Despite President George W. Bush's vow to promote freedom and democracy around the world, U.S. arms sales policy is doing just the opposite.
Most major recipients of U.S. arms sales in the developing world are undemocratic, as defined by our own State Department. And U.S.-supplied weaponry is present in a majority of the world's active conflicts.
The Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush administrations were no strangers to the policy of transferring U.S. arms to dictators, but this trend has intensified dramatically under the administration of George W. Bush.
Perhaps no single policy is more at odds with President Bush's pledge to "end tyranny in our world" than the United States' role as the world's leading arms-exporting nation. Although arms sales are often justified on the basis of their purported benefits, from securing access to overseas military facilities to rewarding coalition partners, these alleged benefits often come at a high price.
Arms sales raise security concerns as well. Billions of U.S. arms sales to Afghanistan in the 1980s ended up empowering Islamic fundamentalist fighters across the globe. U.S. sales of military technology to Iraq in the late 1980s helped Saddam Hussein build his war machine. Our current policy of arming unstable regimes could have similarly disastrous consequences, with U.S.-supplied weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, insurgents or hostile governments.
As in the case of recent decisions to provide new F-16 fighter planes to Pakistan while pledging comparable high-tech military hardware to its rival, India, U.S. arms sometimes go to long-standing rivals who may use these weapons against each other if another conflict breaks out. The fact that F-16s can be outfitted to carry nuclear weapons makes these sales all the more dangerous.
Meanwhile, the tens of millions of U.S. arms transfers to Uzbekistan exemplify the negative consequences of arming repressive regimes.
A few statistics demonstrate just how destabilizing current U.S. policy can be.
In 2003, the last year for which full information is available, the United States transferred weaponry to 18 of the 25 countries involved in active conflicts. From Angola, Chad and Ethiopia to Colombia, Pakistan, Israel and the Philippines, transfers through the two largest U.S. arms sales programs totaled more than $1 billion.
More than half of the top 25 recipients of U.S. arms transfers in the developing world (13 of 25) were defined as undemocratic by the U.S. State Department's Human Rights Report in the sense that "citizens do not have the right to change their own government" or those rights were severely abridged. The largest U.S. military aid program, Foreign Military Financing (FMF), increased by 68 percent from 2001 to 2003, from $3.5 billion to nearly $6 billion. The biggest increases went to countries engaged as U.S. allies in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, including Jordan ($525 million increase from 2001 to 2003), Afghanistan ($191 million increase), Pakistan ($224 million increase), and Bahrain ($90 million increase). Arming repressive regimes while simultaneously proclaiming a campaign against tyranny undermines the credibility of the United States and makes it harder to hold other nations to high standards of conduct. It also helps to enhance the power of undemocratic governments, fueling conflict or enabling human rights abuses.
The time has come to impose greater scrutiny on U.S. arms transfers and military aid programs. A good starting point toward a more sound arms sales policy would be to implement the underlying assumptions of U.S. arms export law, which call for arming nations only for purposes of self-defense and avoiding arms sales to nations that systematically abuse human rights.
Equally important, the automatic assumption that arms transfers are the preferred "barter" for access to military facilities or other security "goods" sought from other nations should be seriously reconsidered. Economic aid, political support and other forms of engagement should be explored as alternatives whenever possible.
William D. Hartung and Frida Berrigan are the director and deputy director, respectively, at the Arms Trade Resource Center at the World Policy Institute.
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