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U.S. Weapons at War 2008 (Executive Summary)

Beyond the Bush Legacy
December 2008 |

The United States is the world's leading arms exporting nation, accounting for over 45 percent of all weapons transferred globally in 2007.

The United States is also by far the world's largest provider of security assistance, a substantial portion of which involves cash support, subsidized weapons transfers, and military training. During the Bush administration alone, Washington provided over $108 billion in security assistance to scores of countries under over a dozen separate programs. Much of this aid has been provided to countries viewed as actual or potential partners in waging the "global war on terrorism," with little attention paid to human rights, nonproliferation, or arms control concerns.

As the Bush administration enters its final weeks in office, it is a good time to reassess current U.S. arms transfer policies and practices to determine whether such important issues as human rights and conflict prevention are being given adequate consideration in determining who gets what weaponry from the United States.

Curbing weapons transfers to undemocratic regimes and human rights abusers is sound policy not only on moral grounds but also on national security grounds. While these sales are often justified on the basis of their purported benefits, from securing access to overseas military facilities to rewarding coalition allies in conflicts such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the alleged benefits often come at a high price. By propping up repressive regimes and fueling regional arms races, arms transfers often promote the very instability that they are meant to reduce. And in too many cases, arms and military technology sent to allies of the moment end up in the hands of U.S. adversaries down the road, as happened in the cases of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Islamic fundamentalist fighters in Afghanistan. Last, but not least, these ill-considered transfers undermine the global reputation of the United States and are, in turn, impediments to winning the "war of ideas" in the Muslim world and beyond.

A new policy should not seek to reduce arms transfers as a goal in and of itself, but rather to strike a balance between short-term political and military considerations and long-term U.S. interests in peace and stability. In many cases, seeking to enhance the role of human rights and conflict prevention in U.S. arms transfer policy will involve complex trade-offs, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, where massive "train and equip" programs are central to the goal of reducing the direct U.S. military presence in those nations, although the new military and police forces in those nations have far to go in meeting basic human rights standards.

While the sheer volume of U.S. arms transfers is a matter of concern, the real question is how these weapons end up being used. Are U.S.-supplied arms and training helping fledgling democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan to provide for their own security in ways that can reduce the need for American "boots on the ground?" Do U.S. weapons exports to potential adversaries like India and Pakistan or Turkey and Iraq increase the likelihood of local and regional conflict? Are adequate measures being taken to ensure that the accelerating flow of U.S. weaponry onto the global market is not being diverted into the hands of anti-U.S. forces? These are the kinds of questions that should be addressed by any new arms transfer policy.

Finally, as part of a "fresh start" for U.S. foreign policy, the new administration and the new Congress should take a serious look at participating in multilateral efforts to curb destructive and destabilizing weapons exports. The most important current initiatives in this regard are the new international ban on cluster munitions (which has been endorsed by over 100 countries) and the pursuit of a global arms trade treaty would establish more rigorous human rights conditions for weapons exports.

Summary of Findings

We're #1

  • The United States is the world's top arms-supplying nation, having entered into over $32 billion in Foreign Military Sales (FMS) agreements in 2007-a nearly three-fold increase over 2005.
  • During 2006 and 2007, the United States provided weapons and military training to over 174 states and territories, up from 123 states and territories in 2001, the first year of the Bush administration. While many of these transfers were relatively small deals completed under the commercial licenses granted by the State Department, a number of key countries of strategic significance were added and/or restored to the U.S. client list during the Bush years, including Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Liberia.

Fueling Conflict

  • Of the 27 major conflicts under way during 2006/07, 20 involved one or more parties that had received arms and training from the United States.
  • Total U.S. transfers to areas of active conflict exceeded $11 billion in 2006/07. The five biggest recipients were Pakistan ($3.7 billion), Turkey ($3.0 billion), Israel ($2.1billion), Iraq ($1.4 billion), and Colombia ($575 million).

Arming Human Rights Abusers

  • More than half (13) of the top 25 U.S. arms recipients in the developing world during 2006/07 were either undemocratic governments or regimes that engaged in major human rights abuses. This represents a one-third reduction from 2005, when 18 of the top 25 U.S. recipients fit these categories. But even given this positive change, the current pattern of U.S. sales remains in stark contrast to the Bush administration's pro-democracy rhetoric.
  • Total U.S. arms transfers to undemocratic governments and/or major human rights abusers totaled more than $16.2 billion in 2006/07, and the top recipients were Pakistan ($3.7 billion), Saudi Arabia ($2.5 billion), Iraq ($1.4billion), United Arab Emirates ($983 million), (Kuwait ($879 million), Egypt ($845 million), Jordan ($474 million), and Bahrain ($308 million).
  • The majority of the undemocratic and/or human rights abusing governments armed by the United States are in the two regions viewed as "central" to the war on terrorism: the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Bahrain) and South Asia (Afghanistan and Pakistan).

Subsidizing Weapons Sales

  • U.S. security assistance funding has nearly doubled over the past eight years, from an average of $6-$8 billion a year prior to the first Bush term to an average of $14-$15 billion a year during the Bush administration.
  • Of the over $108 billion in security assistance funding authorized from FY 2002 to FY 2008, over a third-$39.7 billion-was disbursed through new programs like the Afghan and Iraq Train and Equip programs, the Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP), the Pentagon's Section 1206 program, and the Coalition Support Fund program of assistance to countries fighting alongside U.S. forces in Iraq or Afghanistan. All of these programs are authorized and implemented by the Pentagon, and all of them are markedly less transparent and accountable than traditional security assistance programs supervised by the State Department.
  • Of the top ten U.S. arms recipients in the developing world, five-Pakistan, Iraq, Israel, Egypt and Colombia-rely heavily on U.S. government subsidies to purchase U.S. weapons. These countries track closely with the top recipients of U.S. security assistance during the Bush administration (FY 2002 to FY 2009), which are as follows: Afghanistan ($29.7billion), Iraq ($27.9 billion), Israel ($21.6 billion), Egypt ($14.9 billion), and Pakistan ($9.7 billion). These five countries alone account for over 83 percent of all security assistance disbursed by the Bush administration in the FY 2002 through FY 2008 budgets.


The next president and the new Congress should:

  • Develop a new arms transfer policy directive within its first six months in office establishing clearer criteria for arms transfer decision making that strike a balance among military, political, economic, human rights, and nonproliferation objectives.
  • Establish common standards of transparency and accountability for all arms transfer and security assistance programs, including required reporting on amounts disbursed, countries served, and weapons systems and training provided.
  • Reverse the trend toward situating security assistance programs within the Pentagon budget, on the grounds that the State Department is best equipped to mesh the competing interests that U.S. foreign and military policies are meant to address.
  • Endorse and/or ratify key international initiatives like the treaty banning anti-personnel land mines, the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), and the proposed global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).
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A new policy should not seek to reduce arms transfers as a goal in and of itself, but rather to strike a balance between short-term political and military considerations and long-term U.S. interests in peace and stability.