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“Promoting Stability or Fueling Conflict?”: Biden’s U.S. Arms Sales Boom from Ukraine to Saudi Arabia

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We speak with national security expert William Hartung about the Biden administration’s unprecedented military spending on Ukraine and the impact of U.S. arms sales on national and global security. Despite Biden’s campaign promises to curb arms sales, Hartung says the administration has followed an “outmoded ideology” that necessitates the U.S. achieve global military dominance through weapons sales. “There’s a lot of money at stake, and it shapes policy in ways that are detrimental to human rights and peace and stability,” says Hartung, who also details the influence of the weapons lobby on government policy.

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

AMY GOODMAN: As the war in Ukraine enters its ninth month, NBC is reporting a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers are planning a new military aid package for Ukraine that could be worth as much as $50 billion, that would bring the total U.S. spending on Ukraine to a staggering $115 billion. This comes as Ukrainian officials are expressing fear U.S. aid may decrease next year if Republicans regain power in Congress. Last week, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he will not, quote, “write a blank check to Ukraine.” At a fundraiser Thursday night, President Biden criticized the Republican approach, saying, quote, “These guys don’t get it. It’s a lot bigger than Ukraine. It’s Eastern Europe. It’s NATO,” Biden said.

For more, we take a deeper look at arms sales under President Biden with Bill Hartung of the Quincy Institute, author of a new report titled “Promoting Stability or Fueling Conflict? The Impact of U.S. Arms Sales on National and Global Security.” In it, William Hartung writes, quote, “Aid designed to help Ukraine defend itself from Russia has proceeded at the most rapid pace of any U.S. military assistance program since at least the peak of the Vietnam War. But the United States has failed to offer an accompanying diplomatic strategy aimed at ending the war before it evolves into a long, grinding conflict or escalates into a direct U.S.-Russian confrontation.”

William Hartung, welcome back to Democracy Now! Why don’t you take it from there? Talk about what you found with arms spending under President Biden and what this means when it comes to diplomacy. What is possible?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, it’s interesting. Biden seemed like he was going to take a different approach. He described Saudi Arabia as a pariah regime. He said the United States would not check its values at the door when it came to arms sales. He said there would be no blank checks for Trump’s favorite dictator in Egypt. And yet, here we are a year and a half or so into his administration: We’re back to business as usual. Arms are flowing to Saudi Arabia. Congressional efforts to condition aid to Egypt on human rights concerns have been largely cast aside. As mentioned, there’s a huge flow of arms to Ukraine to defend itself, which I think defensive arms are reasonable, but without a diplomatic strategy, pouring weapons in and hoping for the best, I think, is a very dangerous approach.

So, the question is: Where are we now? And I think the one glow of hope is Congress. The recent Saudi decision to collaborate with Russia on oil prices has caused great anger in Congress, and there’s a bill by Representative Ro Khanna, Senator Richard Blumenthal that would suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia and spare parts and support for at least a year. There’s also a War Powers Resolution in the House and Senate that would cut off all U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia and push it to finally end its brutal war in Yemen. So, while Biden has fallen back from the kinds of promises he made when he was being elected, there’s still a strong core in Congress and in the advocacy community for a more restrained arms sales policy. And I think Saudi Arabia and the UAE are sort of at the center of that, but it’s a larger issue.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what caused President Biden to change his position on Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which he said he would be taking a very different approach on at the beginning of his term? How powerful is the military-industrial complex? I mean, we saw at the beginning, President Biden pulls out of Afghanistan. NATO looked nearly like it was possibly going to disband, and now everything has turned around.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Yeah, I think there’s two pieces. One is just kind of this outmoded ideology that says the United States has to have global military dominance, and that in order to do that, you need to sell weapons. You need to make some unsavory alliances in order to be able to project U.S. power into various parts of the world. They’ve fallen back into that mode.

But then, of course, there’s the weapons industry. And we found in our report that of the $100 billion in new major arms sales offers under Biden, more than half of them involve weapons built by just four companies: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics and Raytheon. So those companies are doing everything they can to make sure the U.S. sells to as many countries as possible and as wide array of systems as possible. They’ve got 300 lobbyists just amongst those four companies. And they employ former government employees, former heads of the Pentagon’s arms sales agency. They tout the jobs related to arms sales as a way to rope in members of Congress to support things they might otherwise oppose. So, that sort of bedrock of the military-industrial complex is something that every administration has to contend with.

And, of course, we’ve also seen foreign influence. As The Washington Post recently revealed, many, many former military officials are on the payrolls of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, other repressive regimes, helping them shape their militaries. And, of course, coming from the military knowing you’re going to get a payoff from one of these regimes may also influence how you treat those regimes when you’re actually in power and in the military. So, there’s a lot of money at stake, and it shapes policy in ways that are detrimental to human rights and peace and stability. Very good for Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and their cohorts.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you find when you talk — when you question the massive U.S. military funding for Ukraine, that you’re attacked by the establishment in the United States for being pro-Russia?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, I think, yeah, there’s a lot of that going around, and I think it’s — you know, it’s got a very Cold War flavor to it, obviously. But I think the question is: How do you stop the killing? How do you end this war in a way where Ukraine has its sovereignty intact, can move forward as a nation, where you don’t have a long, grinding war where these kinds of abuses go on indefinitely, where you don’t risk a U.S.-Russia confrontation, a confrontation between nuclear powers that could escalate to the nuclear level? And, you know, our organization is supportive of supplying weapons to Ukraine to defend itself, but that can’t be kind of a one-note policy.

And there certainly can’t be a policy that says we’re going to crush Putin, that backs him into a corner. You know, former head of the Joint Chiefs, Mike Mullen, has pointed out that that’s the thing you least want to do, that you really have to look for some sort of offramp. As even President Biden has said, with respect to his concerns about the nuclear issue, there has to be an offramp. But they haven’t defined that. We don’t know — perhaps there’s some sort of behind-the-scenes talks going on. Doesn’t appear so. There’s got to be a diplomatic strategy, a diplomatic track. It can’t just be about weapons and “we’re going to defeat Putin.” As emotionally satisfying as that might be, it’s a nuclear-armed power. You don’t want to make him think that his survival is in the mix here, because you don’t know what that’s going to lead to. So I think, really, it’s got to be a discussion on the merits of what’s the balance of diplomacy versus support for defense of Ukraine. And it’s been very hard to have that conversation, but I think it has to happen, and I think it will happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill, talk about your recommendations — for example, strengthening the ability of Congress to block dangerous sales by requiring congressional approval for major deals.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, when the Arms Export Control Act was passed in the ’70s — because arms sales were going through the roof to the Middle East and elsewhere, Congress had very little oversight or even information about it — Congress was given the right to vote down major deals. But as a result of various court cases, they had to have a veto-proof majority of both houses, which has never actually occurred. There was a deal voted down under Trump of bombs to Saudi Arabia, but he vetoed that congressional action, and Congress could not overcome the veto.

So, this approach would say, for major sales of consequence, Congress has to actually approve it. There’s got to be a positive congressional vote of approval, so that they don’t need a veto-proof majority. It puts some power in the hands of Congress over these sales that not only implicate human rights but could get the U.S. involved in major conflicts. So, it would be very much what was intended decades ago in terms of giving Congress a role but has never truly been fulfilled. And there is an act called the National Security Powers Act. There’s other sort of avenues where this might come about. But it would make a big difference. And, of course, the public would have a much stronger role, because they could press Congress on some of these things, like arming the Saudi regime, and Congress would have the power to really do something about it.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you have right now a group of Democrats calling for the U.S. to cease selling arms — we’re talking about multibillion dollars to Saudi Arabia — after the kingdom joined Russia in announcing it will cut oil production by as much as 2 million barrels a day, Bill.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Yes. You’ve got Ro Khanna and Senator Blumenthal of Connecticut. You’ve got Senator Menendez, who said we should cut off security cooperation, although he’s left a bit of a loophole as to what might be left over, viewed as for defending U.S. personnel, so his is a less clear demand. But there’s, I think, going to be growing support in Congress for some sort of arms cutoff, because Biden went to Saudi Arabia, you know, kind of hat in hand, begging Mohammed bin Salman to do something about oil prices, and he did exactly the opposite. And he did it in collaboration with Russia, which was a slap in the face to Biden, certainly, and just underscored the fact that the idea that you can do business with this regime and these arms sales as a way to influence to do anything that would benefit the United States is nonsense, is a fool’s errand. And so, I think Congress is recognizing this, and there may be some renewed energy behind things like a War Powers Resolution to end U.S. support, or a direct cutoff of and suspension of arms and spare parts.

So, we’re at another turning point, but the question is: Can this lead to real change? Because, of course, we had the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a huge upsurge of concern in Congress, newfound attention to the role of Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen, but the Saudis seem to have dodged that, and Biden was warming relations with them. Now we’ve got another chance to rethink that. And I think Congress and the public are going to have to do the pushing. The administration has said there will be consequences for Saudi Arabia of its recent actions, but they haven’t specified what those consequences will be. And there’s a danger that they will somehow once again keep the arms sales flowing.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Hartung, I want to thank you for being with us, national security and foreign policy expert at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. We’ll link to your report, “Promoting Stability or Fueling Conflict? The Impact of U.S. Arms Sales on National and Global Security.” He’s author of the book Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

Next up, we go to Jackson, Mississippi, to speak with the NAACP about the EPA’s civil rights investigation into the roots of Jackson’s water crisis. Stay with us.

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