After Moammar Gadhafi lost his grip on the reins of Libya, and then lost his life, the new government inherited a military and police arsenal depleted by civil war and already antiquated. During years of isolation by the broader international community, Gadhafi had found few allies and even fewer arms trading partners, and surplus Russian equipment provided one of the few opportunities to arm his forces.
With a country to defend, the new pro-American government began a series of conversations with the U.S. about purchasing military hardware. Seeing a chance to help a new ally, senators and Defense Department officials encouraged the State Department to approve a series of deals, said sources at the department and on Capitol Hill.
But despite their desire to support the fledgling government, and despite the financial opportunity to help U.S. defense contractors bracing for upcoming budget cuts, State took its time considering the deals.
It wasn’t because Foggy Bottom didn’t see Libya’s need. Rather, the department was compelled by law to assess whether the deals, what would have been foreign military sales (FMS), would be in the national security interests of the U.S. The political situation in Libya was still complicated, so State officials weren’t comfortable. They stalled, holding up potential sales.
It’s a debate likely to repeat between branches and agencies of the U.S. government, with the Middle East still recovering from the Arab Spring but in possession of significant oil wealth and a thirst for military products. The region continues to be one of the chief targets for growth for many U.S. defense contractors. And with the U.S. defense budget facing cuts, both government and industry are eager to expand overseas markets to support the industrial base.
When asked about the pressures surrounding Libya and deals in the Middle East, Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, described the difficult environment and the need to make sure State retains its authority over weapons sales.
“I have, as part of various interagency debates, had to take on other bureaus and other departments which have other interests in order to enforce [Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s] authority,” Shapiro said. “There’s a reason why that authority was put in the State Department, not the Defense Department. It was to make sure that arms sales support our foreign policy goals and our national security.”
In the case of Libya, last year’s attack in Benghazi, which claimed the lives of four, came and passed without any significant arms deals completed. The Libyan Embassy in the U.S. did not return calls requesting comment on the country’s interest in weapons deals.
Sources at the State Department viewed the incident as vindication of its caution, proof the country is too unstable to safely handle the weapons. Proponents of the deals viewed the lack of response by Libyan authorities to the attacks as proof that other arms were needed.
“They needed all kinds of help, which they could pay for,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at the 2012 Foreign Policy Initiative forum. “We watched it. We saw the threats to our embassy. We saw the al-Qaida elements coming in. Ten different al-Qaida-affiliated groups are around Benghazi as we speak. We watched it happen, because we didn’t do the things that we knew were necessary to assist them to set up the first government that they’ve ever had. And we obviously paid a very heavy price for it.”
The Libyan example is a dramatic one, but it does expose a difference in philosophy, said Guy Ben-Ari, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“State tends to demonstrate more caution trying to figure out precisely what parties are in play, whereas DoD tends to approach it with starting off slowly with weapons systems that are not necessarily the high-end, high-intensity types of systems, but maybe more focused on security and internal police types of systems,” Ben-Ari said.
Although relations between the two departments are better than they have been in years, according to department officials, that doesn’t mean they can’t disagree.
Ben-Ari said both sides’ arguments have merit, as there is uncertainty on one side and an opportunity to strengthen ties on the other. “In many cases, the U.S. doesn’t even understand who the parties involved are, to some extent,” he said. “Definitely in Syria and in Libya, that’s also true. You just don’t know who is going to end up in power, but also what their stand is towards allies.”
There’s also something of a divide in the region, between traditional allies that appear more stable and other countries in transition.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE serve as strong markets in relatively stable countries. Most of the other countries undergoing significant change haven’t been major U.S. military hardware importers, with one notable exception: Egypt.
Egypt was a multibillion-dollar market that quickly evaporated during its revolution. Several industry executives cited Egypt as the one country that has had an impact on their sales. And with uncertainty surrounding the country’s foreign policy stance, and questions about the ruling government’s stability, weapons sales carry greater risk.
The State Department looks to assess not only if a government has good intentions toward the U.S., but also whether weapons might be turned on a country’s own people, and if the arms might fall into the hands of extremists.
“We have to take into account the situation on the ground is changing rapidly,” Shapiro said. “We have seen the challenges in arms sales to Egypt, Bahrain, and you mentioned there’s interest from some countries like Libya that are just not there yet. In times of great change and tumult, it requires monitoring it very closely to take into account not just the current situation on the ground, but you have to project out what will happen down the road.”
But that doesn’t mean the State Department wants to deny all deals.
“Our partners, given the greater instability, want the means to provide for their own security,” he said. “While you’re right that we have to look very closely, it is also a time when our partners even more so want to invest in their own security. And we want to work with them to make sure that we’re filling their needs in the appropriate way.”
How the department determines which countries will remain allies and which aren’t ready for weapons can cause interagency disagreement. And if the Middle East continues to be a source for sales, and also sees growing regional tension, the internal debates over arms deals will likely become common.
Despite the ideological differences on arms sales, there’s still a very human element to the determination, Ben-Ari said. “State gets the final say, but DoD gets to make its case,” he said. “It will always be about personality and your ability to make your case.”