After decades of arming some of the Middle East’s least responsible states, there are tentative indications Washington may finally be rethinking its approach.
Upon taking office, one of President Joe Biden’s first foreign policy decisions was to impose a temporary freeze on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, pending a review of their potential effects on the ongoing Yemen conflict. And at the end of February, his administration followed up by imposing sanctions on multiple individuals involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, while also indicating that a more permanent ban on the sale of offensive weapons to the Saudis may be in the offing.
These are encouraging moves, although their ultimate outcomes remain to be seen. But the problems with weapons sales go beyond the Persian Gulf: As American companies pursue their efforts to arm much of the world, a record volume of defense exports has led to increasing humanitarian and strategic costs for the United States. The review of sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE therefore presents an opportunity to reassess our broader approach to the arms trade — one the Biden administration should not hesitate to seize.
The task will not be easy. Weapons exports are big business, and the vast network of defense companies and government bureaucracy that has grown around them will make changing the status quo a complicated affair. This is not to mention the fact that Biden is taking office after arguably the most enthusiastically pro-arms sales administration in history, one which leaves as its legacy the relaxation of export restrictions and the identification of “economic security” (read: ginning up business for weapons makers) as an explicit goal of U.S. arms transfer policy.
Even before President Donald Trump, foreign military sales were putting large quantities of weapons in indiscriminate hands. In Yemen, many of the munitions that have been used to devastating effect on combatants and civilians alike — including the laser-guided bomb that killed 40 children on a school bus — were authorized for export and sold during Barack Obama’s presidency.
And in one of the first export decisions of his term, Biden’s State Department approved a $200 million sale of missiles to Egypt mere hours after condemning Cairo’s detention of a prominent dissident’s relatives. The Philippines also receives hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. weaponry, where President Rodrigo Duterte has overseen thousands of extrajudicial killings, political arrests and related human rights violations.
Beyond the humanitarian costs, our approach to foreign military sales is also creating strategic problems. In Eastern Europe, for instance, the past few years have seen the U.S. provide major weapons systems to virtually every country other than Russia or Belarus. By flooding the region with advanced weaponry, we risk fueling an arms race between NATO-aligned players and Moscow, which in turn increases the likelihood conflict will erupt.
These sales also weaken Washington’s ability to control a tense geopolitical situation, creating the possibility that some emboldened (and well-armed) partner may drag the U.S. into an unpleasant, “tail wagging the dog” scenario.
Turkey offers another cautionary tale. Despite receiving billions in U.S. arms over the past several decades, Ankara has recently become a destabilizing force in the Eastern Mediterranean, using its increasingly well-equipped military to menace fellow NATO members France and Greece at sea and meddle in multiple civil wars.
Turkey also purchased the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, a move which has enraged U.S. policymakers and triggered frenetic (though so far fruitless) attempts to reverse the decision.
In the wake of such failures, a rethink is clearly needed. And a precedent exists, although one must go back before World War II to find it. In 1934, the Senate established the Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry, or the Nye Committee. Its purpose was to assess the role of arms manufacturers and private commercial interests in shaping foreign policy, particularly as it pertained to U.S. entry into World War I.
Though the Nye Committee failed to turn up evidence of criminal activity, its report did identify several disturbing facts: Arms makers wielded undue influence over U.S. government officials; their overseas representatives often paid bribes to secure business; and (most ominously) these companies consistently exerted their influence at home and abroad to oppose projects for peace and disarmament.
Of course, the situation has changed significantly in the subsequent 85 years. When the Nye Committee began its investigation, the United States was only the fourth-largest arms exporter. Today, we are No. 1 by a wide margin, providing the world with 36 percent of its military hardware (Russia is a distant second, accounting for 21 percent).
The influence of the arms industry has grown correspondingly larger; top defense companies now spend tens of millions of dollars on lobbying annually, and the “revolving door” between industry and government means that the same people are often crafting and benefiting from our defense policy.
Despite these differing circumstances, something akin to the Nye Committee today could help realign our policy with both ethical and strategic imperatives, identifying and building support for much-needed reforms.
Some fixes — like the removal of economic criteria from export objectives or the more stringent treatment of particular defense articles such as drones — could be accomplished via executive action. Others, like the imposition of stricter humanitarian standards or the expansion of Congress’ role in the Foreign Military Sales process, may require legislation. (In fact, a number of such proposals have already been introduced.)
Managed appropriately, defense exports can be a powerful tool of statecraft, strengthening allies and improving America’s international position. But as the last few decades have shown, this is unlikely to happen without vigilant, external oversight.
“War is too important to be left to the generals,” former French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau is supposed to have quipped. In a similar vein, arms sales are too important to be left to the military-industrial complex.
Luke Nicastro is a fellow with Defense Priorities and a defense analyst based in Washington, D.C.