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U.S. Arms Trade: Maximizing Profits in the Middle East

When the United States sells state-of-the-art weapons systems to Arab nations, it invariably provides even more lethal and sophisticated arms to its...

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When the United States sells state-of-the-art weapons systems to Arab nations, it invariably provides even more lethal and sophisticated arms to its steadfast ally, Israel, in order to help counter the firepower of its neighbors.

So, when Egypt gets the M60A3 and M1A1 Abrams battle tanks, Israel gets the TOW-2A and Hellfire anti-tank missiles that could blow up the Egyptian vehicles in the event of a military confrontation between the two countries, which are currently wedded to the 1979 Camp David peace treaty.

Likewise, when the United States grudgingly provides McDonnell Douglas F-15 fighter planes to Saudi Arabia, Israel is armed either with Sidewinder and Sparrow air-to-air missiles or Hawk and Stinger surface-to-air missiles to bring down the U.S.-supplied Saudi aircraft.

Every U.S. government has ensured that no weapons sales to Arab nations would undermine Israel’s traditional "qualitative [military] advantage" over its perceived rivals.

Last week, the administration of President George W. Bush ran true to form when it announced its decision to simultaneously sell arms both to Israel and seven Arab nations: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.

The package, which is also expected to include one set of weapons to counter the other, includes equipment worth some $20 billion to Saudi Arabia and five other Gulf states, $30 billion in military assistance to Israel, and $13 billion in similar grants to Egypt, mostly for purchases of U.S.-made weapons systems.

The Bush administration has justified the whopping arms sales as an attempt to militarily strengthen Israel, Egypt, and the Gulf states against Iran. But academics, peace activists, and military analysts see a more sinister and commercial reason for unrestrained arms sales to a politically volatile region.

"The only ‘winners’ from this deal are U.S. weapons contractors," says Natalie J. Goldring, a senior fellow with the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

"For the U.S. defense industry, this is Christmas in July," she added, pointing out that the Bush administration’s statements that these sales will somehow deter Iran aren’t convincing.

"Past attempts to label Iran as part of the ‘axis of evil’ only seem to have silenced moderate voices, and spurred the Iranian government’s conventional and potential nuclear weapons programs," Goldring told the Inter Press Service (IPS).

In addition, she pointed out, the U.S. government record at dissuading countries from developing nuclear weapons through military means is unblemished by success.

"Our past nonproliferation successes have been the product of political, economic, and diplomatic approaches, not military measures," she added.

During a swing through the Middle East last week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the proposed arms sales will also "bolster the forces of moderation and support a broader strategy to counter the negative influences of al-Qaida, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran."

Goldring said Rice fails to effectively counter the argument that these sales are more likely to promote instability in the recipient countries because of hostility toward the United States.

Meanwhile, several U.S. congressmen, including Rep. Roy Blunt (R-MO), Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), and Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), have threatened to block the sale—particularly to Saudi Arabia because the Saudis "have not been a true ally in further U.S. interests in the Middle East."

Whether they will have enough clout to deter the sale against the powerful military-industrial complex remains to be seen.

Frida Berrigan, a senior program associate with the Arms and Security Project at the New America Foundation, predicts that the proposed sale could indeed trigger a new arms race in the region.

She said new weapon sales to Egypt and Saudi Arabia will stoke Jordan’s need for new advanced weaponry.

"This move seeks to repair the damage wrought in the region by the disastrous war in Iraq by throwing more fuel on the fire—introducing more weaponry in a region already wracked by a civil-sectarian conflict that ripples outward in ever widening and devastating circles," Berrigan told IPS.

She also said this sends exactly the wrong message to the Saudi government.

"Quid pro quos in weapons sales do not work—witness the United States trying to shape and influence the actions of the Indonesian military regime through withholding spare parts of F-16s," Berrigan said.

But the United States is not even putting conditions on these sales and grants of military aid, she added.

Asked if it was prudent for the Bush administration to sell weapons to non-democratic regimes when it is trying to spread democracy in the region, Berrigan said that of the eight nations slated for significant increases in military aid, only one (Israel) is a full democracy.

"The law provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully," according to the U.S. State Department’s 2006 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.

In Egypt—despite its claims of democratic elections—the State Department found "limitations on the right of citizens to change their government" including "a state of emergency, in place almost continuously since 1967."

The rest of the countries are monarchies or sultanates where, in the words of the State Department’s annual report, there is "no right to peacefully change the government."

Goldring of Georgetown University said this sale perpetuates the myth that the U.S. government can predict the future and say with confidence that governments will be stable for two, three, four decades.

"Yet again, the Bush administration is failing to fully take into account the long-term implications of its actions," she said.

In the Middle East, she said, the United States is largely engaged in an arms race with itself. It seeks to "balance" its interests in the region with ever-increasing levels of weaponry and military aid.

And the U.S. government continues to argue that arms sales will stabilize the Middle East, despite the lack of evidence to support this assertion, she added.

"The administration claims that the majority of weapons it proposes to sell are defensive. But if they’re actually defensive, why does this deal reportedly include constraints on the weapons’ ranges and where they can be based?" Goldring asked.

"Adding insult to injury," she argued, "the administration is buying off Israel by increasing its military aid to more than $30 billion over the course of the next decade."

Berrigan of the New America Foundation countered Rice’s argument that billions in military assistance will "bolster the forces of moderation" in the region; the military assistance will go to countries that brutally suppress their own populations.

Berrigan said all eight nations named for the aid package, which could top $60 billion over 10 years, have "serious" problems with regards to human rights including: torture (Qatar, Egypt, and Israel, where reputable human rights groups allege that security forces use torture in interrogation of Palestinian detainees about 20% of the time); unlawful killings (Kuwait); flogging and other forms of corporal punishment (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates); and killings, abuse of women including female genital mutilation (Egypt).

Thalif Deen writes for the Inter Press Service.

Citations

Thalif Deen, "U.S. Arms Trade: Maximizing Profits in the Middle East," Right Web Analysis (Somerville, MA: International Relations Center, August 7, 2007).

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