US Arms Sales to Repressive Regimes Overlooked in Domestic Gun Control Debate

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Focal Points Blog / Foreign Policy in Focus

US Arms Sales to Repressive Regimes Overlooked in Domestic Gun Control Debate

Arms control is an oxymoron in the U.S. Recognizing this, successive governments have managed to pursue foreign policies that export billions of dollars in weapons abroad while also debating fiercely over domestic firearms ownership.

Sometimes, these debates intersect, and the UN Arms Trade Treaty is one such occasion for intersection.

For the U.S. government, whose arms exports are largest in the world in both volume of sales and profits, to support an international arms control treaty is a bit disingenuous (that we are now bombing at least four other countries on a daily basis suggests that if anyone’s arms needs controlling, it’s our own military’s). Arms control by governments is always a bit disingenuous in any case, especially given that the other four permanent members of the Security Council are also the world’s top defense spenders and arms exporters. The U.S., the PRC, the UK, France and Russia are, in that order, the world’s top defense spenders while in arms sales, the order is as follows: the U.S., Russia, France, the UK and the PRC (Germany is actually the world’s third largest arms exporter, below Russia and above France, but is not a permanent member).

U.S. support for the treaty, presumably, has more to do with potential gains in better regulating arms sales to states like Iran, Venezuela or North Korea – or governments with suspect sympathies towards al Qaeda (Pakistan, for instance, although Pakistan remains a major recipient of U.S. weaponry).

The treaty has already been watered down by the permanent members of Security Council to remove any chance for a “supranational” regulatory authority in place of “a more general statement of obligations related to arms trade which are to be fulfilled nationally, not globally.”

According to the permanent members, “the treaty is not a disarmament treaty nor should it affect the legitimate arms trade or a state’s legitimate right to self-defense. The decision to transfer arms is an exercise in national sovereignty.”

Self-control, apparently, isn’t “an issue” for the Big Five.

The treaty, though is still garnering major opposition in the U.S. A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators is warning the Obama administration not to bargain away the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment, which gives U.S. citizens the right to bear arms. UN statements that the treaty will not undermine gun control in the U.S. have failed to placate anyone (the statements are derided as being “apologist”).

55 U.S. Senators have publically expressed reservations about the treaty – 67 yes votes are needed in the Senate to ratify the treaty. Of that number, 10 are Democrats, which presents the Obama administration with a real problem if the treaty is going to become a law the U.S. would adhere to.

Democrat John Tester of Montana, the latest Senator to express reservations over the treaty, said that he was encouraged by the fact that “countries will maintain the exclusive authority to regulate arms within their own borders” but that a lot more needed to be done to make the treaty acceptable. Specifically, Senator Tester wants to see no that there is neither regulation of “small arms, light weapons, ammunition or related materials” nor an “international gun registry.” The provisions for small arms would make the treaty  “unenforceable,” according to Senator Tester, while the international gun registry “could impede on the privacy rights of law-abiding gun owners.”

The result? An utterly toothless arms treaty that would satisfy everyone involved – well, everyone but human rights organizations who support the treaty, which, despite being watered down, could still have a major impact on the international arms trade (to the detriment of arms dealers and defense ministries).

I guess I should say that an amended treaty would satisfy everyone who has a vested interest in keeping the well-oiled international arms trade running smoothly.

The NRA, a powerful U.S. firearms lobby, states that “Neither the United Nations, nor any other foreign influence, has the authority to meddle with the freedoms guaranteed by our Bill of Rights, endowed by our Creator, and due to all humankind.” The NRA is determined to kill the treaty altogether: “The latest attempt by the U.N. and global gun banners to eliminate our Second Amendment freedoms is to include civilian arms in the current Arms Trade Treaty.”

This particular debate is (unfortunately) being juxtaposed with a renewed debate over gun control in the U.S. because of two high-profile shootings (both by right-wing “homegrown” terrorists) in the U.S. and Norway this year. Arms control in a U.S. context tends to evoke more discussion about domestic gun ownership than, say, arms sales to repressive regimes, gun running by the U.S. government to Mexican drug cartels – or our own nuclear arsenal.

Not that the above issue aren’t being discussed – though American conservatives insist that the treaty is simply further evidence of the UN’s world governance aspirations and anti-democratic naïveté. According to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative U.S. think tank:

The treaty is still based on two fundamental and irremediable errors. First, it explicitly accepts that all states – dictatorships and democracies – have an equal right to arm themselves, and it proposes to embody this pretended right in international law.

This moralizing conveniently ignoring that the U.S. seems to recognize the right of non-democracies, such as Saudi Arabia, and, until recently, Egypt and Libya, to arm themselves, and has historically had few scruples about whether arms recipients are democratic or not, so long as they were ostensibly pro-U.S. (Iran before 1979, for instance, as well as the Nicaraguan contras, Musharraf’s Pakistan or Iraq when it was our ally of convenience in the 1980s).

The Heritage Foundation goes on to say that:

Second, it tacitly presumes that all the world’s states are well intentioned and will actually implement the treaty’s controls. But if all the world’s states were well intentioned, the treaty would not be necessary. Thus, while the treaty would do nothing to prevent states like Iran from supplying terrorists – and would actually legitimate arms sales to and from dictatorships – its ambiguous criteria would weigh heavily on the U.S. and other democracies, where activists would stigmatize any arms sale as a violation of the treaty.

Great James Madison’s ghost! Governments aren’t angels?

Once again, a lack of historical memory is present in this moralizing. The U.S. has only cared about “arms sales to and from dictatorships” when it is a matter of convenience: case and point, the “Safari Club” formed in the 1970s by the intelligence agencies of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to help bankroll anti-communist movements in Africa (Morocco, France, Egypt and Iran also contributed) that the U.S. wished not to dirty is hands with direct assistance to.

The main rhetorical (and electoral) opposition is presented on Second Amendment grounds – it is rather better to argue from that position than, say, theories of mutually assured destruction, or to openly discuss one’s relationship with defense companies.

In a short, but rather telling analysis, OpenSecrets, a watchdog group of lobbyist spending in American politics, states that defense companies have “split evenly between Democrats and Republicans” in election years. Given the allergic reaction to defense spending most politicians’ exhibit when in office, it is not hard to see why they butter both sides of the bread.

But no one wants to admit that they are making policy based on the significance of particular campaign contributions. In its commentary on the Norway terror attacks, The National Review lambastes the allegedly illiberal Norwegians: “Licenses are tied to interests – farming, hunting, sports – rather than to rights.”

Of course, the only interest here is freedom, which is why the NRA rather grandly asserts that “the cornerstone of our freedom is the Second Amendment” (rather nicely sanitizes Mao Zedong’s dictum that power grows out of the barrel of a gun, doesn’t it?).

So it is not surprising that gun ownership is (ostensibly) the main bone of contention among U.S. politicians vis a vis arms control, given the history of gun ownership in the U.S. It always has been so. The Colonial Era, in which most male individuals (and some women) owned firearms for defense and hunting – both being imperatives in the westward expansion of the country – is the context in which the Second Amendment was proposed. The Founding Fathers believed an armed public was a public that would not be easily dominated by its elected officials – after all the militias played a pivotal role in the American Revolution (ironically, so did licit and illicit arms sales from the French and the Spanish, but that is rarely acknowledged).

This era is so idealized by the American right (the Minutemen and the Tea Party, to give just two examples) that gun ownership is almost always presented in the terms of the American Revolution. The Second Amendment is non-negotiable in U.S. politics.

But given the U.S.’s domestic extremists (heavily armed anti-government militias, for instance), one would see why this administration is looking favorably at a treaty that might give the government reason to exercise more arms control at home. But since the American right, from talk radio to Senators, is riding high on a wave of vitriolic extremism to all things internationalist and federalist, so this treaty is dead in the water in their view.

Although the right does have a point: the U.S. ought to practice what it preaches at home about arms control abroad. Take Mexico, for example: the U.S. Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had been secretly supplying weapons – weapons purchased with American tax dollars – to Mexican drug cartels in a misguided attempt to track their distribution and gain inside sources in the cartels. Other U.S. arms sales to Mexico have also turned up in the hands of cartels, and private sales, not being very carefully regulated, are booming as well.

The programs have since been revealed and been heavily criticized in the U.S. (by the same people who oppose the UN Treaty). The Senators’ indictment of the treaty, though, is likely to further undermine arms interdiction and gun control efforts in that region. Contradictions hardly matter when one is talking about the Second Amendment (or how the Iranians can’t be trusted to be left to their own devices – though other countries can).

The Second Amendment advocates are noticeably silent on a global Second Amendment (as that would undermine U.S. security), and for an American right so insistent about transparency (even demanding the President’s birth certificate), the possibility for greater transparency in the international arms trade is not even being mentioned.

“We’re told that in order to control the illegal trade, all states must control the legal firearms trade,” an NRA official fumed, clearly missing the fact that the two are indeed related by the way the defense industry (and defense ministries) work. The American right is quick to jump on the Founding Fathers’ statements on gun control, but equally quick to ignore Republican President Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex’s destruction of U.S. liberties.

But Eisenhower is old hat. Anti-internationalism (and anti-federalism) are the norm for the American right’s arguments against arms control of any kind, at home or abroad. The American right actually takes mutually assured destruction (which, ironically, was a term coined during the Eisenhower administration) as the rationale for blocking arms controls, from guns to nukes. A typical example of this logic comes from an anti-gun control article in The National Review. The piece, written in response to the July 2011 terror attacks in Norway, argues that things could have been different there if the victims had also been carrying around shotguns and assault rifles.

“Better a shoot-out than a massacre!” wrote one commenter on the article.

That seems to be the logic driving opposition to regulating the international arms trade. It’s hard to say who is more hypocritical here, the Obama administration, Congress, the American right, or the permanent members of the UN Security Council. The confluence of hypocrisy here will probably kill any chance this treaty has of limiting the trillion-dollar global arms trade most often paid for by those who don’t have access to arms not because of the laws conservatives rail against, but because the buyers are so often agents of greater powers.

Paul Mutter

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

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