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Obama Admin Helps Undermine U.N. Arms Treaty Talks While Touting Record-High Weapons Sales Abroad

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Arms control advocates are blaming the Obama administration and Russia for last week’s failed U.N. negotiations over the first-ever global agreement regulating the $60 billion arms trade. The United States — the world’s largest manufacturer — had demanded a number of exemptions and ultimately said it needed more time to review the proposals. As the talks collapsed, a top State Department official openly bragged that U.S. government efforts have helped boost foreign military sales to record levels this year. We’re joined by William Hartung, 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.” [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: Arms control advocates are blaming the Obama administration for last week’s failed negotiations over the first-ever global agreement regulating the $60 billion arms trade. While most United Nations member states favored a strong treaty, the United States and Russia said there was not enough time left for them before Friday’s deadline to clarify and resolve issues they had with the draft treaty.

The United States, the world’s largest manufacturer, had demanded a number of exemptions and ultimately said it needed more time to review the proposals. White House officials had cited the need to protect Second Amendment rights in the United States, despite U.N. assurances the treaty text would not interfere. Amnesty International USA said the U.S. had shown stunning cowardice, adding, quote, “It’s a staggering abdication of leadership by the world’s largest exporter of conventional weapons to pull the plug on the talks just as they were nearing an historic breakthrough.”

As the talks collapsed at the United Nations, a top State Department official openly bragged that U.S. government efforts have helped boost foreign military sales to record levels this year. Speaking to a group of military reporters, Andrew Shapiro, the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, said, quote, “We’ve really upped our game in terms of advocating on behalf of U.S. companies. I’ve got the frequent-flyer miles to prove it.” According to Shapiro, U.S. arms sales have already topped $50 billion in 2012, putting the U.S. on pace to increase its total for the year by 70 percent.

Well, for more, we’re joined by Bill Hartung, author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Bill. Explain what happened, how the treaty negotiations took place and what happened at the very end last week.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, one of the toughest things is that they were trying to get consensus. So, a number of smaller countries raised procedural issues. All those had seemed to be resolved. Within a day of the end of the negotiations, activists thought the treaty was going to happen. Not perfect, but certainly would make it harder to sell to human rights abusers, throw guns into war zones. The United States then suddenly pulled back and said, “Well, we don’t think the treaty is, you know, really ready. Let’s sort of start from scratch.” Essentially, that was the last straw. Other countries, like Russia, had put up obstructions, but once the U.S. pulled out, it was the last nail in the coffin.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, explain exactly what was the U.S. involvement all along. And why is the U.S. so important to the ATT, the arms trade treaty?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, the U.S. is the biggest arms exporter in the world, and in some other areas has been political leader. Here, the Obama administration was pulling back. They weren’t really sort of, you know, using any political muscle to support this. They were sort of reluctant participants. But I don’t think it was expected that they were going to go so far as to actually torpedo the treaty. They had not supported key elements, like regulating ammunition, which was sort of central to keeping—stopping the killing.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the players who were at the United Nations, the forces lobbying against the ATT, the arms trade treaty. Talk about the power of the NRA.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, the NRA has taken an interest in the global arms trade going back about two decades. And their theory, which has been discredited, is if you regulate guns anywhere, then they’re going to be regulated everywhere. Also, they’re opposed to treaties of any form. So, basically, they love guns, they hate treaties. And this was a chance for them to exert influence, both within the U.N. and also against the Obama administration, to keep it from really taking a stronger stand.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Wayne LaPierre was at the United Nations, the spokesperson for the head of the National Rifle Association?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Yes, he was there. He gave a speech where basically he said the treaty was an offense to any American who breathed free air. So, you know, they were way over the top, especially given that the treaty was designed to let countries regulate arms within their own borders, really dealt only with cross-border transfer. So they really—not only were they an obstacle, but they were completely off base in their characterization of the treaty.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month, Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, spoke to Fox News about his concerns about the U.N. arms treaty.

LARRY PRATT: It would completely work against what the Second Amendment is intended to do, but it doesn’t seem that the Constitution is much of an obstacle or a problem for this administration. But nevertheless, “shall not be infringed” is something that a treaty can’t trump. The very language in the Constitution dealing with treaty making says that treaties have to be made under the authority of the United States. And if we, the people, haven’t given authority for gun control to the United States, to the federal government, then its hands are tied.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Larry Pratt, executive director of the Gun Owners of America. Bill Hartung, your response?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, there’s two problems with that. Once, obviously, if you agree to a treaty, it’s ratified by the Senate, the people have spoken. That’s why you elect representatives. Second of all, as I mentioned, the treaty had nothing to do with domestic gun control. So it’s essentially kind of a paranoid fantasy of the NRA translated into their, you know, political force around the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill, the torpedoing of the arms trade treaty, the ATT, took place exactly a week after the Aurora massacre in Colorado with 12 people killed and many injured. Talk about the links between what’s happening in the United States—you know, very quickly, President Obama came out and said we don’t need new laws around gun control, affirming the Second Amendment, and the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, also shares the same view on that—and then you have this global treaty at the United Nations, within days, torpedoed.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, I think it sends an awful signal to the world. Not only are we not willing to keep arms from killing people overseas, but also our government is not willing to take strong action to prevent the kind of massacre that happened in Aurora within our own borders. And the NRA bridges that gap, because they tried to kill the arms treaty, and they’ve tried to prevent any gun regulation in the United States, even though their own membership, in some cases, supports stronger measures than their leadership does. So, to some degree, it’s not really the kind of grassroots movement that is presented. There’s the leadership out ahead, sort of on the right wing of it. Also they’re heavily funded by the gun manufacturers. So it’s really a special interest group masquerading as some sort of mass movement.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, explain that. What do you mean?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, the leadership is out in front of the membership in terms of harsh opposition to any gun control, even things like a waiting period, registration of guns, making sure you can’t walk into a gun show as a criminal and buy a gun easily, which was what happened in the Columbine case, you know, controls on assault rifles of the kind that was used in Aurora. All those things are being blocked by the NRA leadership. And companies like Smith & Wesson, that made the gun that was used in Aurora, the military-style assault weapon, have given over a million dollars to the NRA. Some gun shops say, “Oh, you know, round up your purchase, and we’ll give the difference to the NRA,” called the Round-Up Program. That’s put millions in their coffers. So, you know, the NRA would prefer not to have that known, but places like the Violence Policy Center have exposed it in some detail.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Hartung, I want to ask you about how best to regulate arms. Let me ask you, for a moment, about what happened in Illinois—very interesting news. The Illinois governor, Pat Quinn, has unveiled a proposal to ban assault weapons in Illinois. On Tuesday, he used his amendatory veto power to propose banning the manufacture and sale of assault weapons and attachments. Quinn is the first U.S. governor to formally put forward an assault weapons ban since the shooting massacre in Aurora, Colorado, last month.

GOV. PAT QUINN: We should show the nation that when something really bad happens, as happened in Aurora, Colorado, a horrific massacre, that we don’t stand idly by. We take action to deal with the source of that problem, and I think we have done that today.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. Bill Hartung, was this a surprise? How significant is this? Could this lead other governors to do the same thing?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, we haven’t seen that kind of courage by other elected officials, and I’m hoping that it gets the ball rolling and that it’ll be emulated in other states. As I indicated, to some degree, the NRA is a paper tiger, and what I mean by that is they don’t have full support of their own membership. Eighty percent of the public supports sensible gun controls. So, really, they’ve kind of puffed up their political force beyond what it really is. And they’ve sort of harped on the fact that they’re important in key states like Pennsylvania, swing states like Ohio and Virginia, North Carolina. But even there, I think if you had people explaining—governors, for example—the impact of these things, I don’t think you would have the majority of people, even in the NRA, supporting easy access by criminals to military-style assault rifles.

AMY GOODMAN: On the issue of best regulating arms, I want to go first to one of the activists who set up a mock cemetery outside the U.N. Wednesday to urge negotiators to pass a strong arms trade treaty. David Grimason has been active in calling for stringent arms regulations ever since his two-year-old, Alistair, was shot and killed during a family visit to Turkey nine years ago.

DAVID GRIMASON: A treaty that doesn’t include all conventional weapons and all ammunition is—to me, will just be pointless. At the moment, you’ve got kind of unscrupulous governments that are willing to sell arms to any nation, not really caring about how they’re going to be used. If we don’t get a strong treaty, then that will continue, and the numbers we’re seeing, with—you know, 2,000 people a day are dying—that will continue unless we get a strong treaty.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Hartung, your response?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, I think he’s absolutely right. I mean, countries like Russia arming Syria, China arming Sudan. The United States doesn’t have clean hands here, selling to places like Bahrain that have crushed democracy movements, countries like Saudi Arabia, which are not only undemocratic themselves but have supported the crushing of democracy in Bahrain, sent troops there. Yet we’ve got the biggest weapons deal in history with the Saudis, $60 billion, which there’s nothing to compare to that in history. So there’s this signal by the United States: we’re going to still arm dictatorships, even in the midst of the Arab Spring. We’re not going to get up front about regulating some of these sales; we’re going to try to delay it. So I think it sends an awful message to the world, and it doesn’t represent the views of the American public.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me turn to President Eisenhower. In fact, part of the name of your book comes from that famous address that President Eisenhower gave, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous farewell speech to the nation. It was January 17th, 1961.

PRESIDENT DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: My fellow Americans, this evening I come to you with a message of leave-taking and farewell and to share a few final thoughts with you, my countrymen. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Three-and-a-half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development, yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Eisenhower’s farewell address, January 17, 1961. An excerpt from the documentary Why We Fight. More than 50 years after that speech, many argue the military-industrial complex is stronger than ever. Bill Hartung?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, I think it certainly is stronger than ever. You know, a company like Lockheed Martin, by itself, gets $36 billion a year from the Pentagon. Essentially, people are paying a Lockheed Martin tax of $300 a year or more. It’s the biggest entity that’s getting money from the federal government. It’s also involved not only in arms exports, building nuclear weapons, building fighter planes, building combat ships, but it’s also one of the key players in trying to roll back regulations on arms exports and to try to keep the Obama administration from reducing Pentagon spending. So, it’s working on all fronts, you know, to change our policy in a more militarized direction. And as I said, that runs counter to what the average American thinks. Even in states that depend on military spending, recent polls show that they’re willing to cut military spending to a greater degree than the so-called sequester, the automatic cuts, that would come if Congress doesn’t get a budget deal together to reduce the deficit. So, you know, in the same sense that Eisenhower talked about, that a military-industrial complex subverts democracy, we’re seeing that very same thing today.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this year, Bill, one of the world’s most notorious arms smugglers was sentenced to 25 years in prison by a New York federal court judge—not for smuggling, but for conspiracy and terrorism charges. Viktor Bout is known as “The Merchant of Death” for running what the United Nations and U.S. officials say was an intentional arms trafficking network. In April, during a pre-sentencing telephone interview with Voice of Russia, Bout maintained his innocence, saying all arms suppliers in the U.S. would be in prison, too, if the same standards were applied across the board.

VIKTOR BOUT: I’m innocent. I don’t commit any crime. There is no crime to sit and talk. If you’re going to apply the same standards to me, then you’re going to, you know, jail all those arms dealers in America who are selling the arms and ending up killing Americans. They are involved even more than me.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Viktor Bout. Bill Hartung, your response? If you can respond to what Viktor Bout is saying, respond to the power of the U.S. military contractors, and also talk about whether the ATT, the arms trade treaty, is totally dead.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, I think, starting with the treaty, there’s a move by the groups that supported it to take it to the General Assembly of the United Nations. There, they need a majority, not a full consensus of every country in the world. I think that’s a hard thing to do but certainly worth, you know, as much energy as possible. I don’t think it’s impossible to do that.

In terms of Bout’s statement, perhaps the United States is not quite on the level he was. He was arming, you know, Sierra Leone. He was arming Angola. Some of his arms went to the Taliban. But the United States had links to Bout. His companies were being hired to ferry weapons into Iraq. Many dealers like Bout have past associations with the CIA, with intelligence agencies around the world, helping them carry out deals like Iran-Contra. So, you know, as I said, the United States doesn’t have clean hands in this. And without an arms trade treaty, somebody like Bout can go around the world, hide behind different laws in different countries, deal with kind of the patchwork regulations we have now, which is why it took so long to get him into jail. And as you said, they didn’t even get him on arms trafficking but rather on a lesser, different charge. So, that’s why, I think, you know, torpedoing the arms trade treaty is really unconscionable, because it makes it possible for the Viktor Bouts of the world to continue to operate relatively unimpeded.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, President Obama’s relationship with weapons manufacturers, with Lockheed Martin, with Boeing, with the many other in the military-industrial complex?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, he’s not at the level of the Bush administration, which really had many, many Lockheed Martin people in the administration. But they’ve had people, for example, lobbyists from Raytheon, top level jobs in the Pentagon. They’ve had advisers in the White House on the board of Boeing. They’ve been really—and, you know, as you mentioned, there’s people in the State Department bragging about how much they’ve helped the industry. And not only Obama, but the Congress, which gets millions of dollars from the industry, has people working there who used to work for companies like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman at the top levels of the Armed Services Committee in the two houses.

So, that’s exactly what Eisenhower was talking about, the revolving door from industry into government, the money flowing to government to help, you know, destroy arms export regulations, funding of right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, that helped block things like the arms trade treaty and reductions in military spending, cuts in the Star Wars program. So, unfortunately, you know, without more public pressure, which I think is necessary and possible, the military-industrial complex is going to roll over many of the things that most people in this country think our government should be doing in this area.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Hartung, I want to thank you for being with us, director of the Arms and Security Project of the Center for International Policy. Bill Hartung is author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.

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