phrase "Obama has a lot on his plate" is the understatement of the
year. The president has a to-do list a mile long, and every day a new crisis
(like the coup in Honduras)
gets added to the list. Can we really fault him if he sneaks the occasional
But before he heads out to the presidential woods, one of the tasks still
undone is to update and revise U.S.
arms export policy. The last official version of U.S.
arms export policy is from the Clinton
years. In addition to the usual rhetoric about promoting regional stability,
ensuring U.S. military superiority, and promoting "peaceful conflict
resolution and arms control, human rights, democratization," Presidential
Decision Directive 34 (February 1995) inserted a new consideration:
"enhanc[ing] the ability of the U.S. defense industrial base to meet U.S.
defense requirements and maintain long term military superiority at lower
costs." In other words, a potential arms sale should be judged in part on
whether it is good for weapons manufacturers.
Not every administration needs a formal export policy. Under the guise of
the global war on terror, President George W. Bush fast-tracked weapons sales, released
countries from arms embargoes, and pumped more money into foreign military aid.
His policy was -- in essence --sell, sell, sell, and he did it without issuing
a formal policy statement.
But now, President Barack Obama needs to decisively break with Bush era
practices. Unfortunately, so far the administration is opting for less clarity
and more verbiage.
With Friends Like These
At a May 2009 Defense Writers Group convened by the Center for Media and
Security, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy was asked
"whether the Obama administration will follow the general policy of
supporting exports?" and "do you anticipate any change in terms of
where US arms will be sold?" Flournoy responded: "We don't have a
sort of arms sale policy as much as more a sense of commitment to building
partner capacity." But she asserted that the United States isn't going to
"hawk" a given weapon system around the world. She said something
similar a month earlier, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
We "have a direct interest in helping our allies and partners build their
capacity to be security contributors, to be able to step up alongside us in
shoring up the international system."
Vice Admiral Jeffrey Wieringa, the head of the Pentagon agency that
administers weapons exports, was blunter: "We sell stuff to build
But last year, the United
States sold arms or military services to
well over 100 nations. Can they all really be reliable security
partners? If not, will the Obama administration shorten this extensive list of
customers? And will it seek better ways to build ties to countries like Pakistan than sending them nuclear-capable F-16
fighters, which are more likely to be used against India than in fighting al-Qaeda or
Absent an explicit shift away from Bush administration policies, U.S. weapons
sales are likely to continue to fuel conflict and abet human rights abuses.
During the two Bush terms, the majority of U.S. arms sales to the developing
world went to countries that our own State Department defined as undemocratic
regimes and/or major human rights abusers. And over two-thirds of the world's
active conflicts involved weapons that had been supplied by the United States.
One thing is clear. In the absence of a firm and clear policy, a lot of
weapons are being exported. In fiscal year 2008, the foreign military sales
program sold $36 billion in weapons and defense articles, an increase of more
than 50% over 2007. Sales for the first half of 2009 reached $27 billion, and
could top out at $40 billion by the end of the year. In contrast, through the
early 2000s, arms sales averaged between $8-13 billion per year.
The Push Factor
Among the many limitations of Undersecretary Flournoy's formulation of the
Pentagon's "commitment to building partner capacity" is that it
avoids confronting the domestic constituency for weapons exports, namely
weapons manufacturers and their congressional allies.
This dynamic is now being played out over the F-22 Raptor. This irrelevant
high-tech wonder, originally conceived to counter a Soviet-era plane that was
never built, has for the moment been saved from the ignobility of Defense
Secretary Robert Gates' cutting room floor by a concerted effort from Lockheed
Martin executives, machinist union members, and congressional representatives
with manufacturing facilities in their districts (and company checks in their
coffers). The Air Force has said they don't need the F-22, and Gates himself
pointed out that it had flown no missions in Iraq
But rather than planning for the eventuality that the F-22 production line will
close in a year or two, Lockheed Martin and its allies are fighting back. They
may or may not win their battle to add up to a dozen F-22s to this year's
military budget. But should these efforts fail, they have a fallback position:
export them. Japan, Israel, and Australia have all expressed strong
interest in the fighter plane. Current law prohibits foreign sales of the F-22,
but Lockheed and its friends in Congress are pushing to change that. Japan is
playing its part by harping on fears of foreign competition. Japan has
announced that if the F-22 is not available it could go with the European
stoking of the competitive fires is just one example of rising global demand
for high-tech weapons. A dozen or so nations are in the market for fighter
planes, including Brazil, Denmark, and Greece. And as Boeing's Vice
President Robert Gower told reporters in Paris,
"It is a great time to be in the fighter business."
Loren Thompson, a pro-export pundit with the Lexington Institute --
and not so coincidentally, a consultant to Lockheed Martin -- takes it a
step further, predicting that for the United States, "weapons could be the
single biggest export item over the next ten years."
Increased weapons sales will certainly help defense contractors weather the
current economic crisis. But they won't help the overall U.S. economy or
the security of the international community.