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New Arms Transfer Policy Stokes Debate Over Influence

Jan. 19, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
US sales of M1 tank kits to Egypt became controversial following last year's military coup.
US sales of M1 tank kits to Egypt became controversial following last year's military coup. (US Army)
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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration announced last week that it had revised its arms sales policy, emphasizing “restraint” to ensure that arms don’t fall into the wrong hands or aren’t turned on civilians by governments. It comes as members of Congress and the administration tussle over the speed of sales to an Iraqi government that is attempting to combat increasing violence.

The process of reviewing the policy was kicked off several years ago, after the Arab Spring flung the Middle East into a period of transition and instability. This triggered questions about US sales to Egypt that led to a change in military aid and new doubts about a basic tenet of arms sales theory: Weapons buy influence.

As Egypt’s military repeatedly ran into trouble controlling its political opposition, often leading to violence, the amount of control the US could exert became a hot topic, as Egypt is its second largest recipient of military aid. Administration officials and analysts have cautioned that the simple quid pro quo equation of arms for control is overly simplified, failing to account for the major differences in various countries and policy objectives.

One of the greatest gains that arms sales can provide is the relationships that are built, said Tom Kelly, acting assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs.

“When a country decides to buy a sophisticated defense system from the United States, it’s not just buying a piece of hardware, it is essentially making a long-term commitment, a commitment that could last for 40 years to work with the United States in an intimate way for a very long time in an area which is arguably the most sensitive part of national policy, defense and security policy,” Kelly said. “When we make that decision, we are also making a foreign policy commitment to that country, and that’s why this subject is inherently part of the foreign policy process.”

That makes it easier to pick up the phone and have rapport with an ally, he said.

“It enhances the opportunities for people-to-people contacts, both on the military side and on the non-military side of government,” he said. “When you buy something like a fighter, your pilots are going to be coming back to the United States for training. They’re going to be working with American trainers in their country as well. They’re going to get to know us in a way that is much more profound than they would have if they had bought that same system from a different country.”

Those kinds of relationships in Egypt led to criticism of the administration for not doing more to prevent the deaths of some protesters in the country. But there are limits to the amount of influence aid can produce, said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“Aid gives some influence and leverage, as long as you don’t overreach, and don’t overestimate the leverage,” he said. “In Egypt, our aid is clearly not a major factor in the regime’s calculations since they get so much Saudi money, but relationships with us are not unimportant, so we shouldn’t trivialize our potential leverage, either.”

Emphasizing Restraint

While the chance to create close ties with countries is desirable, on the other side of the sales decision are potential repercussions. Instability can result in advanced weapons falling into the wrong hands, being used against civilian opposition groups or even triggering regional hostilities.

“There are going to be instances in which when you sell arms to a particular country, it could embolden them to pursue their equities against another country and could perhaps destabilize the region,” Kelly said. “The United States has a responsibility to show restraint in transfer of these, both on its own terms to encourage other countries to also [show] restraint, to make sure that these weapons don’t destabilize international security.”

That emphasis on restraint was one of the major changes made to the Conventional Arms Transfer policy announced last week.

President Barack Obama on Jan. 15 approved the first update of the policy since 1995. The document determines the factors US government agencies weigh when considering potential arms deals.

The 1995 policy directive is classified, but those familiar with the update process said much of the criteria for evaluation remained, with some additional emphasis on preventing weapons from falling into the wrong hands or being used for human rights abuses. The text of the revised policy was made public.

Most of the changes focused on updating antiquated language in the 1995 directive that was heavily focused on the impact of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

“I was struck by how dated the policy was,” said Andrew Shapiro, the former assistant secretary of state who pushed for a review of the policy after the Arab Spring.

“The top line that came out of the review was that the factors that we consider in our arms sales are the right ones,” he said. “Non-proliferation, human rights, technology release, impact on regional dynamics. These are the right kinds of issues to be considered when regarding arms transfer, and these were reflected in the old policy.”

The directive is clear about the need for restraint.

“United States conventional arms transfer policy supports transfers that meet legitimate security requirements of our allies and partners in support of our national security and foreign policy interests,” the directive said. “At the same time, the policy promotes restraint, both by the United States and other suppliers, in transfers of weapons systems that may be destabilizing or dangerous to international peace and security.”

Too Much Caution?

The emphasis on careful decision-making caused some concern in the defense community, as the application of that concept is still unknown.

“If restraint means that one should always think twice, and weigh commercial motives against arms race worries, it is a good principle,” O’Hanlon said. “But if misinterpreted to mean that less is always better, it would be unfortunate, because there are times when threatened states need to undertake military buildups, and there are forms of defense trade within alliances that are entirely healthy.”

Some in the defense industry have been vocal about a US foreign military sales process — the technique by which weapons are sold to other states — they see as being slowed by excessive caution.

“I believe that there’s a huge fear of failure, a fear of risk in the process right now, so when in doubt, everyone does 110 percent,” said Ellen Lord, CEO of Textron Systems, at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council.

Lord said delays in the process, especially repeated audits, are hurting the industry’s ability to effectively get arms to allies.

“When you step back and look at the forest vs. the trees, what are we trying to do in the US?“ she said. “We’re trying to enable our partners around the world to have the security that they can get by buying our products, and yet we’re inhibiting them getting those products.”

Besides industry critics, the foreign military sales process has seen its fair share of critics on Capitol Hill. Iraq’s prime minister came to Washington and pleaded for more US weapons, only to see violence escalate in his country mere months later, triggering debate in Congress. The dueling desires — to arm the country and to guarantee that the weapons are used as intended — are inherent in many of the deals being discussed, especially to Middle East countries.

“To some extent, there’s some tension in them, which means that policymakers need to weigh all of these factors in a deliberative way, and in consultation with our partners on the Hill as we come to decisions,” Kelly said. ■


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