What's The Impact Of U.S. Arms Deals In The Middle East?

The U.S. State department controls the flow of American weapons and weapons systems — and is supposed to make sure they're used in accordance with human rights. So what should happen when U.S. allies use American arms against their own peacefully protesting citizens? Host Melissa Block speaks with arms export expert William Hartung. He's the director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

As regimes from Libya to Yemen to Bahrain crack down on rebels or protesters, they do so with arms they've bought from foreign countries, the United States among them. The U.S. does impose export controls on these weapons sales. But the broadening unrest across the Arab world has raised new questions about the abuses that can arise from these transactions.

William Hartung is director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation. He joins me now.

Welcome to the program.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: And it is the State Department that oversees sales that would be made from a Defense contractor to a foreign government, right? How much oversight is there of these sales?

HARTUNG: Well, they're supposed to be vetting for things like the human rights record, whether the weapons will be used offensively or defensively. But there's a huge flood of licenses that have to be dealt with every year, and a lot of times, there's wiggle room for a major ally, for a country that might be in the same political camp as us. So it's kind of a lot of loopholes in the process.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about some of the recent examples. For example, Libya. Who has sold Libya weapons most recently?

HARTUNG: Well, their biggest suppliers have been from the European Union, countries like Italy and the U.K. Historically, Russia has been a big supplier. The U.S. has been pretty much out of the game, except for a few small examples.

BLOCK: And there was, I gather, a proposed weapons sale - very recently - a $77 million sale of armored troop carriers that was scuttled because Congress had concerns. This was well before the uprising.

HARTUNG: Yes. And, you know, I think the fact that that got by the State Department is indicative of the fact that the system does not work perfectly well, because given the record of the Gadhafi regime, to help with that kind of equipment that can be used to put down an uprising, I think, was a - it shouldn't have been cleared in the first place.

BLOCK: Let's think of some other examples. Bahrain?

HARTUNG: Well, Bahrain has been a pretty steady recipient of U.S. weapons, about $350 million over the last three years. And they have everything from helicopters to guns, ammunitions, pretty wide range of products that they've been supplied by the United States, pretty much without questions asked.

BLOCK: And what about in Egypt? There were reports of a lot of outrage that it was teargas canisters bearing the United States imprint that were hurled at protesters there.

HARTUNG: Well, I think on the low-end, the teargas probably caused the most uproar. But over the years, a billion dollars or more every year, we were selling tanks, we were selling fighter planes, we were selling armored personnel carriers, things that were used sort of indirectly to close off the square, to buzz the demonstrators. So, you know, not to the same degree of impact as the teargas, but certainly I think causing some ill feelings towards the United States for supporting the regime for so many years.

BLOCK: What kinds of restrictions are built-in to these deals on end use? Is there monitoring? Is there leverage after the fact, or once the deal is done, is it done?

HARTUNG: Well, there's supposed to be monitoring out of the embassies, and sometimes there's not enough personnel to really do a good job of that. Certainly, if abuses are found, there's always the option of cutting off - for the sales - cutting off spare parts. You know, it's kind of after the horse has left the barn, so to speak, but at least it's - it can have an affect going forward on the ability of the country to use U.S. weapons for bad purposes.

BLOCK: We haven't mentioned the biggest, I gather, recipient of U.S. arms sales, which would be Saudi Arabia.

HARTUNG: Yes. There's a recent $60 billion deal with the Saudis for fighter planes, for attack helicopters, for guided bombs, pretty much the full gamut of weapons systems other than perhaps combat ships. And that, you know, it's the biggest deal in history. I think it may be an issue in Saudi Arabia, as people start to question the regime, you know, whether the U.S. is in their corner to a greater degree than it should be, given the concerns about democracy in the region.

BLOCK: One cautionary tale that's often trotted out when - in these discussions, is that of Iran, the fighter jets that we sold to the shah that were then in the hands of the ayatollah when he was overthrown.

HARTUNG: That's right. And you have to think now, you know, is the Saudi regime any more or less stable than the shah of Iran was four or five years before he left power, because these deals are multi-year, and so these weapons will be flowing for the next five or 10 years to a government that may not be what we would hope it would be by the end of that period.

BLOCK: I've been talking with William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation. He's also author of the book "Profits of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military Industrial Complex."

Thanks very much.

HARTUNG: Thank you.

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