Arming the Middle East

President George W Bush announced during his recent Middle East trip that he is formally serving notice to Congress of his administration’s decision to approve the sale of bomb-guidance kits to Saudi Arabia. This announcement follows notification on five other arms deals to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait that are part of a $20 billion package of additional armaments over the next decade to the family dictatorships of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf emirates announced by President George W. Bush last summer.

At that time, the Bush administration also announced taxpayer-funded military assistance totaling an additional $13 billion over this same period to the Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt. Also part of this package is an additional $30 billion worth of sophisticated weaponry bound for Israel.

Altogether, these arms deals represent a major setback for those struggling to promote peace and democracy in that volatile region.

The Democratic-controlled Congress has the authority to block any or all of these proposed sales. It could also refuse to approve the military assistance packages, which altogether total $63 billion. Congress has until February 13 to block the latest portion of the arms package, consisting of 900 Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, valued at $123 million. In addition to these highly advanced satellite-guided bombs, the Bush administration’s proposed arms sales to the Gulf monarchies include sophisticated guided missiles, new naval ships, and upgrades to fighter aircraft for Saudi Arabia and the five other Gulf monarchies.

However, no one among the top House or Senate leadership in either party has yet to come out in opposition to any aspect of the administration’s plans to dangerously escalate the regional arms race.

Still More Arms

Arms control analysts have consistently argued that the Middle East is too militarized already and the recipient governments already possess military capabilities well in excess of their legitimate security needs. Yet President Bush is effectively insisting that this volatile region does not yet have enough armaments, and the United States must send even more.

As disturbing as this is – depending on the time frame for the arms sales – it does not necessarily represent a dramatic increase in the rate of arms transfers. For example, since 1998, the United States has sent over $15 billion of American weaponry to Saudi Arabia alone. By contrast, even though Israel’s strategic superiority vis-à-vis all its potential regional adversaries is stronger than ever and Israel is already by far the highest recipient of U.S. military assistance, the proposed arms package to Israel marks a dramatic 25% increase over current levels.

The administration has claimed in recent years that it has disavowed the policies of its predecessors that propped up undemocratic regimes in the name of regional stability and was now dedicated to promoting freedom and democracy in the Middle East. Nevertheless, all seven of the Arab countries included in the proposed arms packages are led by autocratic governments that have engaged in consistent patterns of gross and persistent human rights abuses. In addition, Israel – while having the only democratically elected government among the recipients – remains in belligerent occupation of much of Palestine’s West Bank and Syria’s Golan Heights and has a longstanding history of using American weapons against civilians and related violations of international humanitarian law.

Though supporters of the recently announced arms sales to the Gulf argue that if the United States did not sell weapons to these oil-rich nations someone else would, neither the Bush administration nor its predecessors have ever expressed interest in pursuing any kind of arms control agreement with other arms exporting countries. A number of other arms exporters, such as Germany, are now expressing their opposition to further arms transfers to the region due to the risks of exacerbating tensions and promoting a regional arms race.

The United States is by far the largest arms exporter in the world, surpassing Russia – the second largest arms exporter – by nearly two to one.

The Iranian Rationalization

The ostensible reason for the proposed arms packages is to counter Iran’s growing military procurement in recent years, though Iranian military spending is actually substantially less than it was 20 years ago. Furthermore, Iran’s current military buildup is based primarily on the perceived need to respond to the threatened U.S. attack against that country, a concern made all the more real by the U.S. invasion and occupation of two countries bordering Iran on both its east and west in recent years.

This U.S. insistence on countering Iran through further militarizing this already overly militarized region is particularly provocative. Not only has the United States refused to engage in serious negotiations with Iran regarding mutual security concerns but it has discouraged its regional allies from pursuing arms control talks or other negotiations that could ease tensions between the Arab monarchies and the Islamic Republic. If the Bush administration were really interested in addressing its purported concerns regarding Iranian militarization, it would be willing to at least give diplomacy a chance first.

In addition to alleged worries about Iran as a military threat to the region, U.S. officials have also tried to justify the arms package as a means to respond to Iran’s growing political influence. However, most of Iran’s enhanced role in the region in recent years is a direct consequence of the U.S. decision to overthrow the anti-Iranian regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and its replacement by a new government dominated by pro-Iranian Shi’ite parties. Another key element of Iran’s growing influence is the earlier U.S. decision to oust the anti-Iranian Taliban of Afghanistan and replace it with a regime dominated by tribal war lords, a number of whom have close Iranian ties. Similarly, Iranian influence has also increased in the Levant as a direct consequence of U.S.-backed Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, which have strengthened popular political support for Hamas and Hezbollah and their ties to Iran.

Iran’s emergence as a major regional military power also took place as a result of American arms transfers. Over a 25-year period, the United States pushed the autocratic regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi to purchase today’s equivalent of over $100 billion worth of American armaments, weapons systems, and support, creating a formidable military apparatus that ended up in the hands of radically anti-American Shi’ite clerics following that country’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

Rather than respond to these setbacks by further militarization, the United States should instead seriously re-evaluate its counter-productive propensity to try to resolve Middle Eastern security concerns primarily through military means. Instead of meeting the legitimate defensive needs of America’s allies, the proposed deal is yet another arrogant assertion of American military hegemony. As U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns put it, the arms package “says to the Iranians and Syrians that the United States is the major power in the Middle East and will continue to be and is not going away.”

Little Strategic Merit

The administration’s other rationales for the new arms transfers also have little merit. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for instance, claims that they are necessary to counter the influences of al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. In reality, these sophisticated conventional weapons systems would be of little use against Osama bin Laden’s decentralized network of underground terrorist cells or the Lebanese Shi’ite party’s popular militia.

As exiled Saudi activist Ali Alyami of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia put it, “Appeasing and protecting the autocratic Saudi dynasty and other tyrannical regimes in the Arab world will not bring peace, stability, or an end to extremism and terrorism.”

There is also the possibility that, as with Iran following the 1979 revolution, U.S. arms provided to one or more of these autocratic Arab regimes could end up in the hands of radical anti-American forces should the government be overthrown. Indeed, seeing their countries’ wealth squandered on unnecessary weapons systems pushed on them by the U.S. government and suffering under their despotic rulers kept in power in large part through such military support are major causes of the growing appeal of anti-American extremism among the peoples of Middle East.

The Democratic Response

Despite holding a majority of seats in Congress, the Democratic majority will likely allow the administration to go ahead with these massive arms transfers. Representative Tom Lantos (D-CA), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, apparently has no plans to take up a resolution blocking the proposed sale. Without action by that committee, Congress will not be able to vote on the matter.

For years, calls for the Democratic congressional leadership to eliminate or even scale back this kind of taxpayer subsidy for wealthy and powerful U.S. military contractors – referred to by critics as “merchants of death” – have been summarily rejected. Indeed, since first being elected to Congress in the late 1980s, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has voted in favor of over $50 billion of taxpayer-funded arms transfers to Middle Eastern countries that have engaged in gross and systematic violations of international humanitarian law. In her time in the leadership, she has never seriously challenged any arms transfers to the region.

When the proposal was originally outlined last summer, a group of congressional Democrats did sign a letter expressing opposition. The leading Democratic presidential contenders announced their reservations as well. However, these objections were only in regard to the proposed arms sales for Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies. There were no objections to the much larger taxpayer funded arms package to Israel.

In defending the Israeli part of the proposed package, all three major Democratic presidential candidates have placed themselves in opposition to repeated calls by human rights activists to restrict military assistance to any government that uses American weaponry against civilian targets in violation of international humanitarian law.

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards argue that additional military aid is necessary to protect Israel from potentially hostile Arab states. However, given that the arsenals of most of these Arab countries are of U.S. origin, it would make more sense to simply call for an end to the large-scale arms transfers to these regimes. Furthermore, every Arab state is now on record agreeing to security guarantees and normal relations with Israel in return for a full Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands seized in the June 1967 war. If these presidential hopefuls were really interested in Israel’s security, they would encourage the Bush administration to pressure Israel to enter into serious negotiations based on the longstanding principle of land for peace.

Last summer’s letter by House members opposing the proposed arms sales to Saudi Arabia totaled 141 members, less than half of what is needed to block the sales. Ironically, a reading of the letter and accompanying press release appears to indicate that the main objections these Democrats had to sending additional arms to Saudi Arabia was the government’s opposition to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, its efforts to reconcile warring Palestinian parties, and its insistence on Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands conquered in the 1967 war in return for peace.

More Arms, Less Security

U.S. officials insist that the Saudis alone are responsible for their procurement of these sophisticated weapons. Yet underneath this convenient claim of Saudi sovereignty that supposedly absolves the United States of any responsibility in the arms purchases and their deleterious effects lies a practice that can be traced as far back as the 1940s: The U.S Defense Department routinely defines the kingdom’s security needs, often providing a far more pessimistic analysis of the country’s security situation than do more objective strategic analyses. Conveniently, these alleged needs lead directly to purchases of specific U.S. weapons.

As Robert Vitalis, director of the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania, observed,

“If the billions have not been useful to the Saudis, they were a gold mine for Congresspersons compelled to cast pro-Saudi votes, along with cabinet officials and party leaders worried about the economy of key states and electoral districts. To the extent that the regime faces politically destabilizing cutbacks in social spending, a proximate cause is the strong bipartisan push for arms exports to the Gulf as a means to bolster the sagging fortunes of key constituents and regions – the ‘gun belt’ – that represents the domestic face of internationalism.”

These military expenditures place a major toll on the fiscal well-being of Middle Eastern countries. Military expenditures often total half of central government outlays. Many senior observers believe that debt financing in Saudi Arabia that has been used in the past to finance arms purchases has threatened the kingdom’s fragile social pact of distributing oil rents to favored constituents and regions.

A very important factor, often overlooked, is that a number of Middle Eastern states – such as Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, and Morocco – are highly dependent on Saudi Arabia for financial assistance. As Saudi Arabia spends more and more on arms acquisitions, it becomes less generous, leading to serious budget shortfalls throughout the Arab world. The result is that these arms sales may be causing more instability and thereby threatening these countries’ security interests more than they are protecting them.

Even Middle Eastern countries that do not have to buy their American weapons suffer the economic consequences. For example, U.S. arms transfers cost the Israelis two to three times their value in maintenance, spare parts, training of personnel, and related expenses. It drains their economy and increases their dependency on the United States.

The implications of these ongoing arms purchases are ominous on several levels. For example, one of the most striking but least talked about for the Middle East is the “food deficit,” the amount of food produced relative to demand. With continued high military spending – combined with rapid population growth and increased urbanization – the resulting low investments in agriculture have made this deficit the fastest growing in the world.

For these and other reasons, ultimately the largest number of civilian casualties, the greatest amount of social disorder, and the strongest anti-American sentiment that results may come as a consequence of U.S.-supplied weapons systems and ordinance that are never actually used in combat.

Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.

Author: Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes, a senior analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, is a professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco.