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Are Obama's Record Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt and Iraq Fueling Unrest in Middle East?

April 07, 2015
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William Hartung

director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. His latest book is Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex. He recently wrote an article, "The Obama Arms Bazaar: Record Sales, Troubling Results."

As Saudi Arabia continues U.S.-backed strikes in Yemen and Washington lifts its freeze on military to aid to Egypt, new figures show President Obama has overseen a major increase in weapons sales since taking office. The majority of weapons exports under Obama have gone to the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia tops the list at $46 billion in new agreements. We are joined by William Hartung, who says that even after adjusting for inflation, "the volume of major deals concluded by the Obama administration in its first five years exceeds the amount approved by the Bush administration in its full eight years in office by nearly $30 billion. That also means that the Obama administration has approved more arms sales than any U.S. administration since World War II." Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, and author of "Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex."


TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: We turn now to the major increase in U.S. arms exports under President Obama. As Saudi Arabia continues U.S.-backed strikes in Yemen and Washington lifts its freeze on military aid to Egypt, new figures show the majority of U.S. weapons exports under Obama have gone to the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia tops the list at $46 billion in new agreements. William Hartung writes that even after adjusting for inflation, quote, "The volume of major deals concluded by the Obama administration in its first five years exceeds the amount approved by the Bush administration in its full eight years in office by nearly $30 billion." That also means the Obama administration has approved more arms sales than any other U.S. administration since World War II.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about these figures, we’re joined now by Bill Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. His latest book is Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex. He recently wrote an article headlined "The Obama Arms Bazaar: Record Sales, Troubling Results."

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Bill.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the numbers. Talk about the weapons. Where are they going?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, I was astonished, in researching the article, that Obama had sold this much. I mean, I knew there were record deals with the Saudis, but to outsell the eight years of Bush, to sell more than any president since World War II, was surprising even to me, who follow these things quite closely. The majority, 60 percent, have gone to the Persian Gulf and Middle East, and within that, the Saudis have been the largest recipient of things like U.S. fighter planes, Apache attack helicopters, bombs, guns, almost an entire arsenal they’ve purchased just in the last few years.

AARON MATÉ: What do you think the Iran nuclear deal, if anything, portends for U.S. sales to the Middle East? President Obama is about to call a meeting at Camp David with the leaders of all the Gulf nations. Do you see them exploiting that to call for increased military purchases from the U.S.?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Unfortunately, yes. I mean, you would think a reduction of tensions should reduce the arms sales, but the Saudis have been screaming about the deal, saying, "Well, you’re letting Iran off the hook," which is not the case, "and therefore you have to bulk up our armaments," which is kind of insane, given the amounts that have already gone there.

AMY GOODMAN: So how does the Obama administration spending on military weapons—and is it the Obama administration spending money on military weapons or just allowing the weapons to be sold to these countries? And how does it compare to the two terms of the George W. Bush administration?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, primarily, these are sales, because the Saudis and others in the Gulf can afford them, the exceptions being aid to Egypt and Israel, which are the biggest recipients of U.S. military aid. Under Bush, they sold about $30 billion less than the $169 billion of the first five years of Obama. So already in five years, he’s outsold what Bush did in eight years.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does this mean for war in the world?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, I think we’re seeing the results now. As they mentioned in the prior segment, Saudi Arabia is using U.S. weapons to bomb Yemen. Civilians have been killed. Egypt is not exactly a democratic regime, as we know. Now they’ve opened sales again to them. They’ve supported dictators for many years, prior to Obama, which helped, in one hand, spark the Arab Spring, but also has armed the counterattacks by places like Egypt and the Saudis, the Saudis going in to crush democracy movement in Bahrain, along with the government there. So it’s been a force—a negative force for many years. I think it’s spinning out of control now.

AARON MATÉ: And your piece also points out that it’s not just U.S. arms going to regimes. When countries go haywire and into chaos, like in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, U.S. weapons end up in the hands of militants.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Exactly. We don’t know the full numbers, but in Iraq the security forces abandoned large amounts of the weaponry to ISIS. U.S.-armed rebels in Syria, armed by the CIA, went over to join ISIS. There’s $500 million missing of weapons in Yemen. Some think it’s gone to the Houthis. Some think it’s gone to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Of course, there’s arms on both sides, because the government and the forces have split in this war. So it’s quite possible every side of that war in Yemen may have some level of U.S. weaponry. So it’s really gone, you know, haywire. It’s sort of what I call the boomerang effect, when U.S. arms end up in the hands of U.S. adversaries.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to ask about a recent exchange between Deutsche Bank analyst Myles Walton and Lockheed Martin chief executive Marillyn Hewson during an earnings call in January. Financial industry analysts use earnings calls as an opportunity to ask publicly traded corporations like Lockheed about issues that might harm profitability. Hewson said that Lockheed was hoping to increase sales and that both the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region were, quote, "growth markets."

MARILLYN HEWSON: Even if there may be some kind of deal done with Iran, there is volatility all around the region, and each one of these countries believes they’ve got to protect their citizens, and the things that we can bring to them help in that regard. So, similarly, you know, that’s the Middle East, and I know that’s what you asked about, but you could take that same argument to the Asia-Pacific region, which is another growth area for us—a lot of volatility, a lot of instability, a lot of things that are happening both with North Korea as well as some of the tensions between China and Japan. And so, in both of those regions, which are growth areas for us, we expect that there’s going to continue to be opportunities for us to bring our capabilities to them.

AMY GOODMAN: During the phone call, Lockheed CEO Marillyn Hewson, who you were just listening to, also noted 20 percent of Lockheed’s sales in 2014 were international—that is, to non-American customers. She added, Lockheed has set a goal to get to 25 percent over the next few years. Can you talk about the significance of this, Bill Hartung?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, there’s been a slight blip in Pentagon procurement. It’s still quite high, but the companies need to grow constantly. And so they’re looking to up foreign sales to make up for any reductions at the Pentagon. And as we heard in the clip, they’re looking to areas of conflict. And it’s not surprising, but I’m surprised that she said it so explicitly. You know, she was asked about the Iran question: Would that depress the market? She basically said, "Oh, there’s plenty of turbulence there, don’t worry about it, as there is in East Asia, and these will be our growth markets." So she’s more or less acknowledging they thrive on war and the threat of war, which is not surprising to a lot of people, but nonetheless, to say it like that, I think, is a bit shocking, to just put it right out there.

AARON MATÉ: I want to ask you about drones. Earlier this year, the White House announced it will allow foreign allies to purchase U.S.-made armed drones for the first time. Under a new policy, American firms can sell their drones abroad but will be subjected to a case-by-case review. Talk about this policy. You were very critical of it.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Yes. I mean, it’s got some rhetoric that makes sense: You can’t use these drones to repress your own population, for illegal surveillance, to attack your neighbors. But as we’ve seen in other cases, once they’re sold, very little control over how they’re used. And given the regimes in the Persian Gulf, they’ve already sold unarmed Predators, or about to, the UAE. So it’s quite possible we’ll see, in the context of the war on Yemen, perhaps armed drones sold to some of these countries. And, you know, it’s fine to say we’re going to control their use, but the record in Iraq and Yemen and elsewhere makes that quite dubious.

AMY GOODMAN: As we see the Obama administration’s dramatic acceleration of U.S. weapons sales abroad, can you talk about the U.S. requirements on the licensing of weapons and weapons-related exports?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, the industry has wanted a relaxation for years, and the Obama administration finally delivered that. So, they took things from the State Department, which does a somewhat better job of vetting human rights and so forth, and took thousands of items and put them in the Commerce Department, which historically has been involved in promoting arms sales, not in vetting them. So, it’s going to be easier for some countries to get arms without a license, and those countries will become hubs of smuggling, no doubt. So it’s going to be counter to the—even the narrow security interests of the United States, but it’s something industry has wanted for quite a while.

AARON MATÉ: On the positive side, the world’s first treaty regulating the arms trade took effect last year, the Arms Trade Treaty. The U.S. has signed it. Senate hasn’t ratified it. But you write that that’s still a positive thing.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Yes, I think, compared to Bush, which was joined at the hip with the NRA and wouldn’t go near the Arms Trade Treaty, at least the U.S. administration signed it, although a somewhat weaker version than some of us would have liked. It commits them on paper not to sell to human rights abusers, not to let arms that may be involved in corruption. Obviously, that’s been violated, in my opinion, in some of the current sales to the Middle East, but it’s a standard that they should be held to, because they did sign that treaty.

AMY GOODMAN: So, they sign the treaty, and they accelerate weapons sales abroad. Would you say the—financing the weapons industry is actually a motivation for being involved in wars abroad?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: I think it’s one element. I think there’s an ideological element. I think there’s an element of just U.S. global reach and global control. But certainly, a reinforcing point is to sell arms and to help these companies. And it sometimes is made quite explicit. When they sell to the Saudis, for example, the Pentagon points out it will create x number of jobs in the United States. So they’re not shy about talking about the jobs aspect.

AMY GOODMAN: So, weapons industry does better under the Democrats than the Republicans?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: I would say, at the moment, they’re doing better on the arms sales front. Slightly—

AMY GOODMAN: And where do their contributions go?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, they tip usually depending who’s in power. So they’re about two-thirds Republican in the Senate and the House, which are controlled by Republicans. They’re quite supportive of Obama. There’s such a flood of money from everywhere, sometimes it’s hard to follow one stream within that huge flow of money.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you, Bill Hartung, for being with us. Final question: What are you recommending?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, I think the Obama administration should live up to its principles on the Arms Trade Treaty. I think Congress should take a closer look at some of these sales, speak out against them. I think civil society groups which oppose this should make their voices louder, because in many cases most Americans don’t even know this is happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Hartung is director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. His latest book, Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex. We’ll link to his piece, "The Obama Arms Bazaar: Record Sales, Troubling Results."

When we come back, we look at the drought in California. What does it have to do with animal agriculture? What does it have to do with eating meat? Stay with us.


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