by Katie Mounts
by Travis Sharp
The sale of high-tech Joint Direct Attack Munitions weaponry to Saudi Arabia, unveiled in January 2008 as part of a larger $20 billion U.S. weapons package headed to the Middle East, is yet another example of the United States substituting arms sales for vigorous international diplomacy.
Maybe this should not come as a surprise. After all, the United States often relies on deadly weaponry as the currency of friendship with foreign nations. Since World War II, the United States has provided over half a trillion dollars in governmental and commercial arms sales to countries all over the globe. Between 1999 and 2006, the value of all U.S. arms transfers worldwide was equivalent to the next five highest suppliers combined.
While synchronizing with the militaries of strategic allies is prudent, the United States often drastically overshoots this goal, especially in the Middle East. The United States supplied 56% of all arms transfer agreements with Middle Eastern countries between 1999 and 2006. That is five times greater than Russia, the second highest supplier, and twenty times greater than China, a country regarded as a future military competitor to the United States.
Bush administration officials have made it clear, however, that this latest $20 billion arms deal is not just business as usual. In the words of retiring Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, it is meant to “provide a deterrence against Iranian expansionism and Iranian aggression in the future.” Despite Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s disavowal of achieving regional stability by propping up undemocratic governments, the Bush administration appears willing to trade the perpetuation of oppressive Arab regimes – and larger reform efforts in the Middle East – all for the sake of containing Iran.
First things first. Many of the officials championing the aggressive containment of Iran cut their teeth developing ways to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War. There is a real risk that the Bush administration’s Iran hawks are recycling old theories to explain away new problems.
The underlying danger is that aggressively seeking to contain Shiite-majority Iran today could lead the United States to unintentionally promote the type of Sunni extremism that gave rise to Al Qaeda. The guns supplied by the United States to mujaheddin forces fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s are now turned on coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh, two top Iran experts, conclude in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, “The results may be as bad this time around: a containment policy will only help erect Sunni extremism as an ideological barrier to Shiite Iran.”
Besides the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, the United States also supplied the Iraqi military with cluster bombs and chemical weapons in the 1980s, only to fight Iraq in 1991 and again in 2003 and watch helplessly as Saddam Hussein brutally murdered thousands of Kurds in the 1980s.
Former U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson was sure on to something about America’s lackluster performance in the endgame. Maybe the United States should think about that before it sends deadly Joint Direct Attack Munitions to Saudi Arabia this time around.
Although the U.S. Congress has not blocked an arms sale to an Arab nation since the 1991 Gulf War, it did block or restrict arms sales with Saudi Arabia in 1985 and 1990. Members of Congress and the American and international public need to ask tough questions about how this $20 billion deal might impact the military balance in the Middle East, what the risks are to Israel, how Saudi Arabia and others are progressing on human rights, what the chances are that weapons might be leaked to extremists, and how supportive these countries have been in ongoing counterterrorism operations.
The Middle East needs more diplomacy and democracy, not more missiles and bombs. It is time to end America’s dubious distinction as the primary enabler of an ongoing arms race in the Middle East.