Arab Spring: A Wake Up Call on U.S. Arms Policy

By Jeff Abramson

As President Obama openly ponders whether to arm rebels in Libya and the media is reporting that the CIA is already on the ground to potentially support that cause, attention is now focused on Libya. But one take away from the broader Arab spring is that it’s past time for a comprehensive review of U.S. arms transfer policy.

Admittedly, the United States was not the major arms supplier to Libya, but it certainly has not shied away from supplying arms to other repressive regimes. As highlighted in an earlier post and in ACA fact sheets, last year’s $100+ billion in potential foreign military sales was simply beyond the scale of what’s normal. Led by a disconcerting $60 billion+ deal to send fighter planes and attack helicopters to Saudi Arabia, the United States has been a major military supporter of the states involved in regional unrest, including Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and others.

ACA’s Xiaodon Liang has cross-checked the list of 28 countries for which Congress was notified of foreign military sales last year against the State Department’s own human rights reports. Reading these reports is, at times, more an art than science, but the overall picture is not pretty. More than a third (11) of the states failed to guarantee freedom of speech, association, and assembly, as well as a free press. Torture, arbitrary arrest, and discrimination remained a problem in many of these same states. (Spreadsheet and further explanation available here.)

For Saudi Arabia itself, the latest report says:

During the year the following significant human rights problems were reported: no right to change the government peacefully; disappearances; torture and physical abuse; poor prison and detention center conditions; arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention; denial of public trials and lack of due process in the judicial system; political prisoners; restrictions on civil liberties such as freedoms of speech (including the Internet), assembly, association, movement, and severe restrictions on religious freedom; and corruption and lack of government transparency. Violence against women, violations of the rights of children, and discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, sect, and ethnicity were common. The employment sponsorship system limited the rights of foreign workers and remained a severe problem.

U.S. reaction to the events of September 11, 2001, has certainly been a driver for many of the arms sales and military assistance efforts of the past decade. Looking at 25 countries in a study conducted in 2007, arms expert Rachel Stohl found that “Washington has stepped up its sales and transfers of high-technology weapons, military training, and other military assistance to governments regardless of their respect for human rights, democratic principles, or nonproliferation.”

Recent turns in the U.S. and global economy are also being used by this administration to support an overhaul of U.S. export controls in part to “increase exports and create jobs,” according to the President.  While supposed to improve national security, many watchers are deeply concerned about the potential negative consequences of making it easier to export military and dual-use goods and services.

Despite all these developments, what hasn’t changed is the underlying directive behind U.S. arms transfer policy, President Clinton’s 1995 PDD 34. That directive espouses a number of laudable goals such as “Promoting peaceful conflict resolution and arms control, supporting regional stability, avoiding human rights violations, and promoting other U.S. foreign policy objectives such as the growth of democratic states.” Recent arms sales certainly don’t appear to meet these basic criteria. And, the directive itself does not provide much guidance as to how to choose among different goals.

Of course, the arms trade by definition is not a U.S. affair, but an international one. Using Libya as an example, SIPRI senior research Pieter D. Wezeman did an excellent job of framing this in a recent essay:

Soon after the First Gulf War, the international community reviewed their arms trade policies, realizing that supplying arms to Iraq may have strengthened Saddam Hussein’s belief that he could invade Kuwait without punishment. Guidelines for arms exports were formulated, and transparency in international arms flows increased. The role of arms supplies to Libya in the present conflict must be similarly examined. The swiftness with which an arms embargo was imposed as a first action is encouraging. However, to inform the debate on arms trade controls, a critical evaluation of arms supply policies towards Libya is paramount in order to assess how such policies risk emboldening authoritarian regimes and how commercial and national interests may blind governments to the repercussions involved in arms trade.

It’s past time to wake up and take off the blinders.

While the United States may be much less responsible for trade with Syria than other states,

About Jeff Abramson

Deputy Director, Arms Control Association
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