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Free Minds & Free Markets

The President Shouldn't Act as an Arms Dealer to the Saudis

"The business of buying weapons that takes place in the Pentagon is a corrupt business."

In May 2017, President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia to finalize a massive $110 billion sale of "American-made" weapons. The deal was part of his America First initiative. "That was a tremendous day," Trump said. "Hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States and jobs, jobs, jobs."

The Trump administration hopes to expand this effort via arms export deregulation. "We want to see those guys, the commercial and military attachés, unfettered to be salesmen for this stuff, to be promoters," a senior administration official told Reuters.

Every president promotes the sale of U.S. weapons. But Trump's push is especially vigorous and is based on a misleading claim that increased sales will create thousands of jobs in the United States. The truth, however, is that the jobs generated from selling weapons won't be U.S. jobs but Saudi ones. As William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, explains, "This will be no different than with the F-35 program, where final assembly of aircraft sold to Europe and Asia will occur in Italy and Japan, respectively."

Nevertheless, defense contractors in the U.S. will make a literal and figurative killing. Not counting this Saudi deal, the U.S. has sold close to $200 billion in arms since 2002. We are the top provider in the global weapons market, responsible for a third of total worldwide arms exports, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Many think American arms dominance is not just a source of revenue but important to our geopolitical hegemony. According to this view, losing our supremacy would jeopardize our security and reduce U.S. gross domestic product. But this theory was challenged and debunked by George Mason University economists Christopher Coyne and Abigail Hall in a 2013 working paper. Their main takeaway was that the risk of negative foreign policy consequences, such as powerful U.S. weapons being used to kill large numbers of civilians abroad, far outweigh any economic benefits.

As SIPRI explains, "The USA delivered major weapons to at least 96 states in 2011–15, a significantly higher number of export destinations than any other supplier." How do we assess whether all of these countries are safe bets? A recent study by the Cato Institute provides compelling evidence that the U.S. is actually quite careless about whom it sells to. Authors A. Trevor Thrall and Caroline Dorminey produced an index of the overall riskiness of arms trade deals since 2002 that shows the United States does not discriminate between high- and low-risk customers. "The average sales to the riskiest nations are higher than those to the least risky nations," they write. "The 22 countries coded as 'highest risk' on the Global Terrorism Index bought an average of $1.91 billion worth of American weapons. The 28 countries in active, high-level conflicts bought an average of $2.94 billion worth of arms."

Selling weapons to unstable states is dangerous, but so is selling to countries like Saudi Arabia, the leading buyer of American arms according to SIPRI. The precision-guided munitions the Saudis purchased from the U.S., for example, have been used to kill hundreds of civilians in Yemen. For the sake of enriching military contractors and paying lip service to "Made in America," we too often enable autocrats to commit murder. And as Cato's risk assessment demonstrates, we're also arguably sowing seeds of destabilization and conflict.

The inherent cronyism is problematic as well. "The business of buying weapons that takes place in the Pentagon is a corrupt business," retired Air Force Col. James Burton wrote in his 1993 book The Pentagon Wars, "ethically and morally corrupt from top to bottom. The process is dominated by advocacy, with few if any checks and balances." As Thrall and Dorminey report, banking on arms sales inevitably means offering long-term subsidies to private companies. That taxpayer money could be put to much better use.

Photo Credit: Joanna Andreasson. Wikimedia.

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  • colorblindkid||

    I used to think this. The main problem, not addressed here, is that these countries will get weapons with or without us. Russia and now China will not stop arms dealing. Short of some international weapons dealing ban which would be impossible to enforce, there's really nothing we can do. It's one of those things where idealism blinds is to reality.

    It's similar to environmentalists who try to stop all pipelines, so Canada just ships the oil by rail, truck, and boat, leading to more spills and deaths than a pipeline would cause. In an ideal world, we wouldn't need pipelines, but that oil is going to be transported no matter what we do, so might as well try to make it as less risky as possible.

  • jcw||

    This is a farcical comment. This article isn't about these countries being able to get guns from someone if not from us. It's discussing the ethical and moral quandaries of selling weapons to people we know will kill civilians. You completely miss the point of the article so you can make some weird analogy to environmentalists.

  • a tandem||

    This article isn't about these countries being able to get guns from someone if not from us

    And your point is a critique of the article noting it utterly ignores reality is immaterial to a discussion?

    Fungible (alternative) supply IS always a core element in a discussion of trying to control supply! Do you think it was immaterial to consider alternate supply of alcohol from Canada, Scotland, Ireland and domestic illegal production in a discussion of the moral imperative of alcohol prohibition? If that core element had not been ignored we might not have created a gigantic mafia.

    Also to what county to which the US has sold arms that has not killed civilians? The UK in 1943? it did. France in 1914? It did. Greece in the Greek "civil war" to prevent it ending up like Albania or Bulgaria for 50 years? Greece did. Did Obama kill civilians with drone strikes in Yemen? He did.

    The article was full of holes and the OP critique was entirely valid for consideration

  • jcw||

    Fungible (alternative) supply IS always a core element in a discussion of trying to control supply!

    This article is not about trying to control supply to these countries. It's whether USA is the country to supply or not. It's not about stopping China or Russia from selling. You are framing the content of the article wrong.

    Also to what county to which the US has sold arms that has not killed civilians? The UK in 1943? it did. France in 1914? It did. Greece in the Greek "civil war" to prevent it ending up like Albania or Bulgaria for 50 years? Greece did. Did Obama kill civilians with drone strikes in Yemen? He did.

    Okay. This information is supposed to prove what? That selling weapons to countries has a sordid history of civilians being killed? I don't think any additional evidence was necessary, but thanks.

  • a tandem||

    100% agree. the article is almost comical in its gymnastics. What is with the scare quotes in "American made" as if they are not. And making the numbers look unprecedented is silly, in terms of real dollars they are not at all
    And asserting that buyers have to be safe bets is more than a little nuts. Was the UK in 1940 a "safe bet"? Was s France a 'safe bet in 1915?

    And no mention or consideration it the article of the deterrent effect? Saudi an ally in an exceptionally nasty neighborhood. A military weaker Saudi which has been directly threatened in recent years by Iran, Iraq and hyper nasty insurgents in Yemen would mean less regional stability not more.

    Your point on the oil pipelines is especially cogent. Only naïve and dangerously ignorant on history refuse to consider what the alternatives would produce. I just looked up the spill data and on the measure that matters for land transport, spills barrels per mile per barrel transported; pipelines are by far the sagest and most secure from spills.

  • mtrueman||

    "A military weaker Saudi which has been directly threatened in recent years by Iran, Iraq and hyper nasty insurgents in Yemen would mean less regional stability not more."

    Isn't instability the whole point? It guarantees arms sales, and deters rivals like China from investing and extending her growing influence. A stable middle east means a declining American empire.

  • a tandem||

    If you see everything as conspiracies, maybe.

    Those areas were unstable violent mess before the English grabbed nominal control of parts of Yemen as a coaling station. Even the Ottomans only had marginal garrison control there. It's one of the most notoriously ungovernable sub region in the world.

    Do you think the Saudis are thinking "we are doing this to enable US empire? WTF, no they are not. They ae trying to defend difficult borders against a long term insurgency across that border.

    That is why your position represents a tautology: one could more easily say lack of arms deters rivals like china from in vesting; or a stable middle east guarantees increasing American empire. Iif stability means declining US influence why does the US have the most influence in the most stable coutnries there?

    As far as China, there is a reason why it has no allies, not one. China is not a real rival to the US because the US transcended lone state power long ago with a massive network of security allies and the fact that the US economic system was adopted by the world. China is operating on assumptions of lone state power that began becoming unimportant long ago. it a big one state to be sure, but its future is essentially having the biggest shiniest horse and buggy just as everyone adopts the automobile. It is not as inherently doomed as the USSR,but it has many fundamental problems that will just get worse, like its poltical system being utterly undemocratic

  • mtrueman||

    "That is why your position represents a tautology: one could more easily say lack of arms deters rivals like china from in vesting; or a stable middle east guarantees increasing American empire. "

    China is investing lots of money in stable countries like south east asia. With developments in Korea they are poised to invest in North Korea, like highways, rail links, and pipelines. Once the Russians and Hezbollah etc clear out the salafists in Syria, they seem ready to invest there too. Chinese investment in any of these places will tend to strengthen Chinese influence, not American influence.

    "Iif stability means declining US influence why does the US have the most influence in the most stable coutnries there?"

    Like Turkey, you mean? My impression is that US influence is on the wain there.

    "like its poltical system being utterly undemocratic"

    This didn't stop China from pulling hundreds of millions out of poverty over the past few decades. There are lots of places in the world which look upon Chinese achievements with envy, undemocratic tendencies not with stand ing.

  • Art Gecko||

    I hate to prove Godwin's Law correct, but it sure seems like we should have sold Zyklon B to the Nazis, because somebody else would have if we didn't.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    So unconditional free trade is suddenly not so unconditional.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    The US Government directly brokering arms deals has squat to do with free trade.

  • a tandem||

    so you support the alternative of US armaments and defense technology makers doing it with no US government participation or oversight?

  • mtrueman||

    That's the libertarian position for the domestic arms trade. I don't see why the international business should be any different. Free movement of people, goods and ideas is what libertarianism is all about.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    I'm sure you're as opposed to enforcement of state department munitions restrictions, right? Were you as concerned about releasing over 100BB to Iran?

    Now you've got a point about any subsidies involved but that's not even the primary argument here. Worrying about what the buyers will do with it is. And here I thought libertarian dogma was that you can't take any preemptive action. Do the buyers not have agency? If not, then why aren't gun dealers complicit in every gun death?

  • Conchfritters||

    I would sell every fucking bullet, tank, F-15, humvee that I could to the Saudis. What the fuck are they going to do with it? They are hands down the worst military on the face of the earth. They handed out Maseratis to each of their pilots after their first bombing runs in Yemen. Several years later, they can't even close the deal against the rebel uprising there, and the have probably the second most advanced military in the ME next to Israel.

  • Kreel Sarloo||

    Trouble with that argument is that while the Saudis may have totally fucked up, they have created a huge body count and have destroyed a lot of Yemen's infrastructure.

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    ""Several years later, they can't even close the deal against the rebel uprising there,""

    Sounds like our tryst in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • a tandem||

    "they cant even close the deal on uprising" is utterly absurd comment. I spent six months in Yemen with a major NGO. It is 14th century in attitude, has deep tribal loyalty, and every man woman and child is heavily armed.

    Nothing could be more idiotic and a worse strawman than to set the bar for Saudi or anyone else to have totally "ended" an insurgency there which is essentially permanent. The Saudi goal is to reduce how much it effects them, and to say they should just do nothing, just lay back and let themselves get screwed is just not sober.

    Same with the strawman implications on Afghanistan and to some degree with Iraq. The goal was to deter state level support of major, across hemispheres global reach, large scale terrorism. That was largely accomplished. In the range of actins to reduce the slam dunk probability of this occurring again ALL the choices were bad. doing nothing was the worst.

    did we test the embargo and no fly in Iraq, which easily killed more Iraqi children than the war, on democratizing and fully normalizing Iraq? The concept of normalizing and democratizing Afghanistan was distant and low probability secondary target outcome.

  • Rhywun||

    I believe the state shouldn't be selling weapons to anyone - it's totally immoral. Jobs and whatnot are just a red herring.

  • a tandem||

    You say it is immoral but your alternative to government involvement is no government involvement. And your suggestion is any and all US arms makers/vendors being to sell any and all foreign governments with no US government involvement/oversight?

  • ||

    And your suggestion is any and all US arms makers/vendors being to sell any and all foreign governments with no US government involvement/oversight?

    Absofuckingloutely.

    First, a system with State oversight is no guarantee of anything, except that my tax money continues to be used on weapons that will be used on people who've never aggressed against me. Any moral choice has been taken from me.

    In a more free arms market, I'm able to withhold my support of businesses that sell in a manner I deem irresponsible.

  • a tandem||

    I get that. But keep in mind modern weaponry costs have huge R&D that is why selling recent but not current prior gen reduces costs. So to some degree, as far as what business you support it is more likely you will be forced to support those business more, not less as you will have to put more money into them in your tax funding of US defense armaments and equipment spending.

    In terms of withhold you support you also have no real idea what business are doing what, since the huge majority of value in any modern weapons system is scores if not hundred of vendors, contractors, designers, manufacturers on a single item and utterly opaque to you.

    Who makes the upholstery on an a CH-47? The brakes? The secondary circuit board on a Harpoon? and who makes each component on that board? Where is it put in by which subcontractor? Who makes the propeller on an LCS Frigate? The cooling systems?

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Who makes the propeller on an LCS Frigate?

    I'd prefer no one in this case. Navy really fucked that one up.

  • Rhywun||

    I didn't make any "suggestion". I simply stated a value judgement.

  • a tandem||

    That kind of value means you think No US citizen ought to be armed despite armed Us civilians preventing a while lot more crime than committed with them.

    On the nation state level and on the individual level being more weak makes victimization, be it state level war, insurgency or street crime victimization, more likely not less.

  • Rhywun||

    I specifically said "the state". You're putting words in my mouth that I never said.

  • ThomasD||

    Not seeing how sales of weapons, or anything else is inherently immoral.

    Do you oppose the state selling weapons to civilians via the CMP?

  • Rhywun||

    It is when the state is doing it.
    I oppose the state selling anything, to be honest.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Ideally I want the state to sell as much of what it does as possible. That way I get to say no just like with any private entity in this "government controlled economy."

  • ThomasD||

    While I agree that government should not be in the business of selling much of anything that can be privately produced, in this case they aren't so much selling as sanctioning someone else's sales. Absent that sanction the manufacturers would be prohibited from making the sale.

    I don't like the latter and would prefer it not be the case, but in the situation we have now the government should be as least restrictive as possible.

  • Kreel Sarloo||

    The presumption with the government selling surplus weapons through the CMP is that the buyers are not going to do anything with those weapons that is hostile to the interests of either the government or the people of the country.

  • ThomasD||

    The only presumption the government should entertain is the one that says they have no business deciding such matters.

    This is a libertarian website, you know...

  • Social Justice is neither||

    Is the US Government acting as the vendor or financier for these transactions or merely lifting restrictions on their suppliers for sales to selected 3rd parties for equipment developed specifically for US military use?

    I'd agree with you on the first two, but the third...meh.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Bingo.

  • ThomasD||

    "Their main takeaway was that the risk of negative foreign policy consequences, such as powerful U.S. weapons being used to kill large numbers of civilians abroad, far outweigh any economic benefits."

    An Utilitarian argument.

    I'm not seeing anything remotely approaching libertarianism in this article.

  • ThomasD||

    The actual libertarian argument being "Saudi Arabia (or anyone else) should not have to go through the Federal government to obtain access to US arms manufacturers."

  • Kreel Sarloo||

    I'm not sure about that.

    What if your neighbor came to you and said, "Goddamn it, Tom, I'm so pissed of that sonofabitch Tony up the street. Will you sell* me one of your guns so I can blow the motherfucker away?" What would you do?

    Would you intervene in some way if you saw a transaction like that happening between two of your neighbours?

    *obviously as a good libertarian, he would never ask you to give it to him. :)

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    You mean like releasing 100BB to a known state sponsor of terrorism? Remind me where reason came down on that one.

  • mtrueman||

    Reason came down against the salafists. A pretty consistent position for the magazine.

  • Chereth Cutestory maritime aty||

    Obama and Kerry, among others, should be executed for treason base in that alone.

  • Kreel Sarloo||

    For what? Releasing a countries assets as a concession for successfully completed treaty negotiations?

  • ThomasD||

    What treaty?

    Choose your answer carefully, lest you look rather foolish.

  • mtrueman||

    "Will you sell* me one of your guns so I can blow the motherfucker away?"

    What if the gun was Tom's in the first place and only given to you for safe keeping on the understanding that Tom could have it back whenever he asked for it? Would that change the calculations at all?

  • Kreel Sarloo||

    OK

    1) In the scenario, Tom was the guy that the the angry and unnamed neighbor asked for the gun so the gun is assumed to belong to Tom....

    Oh, fuck it, reread my comment and the go hang your head in shame.

  • mtrueman||

    What if someone had given you a gun for safe keeping on the understanding that you'd return the gun (which was his and not yours) when he asked for it. And when he did ask for it to be returned to him, he uttered threats against another and seemed off his head with anger. Would that change the calculations?

  • ThomasD||

    Amazing how these libertarians are now advocating that it is the duty of the United States to be it's international brother's keeper.

    At least insofar as weapons are concerned...

    Paternalistic statism is still statism, regardless of whether it in intra or international.

  • mtrueman||

    Successful paternalism requires knowing the difference between right and wrong.

  • ThomasD||

    Is the goal of US foreign policy successful paternalism?

    Is the goal of any US policy successful paternalism?

    You can argue for the merits of a 'good' nannystate, but you are not going to win many converts here.

  • mtrueman||

    "Is the goal of any US policy successful paternalism?"

    Paternalism is the word you introduced. What do you say. I'd say the goal is domination.

  • ThomasD||

    Your hyperbolic example is rather not the case here, is it?

    They are inanimate objects. What business is it of the US government to restrict their sale or purchase?

    The only possible objection would be if the government financed the development of the items, and therefore had some credible claims to an ownership stake.

  • mtrueman||

    "Your hyperbolic example is rather not the case here, is it?"

    It's an example taken from Plato's Republic, if I recall correctly. His disquisition on justice. The nan owns the knife, no question about that, but Plato says the right thing to do in this case is to refuse to return the weapon, a knife in this case.

  • ThomasD||

    Your appeal to authority is noted.

    But the example is still not relevant to the actual circumstances.

    Might as well be comparing SA and Yemen to Cain and Abel.

  • mtrueman||

    I stole some ideas from Plato. I didn't appeal to authority. And I don't care whether or not it relates to arms sales to KSA. It's just an unanswered question I asked of a commenter.

  • sarcasmic||

    We're not allowed to care when our government actively supports governments that engage in aggression against civilians?

  • Kreel Sarloo||

    Even if "we" don't care about nitpicky moral issues, are we not allowed to care when our government actively supports governments that act in ways that are hostile to its interests?

  • ThomasD||

    So the Cuba embargo is totes legit?

  • sarcasmic||

    What is this? Iron Man 4.

  • JeremyR||

    Saudi Arabia is only killing people in Yemen because Iran is selling weapons and giving support to Yemen with the goal of destabilizing Saudi Arabia

    Blame should be on Iran and on Obama for him giving Iran lots and lots of money

  • mtrueman||

    "the goal of destabilizing Saudi Arabia"

    You mean like Saudi princes throwing other Saudi princes into prison? They don't need Iran's help to do that.

    I have to admit that I hadn't realized until today just how popular the Saudi Monarchy was with the commenters here. Do you take your talking points from FOX and repeat them here, or what? Who has made you a Saudi supporter?

  • John B. Egan||

    The war in Yemen is considered one of the present largest human disasters. Trump should not have sided with the Saudis and sold them arms. But, when you consider that when Trump and Ivanka met with the Saudis, shortly after that meeting, we had a deal to :Sell Billions in Arms to the Saudis, actually send US troops to aid the Saudis against the Yemen rebels, and approved the blockade of Qatar (which happens to house our US military's largest Mid-East military base..) .. and it 'coincidentally' occurred after this: Saudi Arabia, UAE pledge $100 million to ethically questionable fund proposed by Ivanka Trump. Wow! Shocked!

  • SIV||

    Weapons are cool. Government should get out of the way and allow a free market for arms sales

  • Peacedog||

    As one of the few people on this board who has ever been involved in the Foreign Military Sales process, I'll provide some light on what is happening with this program.

    First, it is highly regulated, so much so it reaches stupid levels of over-regulation. The four way circle jerk that is the negotiation between the DoD, the DoS, the state in question and the manufacturer has no parallel in any other country on the planet. It is inefficient and slow beyond all measure.

    Second, I suspect part of this is to overcome DoS game playing that benefits adversary countries selling their merchandise and penalizes US manufacturers. I was front stage to the Chilean F-16 sale and watched the DoS pull every available excuse out of their butts to deny and degrade the sale.

    Third, sales of US systems allow some degree of control over what the recipients of those systems do with them. Modern warfighting machinery stops working really quickly without spare parts. The US shows a fair degree of restraint in this regard. As opposed to the French, Russians or Chinese who just don't care what happens with their equipment.

  • Whorton||

    Remember the French Chauchat machine gun?

    That 'el fix em good!

  • Peacedog||

    Fourth, if you are really concerned about body counts of civilians, keep in mind that machetes and small arms have killed far more people in the shittier parts of the world than any number of tanks and airplanes sold by defense manufacturers. And no one has a practical plan to limit their sales worldwide.

    Fifth, the sales of highly complex machinery allows for contact with and influence over foreign militaries over a long period of time. Many aircraft and ships have functional lifespans that last decades. Do you really want the Chinese or Russians advising all of the Latin American militaries on how to handle internal security issues?

  • Whorton||

    So how is America better served if Saudi Arabia was equipped with Mig fighters, and Chinese AK-74 rifles?

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