The $110 Billion Myth of Supporting Saudi Arabia’s Defense Needs

Amidst a range of domestic controversies and the pushback against his agenda and actions, President Trump went back to one of his default personas, that of a self-proclaimed dealmaker "strongly protecting American interests." During his trip to Saudi Arabia, President Trump signed an almost $ 110 billion arms deal supposedly in support of Saudi Arabia’s defense.

A May 20, 2017 press release "Supporting Saudi Arabia’s Defense Needs" from the U.S. State Department outlines the framework. How $110 billion worth of killing machinery such as tanks, artillery, helicopters, combatant ships, and other weapons systems reflect the State Department’s slogan "Diplomacy in Action" is a mythological stretch of imagination. More importantly though, this deal is the continuation of global arms trade practices that are sustained by several myths which are driven by a militarist consensus and acceptance of war profiteering regardless of who is President. With the help of historian Paul Holden and colleagues’ 2016 book Indefensible: Seven myths that sustain the global arms trade, it is now possible to shed new light on what we are led to believe such deals achieve.

The myth of increased security: According to the State Department, this deal supports the long-term security of Saudi Arabia in the face of malign Iranian influence and threats. That’s unlikely, given that Holden and colleagues demonstrated that increased weapons spending leads to arms races, increases security threats due to ill-conceived usage, and under-sources important nonmilitary action. Looking at the bloodshed in the region, we now can say with certainty that the continued influx of weapons makes civilians caught in violent conflict less secure.

The myth of a sound national security analysis: More weapons provided by the United States into a volatile region will not only add fuel to the many regional fires, it will also undermine successful diplomatic initiatives such as the Iran Nuclear Deal. It is more likely that such deals are driven by economic considerations – that is, corporate profits or flat out corruption. In fact, the State Department does not hide the fact that this deal presumably expands opportunities for American companies in the region.

The myth of controlling how the weapons are used: Backed by the US, Saudi Arabia is fighting a war in Yemen, which, according to the United Nations humanitarian affairs office is "experiencing the world’s largest humanitarian crisis." In other words, this arms deal will lead to continued killing of Yemeni people by US weapons of war. Women. Children. Civilians. Administration officials are well aware of how these weapons are used, even though Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis called for UN brokered negotiations of the conflict. This was just a month before the $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, which is being sold to the public in a sterile narrative of bolstering the security of our allies with U.S. weapons. Of course, we must not dismiss the fact that authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia have been known to use weaponry against their own citizens to crush any form of dissent.

The myth of arms deals as job creators: The State Department does not even try to hide that one of the objectives of the Saudi arms deal is to create tens of thousands of new jobs in the United States. There are two flaws with this argument. First, Holden and colleagues demonstrate that military spending is strongly correlated with poorer economic growth and that it can actually hurt the economy. A study found that defense spending creates far fewer jobs than spending on health care, education, green economy or tax cuts. Second, aren’t we morally bankrupt when we even begin to accept the possibility that exporting weapons of war is necessary to drive our economy?

The myth that corruption only exists in developing countries: The current administration’s officials and advisors demonstrate unprecedented levels of ethically questionable connections between their roles as public servants and the many business and consulting entities they belong or belonged to. Some of the more reserved voices talk about kleptocracy, others go straight to the "Banana Republic" analogy. This, together with an already existing arms trade context where blanket secrecy is accepted under the national security disguise, is extremely worrisome.

Some might ask: But what about the seven-decade long security relations between the US and Saudi Arabia? What about our steadfast ally in the region? Despite its "imperfections," don’t we need Saudi Arabia to keep the evil Iranians at bay and rid the world of evil Islamic terrorists? These questions place hope in an authoritarian regime acting only in its self-interest and preservation, it also labels an entire nation as evil, and completely misunderstands threats stemming from terrorism. Regardless of those flaws, the answer to all these questions should include justification for why we are not supporting the proven effective nonviolent measures to the many challenges we are facing.

The Alliance for Peacebuilding, for example, is a network of over 100 professional organizations working to resolve conflict and create sustainable peace in 153 countries. These organizations are doing great work, but are underfunded. According to the Peace and Security Funding Index, less than 1 percent ($357 million) of total foundation giving goes toward global peace and security. Organizations and foundations in this sector work toward the prevention and mitigation of conflict, resolving conflict and building peace, and supporting stable and resilient societies. Can we only take a moment to imagine what would happen if we switched the numbers: the US signs a weapons deal with Saudi Arabia over $357 million dollars, and foundations are able to contribute $110 billion to peace and security through nonviolent measures.

Patrick. T. Hiller, Ph.D., syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Conflict Transformation scholar, professor, served on the Governing Council of the International Peace Research Association (2012-2016), member of the Peace and Security Funders Group, and Director of the War Prevention Initiative of the Jubitz Family Foundation.