in the civil war in Yemen, Turkey in Iraq and Syria; Egypt is also cracking down on dissent. What impact do you think selling arms to these countries will have?
WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, there are all kinds of potential negative effects. I mean, the sales to Taiwan will rile up relations with China. There’s always been, sort of a line, beyond which the U.S. has promised not to go, despite a rather robust trade in arms with Taiwan. So, to withdraw further from any of those lines, and cross those lines, I think will create tensions with China that are unnecessary, without really changing the security position of Taiwan dramatically.
In the case of Egypt, you’ve got a repressive regime that could easily use U.S. weaponry to put down its own population. Turkey, of course, Erdogan has become more and more an authoritarian figure, and cracked down on all manner of opposition.
So, basically, it’s the Trump administration on the side of dictatorship, on the side of increased tension, beyond the problems we already had in the Obama era.
SHARMINI PERIES: And in terms of these arms sales, who’s really spearheading these strategies to open up the American arms industry to these countries, in the Trump administration?
WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, it’s hard to judge who’s making decisions. It’s a chaotic group, as you know, but certainly you’ve got a strong anti-Iran contingent in the White House itself. With people like Steve Bannon, so they certainly would favor open sales to the Saudis and the Gulf States. But also Secretary of Defense, Mattis, has been quite hard line on Iran. In fact, he wanted to attack Iran from Iraq, during the U.S. presence there when he was head of the Central Command.
So, there may not be too many players urging restraint within the inner circles, and even the cabinet level, of this administration. So, I think unfortunately, most of the people that Trump is listening to are on the wrong side of the issue.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, in terms of economic nationalism, one of the biggest objectives of the Trump administration — this measure of opening up arms sales — means that the arms industry in the U.S. can get a big increment in sales moving forward. What do such arms sales do to the U.S. economy?
WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, they’re often overrated, in terms of their overall impact. People seem to have the sense that they’re some huge part of U.S. exports, when in fact they’re probably a couple of percentage points. But what they do do is they keep factories open, and extend production lines in places like St. Louis, Missouri, where Boeing makes F-15s, in Texas where the F-16s that would go to Bahrain are being built. Likewise in St. Louis for the F-18, which is being sold in the region. And also for things like M1 tanks, which are built in Ohio and Michigan, which are key Trump swing states, of course.
So, it’s more of a political economic impact in support for politics, it’s putting contracts in the states and districts of powerful legislators. But in terms of exports, there are any number of other kinds of exports that would be more beneficial to the United States. The problem is, unlike in other places, where the U.S. gives aid, say to Egypt, to buy U.S. weapons, or to Israel, the Gulf States pay cash.
So, it’s kind of a net gain, in that sense, that there’s no U.S. taxpayer subsidies, for the U.S. companies to be able to get this revenue. So, in that sense, it’s part of this… fewer obstacles than there would be for countries that would need aid to subsidize the purchases.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And William, being an advocate, a great advocate of the disarmament movement, what other way can Trump stimulate the economy, so it has a more positive job-creating impact, without selling arms?
WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, I think we need an overarching strategy to build a more sustainable economy. Which neither candidate in the last election really had one. But Jeffrey Sachs has done a very good book on how to build a sustainable economy in the United States, trying to pursue the UN lending development goals. So, eliminating poverty, getting rid of energy sources that promote climate change, and so forth.
So, I think you would want an alternative energy strategy that stresses wind, solar, other alternatives, a smarter grid. Perhaps more electric cars, a better transportation system that cuts down on use of automobiles, and so forth. So, I think you would need an overall plan that was not just using the word, “infrastructure,” but really thought ahead, in terms of what kind of infrastructure, what kind of energy system, what kind of support, for housing around the country.
And that, of course, would require a federal government that wants to make public investments, and we certainly don’t have that at the moment. But I think that vision needs to be put forward. Because if we go into another election where the Democratic side has no comprehensive alternative to just selling arms, and living off of speculation on Wall Street, and so forth, then even somebody with all the downsides of a Trump, or whoever would succeed Trump — should he step aside — would still have a shot.
I mean, one of the reasons Trump got elected was because he gave the impression that he cared about the working class. I think, if you dig a little deeper, you see that his policies will do more harm than good, in that respect. But he stood up and said he was going to stand up to the corporations, for example, which was… Hillary Clinton was hard-pressed to do, when she was making $250,000 speeches on Wall Street.
So, you know, we need kind of a clear progressive, populist, economic plan, and if we had one that was thorough enough, then these arms sales and other items of military procurement would not loom so large, as they do now.
SHARMINI PERIES: I’ve been speaking with William Hartung. He’s the Senior Advisor with the Security Assistance Monitor, and Director of the Arms and Security Project, at the Center for International Policy. William, I thank you so much for joining us today.
WILLIAM HARTUNG: Thank you.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.