Arming the Saudis

The Pentagon has announced a $60 billion arms package to the repressive
family dictatorship in Saudi Arabia, the largest arms sale of its kind in
history. Rejecting the broad consensus of arms control advocates that the
Middle East is too militarized already and that the Saudis already possess
military capabilities well in excess of their legitimate security needs, the
Obama administration is effectively insisting that this volatile region does
not yet have enough armaments and that the United States must send even more.

According to reports, Washington is planning to sell 84 new
F-15 fighters and three types of helicopters: 72 Black Hawks, 70 Apaches and 36
Little Birds. There are also reports of naval missile-defense upgrades in the

Though supporters of such arms sales argue that if the United
States did not sell weapons to the oil-rich kingdom, someone else would,
neither the Obama 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 25 years ago.
Furthermore, Iran's current military buildup is based primarily on the perceived
need to respond to the threatened US attack against that country, a concern
made all the more real by the US invasion and occupation of two countries
bordering Iran on both its east and west in recent years.

This US 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 Obama administration were really interested in
addressing its purported concerns regarding Iranian militarization, it would be
willing to engage in more serious diplomacy to limit the procurement of
conventional arms on a region-wide basis.

In addition to alleged worries about Iran as a military threat
to the region, US 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
decision by the Bush administration - backed by the current vice president,
secretary of state, secretary of defense, and other leading Obama
administration officials - to overthrow the secular anti-Iranian regime of
Saddam Hussein in Iraq and replace it with a new government dominated by
pro-Iranian Shiite parties. Another key element of Iran's growing influence is
the earlier US 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 US-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 earlier 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 Shiite clerics following that country's
1979 Islamic revolution.

Rather than respond to these setbacks by further
militarization, the Obama administration should, instead, seriously re-evaluate
its counterproductive 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 US Undersecretary of State Nicholas
Burns put it in 2007 in response to a previous arms package to
the Saudis, such weapons transfers "say 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."

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, US arms provided to the Saudis could end up in the hands of
radical anti-American forces should the government be overthrown. The Saudi
regime is even more repressive than Iran's in terms of its treatment of women,
gays, religious minorities and political dissidents. Indeed, seeing their
countries' wealth squandered on unnecessary weapons systems pushed on them by
the US 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 people of the Middle East.

More Arms, Less Security

US 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 US weapons.

As Robert Vitalis, director of the Middle East Center at the
University of Pennsylvania, looking at the history of US arms transfers to the
Saudi royal family, 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.

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

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

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