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US Arms Sales at Odds with Words

ON THE same day President Obama pressed again for peace in the Middle East, the Associated Press reminded us that the United States cannot help itself from flooding the region with the instruments of war, reporting that the nation is “quietly expanding defense ties on a vast scale’’ with Saudi Arabia.

How vast? The part that has been highly publicized is the new $60 billion arms sale made to the Saudis because of the ongoing threat of Iran. The deal sends Saudi Arabia 84 new F-15s and upgrades to 70 F-15s. It also sends them about 180 Apache, Black Hawk, and Little Bird helicopters, as well as anti-ship and anti-radar missiles. In officially announcing the sale last fall, Andrew Shapiro, the US assistant secretary of state for political affairs, said the sales were part of “deepening our security relationship with a key partner with whom we’ve enjoyed a solid security relationship for nearly 70 years.’’

But there are other emerging aspects of the security relationship the Obama administration is not so candid about. The AP also reported on an obscure project to create a special elite security force that would fall under the US Central Command. The force would have up to 35,000 members “to protect the kingdom’s oil riches and future nuclear sites.’’ It would be separate from Saudi Arabia’s military and its national guard and would involve tens of billions of dollars in additional military contracts. But no official of the Pentagon, the State Department, or the Saudi embassy would go on the record to discuss the program.

The sheepishness of the Pentagon was mirrored by Obama’s failure to mention Saudi Arabia once in his speech Thursday at the State Department. Obama urged fresh Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, praised the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, harshly denounced Libya and Syria, and cajoled Yemen and Bahrain to loosen up on their people. Obama criticized in general the “corruption of elites’’ and pushed for women’s rights in health, business, and politics. He said, “the region will never reach its full potential when more than half of its population is prevented from achieving their full potential.’’

Saudi Arabia is well-known for the elites who still continue to suppress women’s potential. Only 31 percent of women ages 25-54 are in the workplace, compared to 96 percent of like-aged men, according to the International Labor Organization. While modernization and international pressure have led to women being more than half of the country’s college students, they do not have equal access to classes and facilities, according to Freedom House, the advocacy group that has tracked levels of freedom since World War II. Despite scattered appointments of female officials in government, business, and television news, laws still discriminate against women, and women were recently banned once more from municipal elections scheduled for later this year.

The United States is boosting aid to such regimes even though it demands far less accountability than it is supposed to. A Government Accountability Office study last fall found that the State Department and the Defense Department “did not consistently document how arms transfers to Gulf countries advanced US foreign policy and national security goals.’’ Among the policy criteria that arms transfers are supposed to be assessed on is whether that country is protecting human rights, but State Department officials admitted to the GAO “that they do not document these assessments.’’ The report concluded that the gap in accountability meant “Congress may not have a clear understanding’’ of direct commercial sales of arms to the Gulf region.’’

Most experts assume that Obama remains mute on Saudi Arabia because it has the largest oil production capacity in the world and its strategic importance against Iran. But these arms deals, public and secret, up the ante on Obama to be far more transparent about what our relationship is to a nation that is assisting the Bahrain government in its crackdown on freedom protesters. Even as Obama praised the people of North Africa who have risen up for human rights “in the face of batons and sometimes bullets,’’ he is sending yet more bullets, planes, and missiles to nations that fall far too short on human rights.

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Derrick Z. Jackson

Derrick Z. Jackson is a columnist for the Boston Globe and can be reached at

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