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- 04-26-2012, 10:08 PM #1
Sale of the century: Bill Clinton's amazing arms bazaar
Just a little look back at how some of those 68,000 weapons could wind up in Mexico.
Sale of the century: Bill Clinton's amazing arms bazaar
by William D. Hartung
May 20, 1994
Bill Clinton didn't say much about foreign policy during the 1992 election campaign, but he did promise to change one of the most pernicious aspects of U.S. policy: this country's role as the world's number-one weapons trafficking nation. The Clinton/Gore team ran on a platform that pledged to "press for strong international limits on the dangerous and wasteful flow of weapons to troubled regions." And in November 1992, President-elect Clinton told a Capitol Hill news conference that he planned to "review our arms sales policy and to take it up with the other major sellers of the world as part of a long-term effort to reduce the proliferation of weapons of destruction in the hands of people who might use them in very destructive ways."
More than a year into Clinton's term, the rhetoric of restraint has given way to an unprecedented arms-selling spree. In fiscal year 1993, the United States sold over $31 billion worth of weaponry to more than 140 nations, the first time any nation had topped the $30-billion barrier.
This is not a case of private enterprise run amok--the federal government is directly involved in the vast majority of these sales, and changes in government policies and practices can have a tremendous impact on the scope of the weapons trade. The primary channel for U.S. arms sales is the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program, under which the Pentagon serves as a middleman by negotiating the deal with the foreign purchaser, collecting the funds, and disbursing the money to weapons manufacturing firms. A few billion dollars in sales of smaller weapons systems are made through direct commercial channels, but even these deals must be blessed with a license from the State Department. In theory, Congress can block a major sale if both houses pass resolutions of disapproval that can withstand a presidential veto, but in practice Congress has never voted down a sale.
To address the broader problem of runaway U. S. arms sales, a coalition of 110 local and national peace, human rights, and development organizations, spearheaded by the Washington-based Arms Transfer Working Group, has joined together in support of legislation that would establish a "code of conduct" for U.S. arms transfers. The code, which is embodied in proposed legislation co-sponsored by Senator Mark Hatfield (R-Oreg.) and Representative Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.), would prohibit arms sales to governments that violate the human rights of their own citizens, engage in aggression against their neighbors, come to power through undemocratic means, or ignore international arms-control arrangements like the United Nations Arms Register.
The president would have the right to ask for a waiver if he argued that it was in the national security interest to arm a nation that does not meet these standards, but the Congress would have to pass a law approving that waiver. The code of conduct would not end arms sales in our time, but it would introduce a long-overdue measure of democracy and accountability into decisions over what kinds of regimes and organizations receive U.S. weaponry. Setting higher standards of scrutiny for U.S. arms sales could in turn set the stage for serious multilateral discussions designed to limit sales by all major arms suppliers. Now that the United States sells more arms to the third world than all other nations combined (57 percent of the market as of 1992), a change in policy is a prerequisite for any meaningful international agreement to stem the flow of weapons to regions of potential conflict.
Beyond the question of how successful citizens' initiatives like the code of conduct campaign will be in changing the terms of the debate over arms-sales policy, the Clinton administration may ultimately be persuaded to change its ways for the simple reason that its current approach makes no sense in the violent and disorderly world that has evolved in the wake of the cold war. By even the narrowest of strategic and economic calculations, a policy of active arms-sales promotion has far more costs than benefits.
On the strategic front, unbridled weapons sales help to fuel regional arms races that increase the likelihood that U.S. forces will face heavily armed adversaries when they are sent into battle, either as peacekeepers or in unilateral interventions.
The last three times the United States sent troops into combat in significant numbers--in Panama, Iraq, and Somalia--they faced adversaries that had received U.S. weapons or military technology in the period leading up to the conflict. Of four dozen ethnic and territorial conflicts that were under way as of mid-1993, combatants in thirty-nine of those wars had received U.S. weapons during the 1980s. U.S. weapons that were supplied to anti-Communist rebel groups in Angola and Afghanistan as part of the Reagan Doctrine have been used to carry out devastating civil wars; in the Afghan case, U.S.-supplied Stinger missiles have turned up on the international black market as prized items sought by all manner of rebel groups and terrorist organizations.
The cold-war notion of using arms sales as a way to maintain regional "balances of power" or support trusted allies has been thoroughly and decisively discredited by the experience of the 1990s, when alliances, governments, and boundaries in large parts of the world are in a state of flux. It doesn't take an arms-control expert to recognize that pouring more weapons onto the world market at this moment in history is a dangerous gamble. A call to put stronger controls on who gets U.S. arms could appeal to a broad, mainstream audience, now that fear of the "Soviet threat" has been eliminated as a knee-jerk rationale for arms sales and military spending.
Economically, arms sales are far less beneficial than the defense industry's public relations machinery would have us believe. The government spends roughly $7 billion per year subsidizing arms exports, for everything from direct grants and loans to finance weapons exports to maintaining a staff of over 5,000 Pentagon and military personnel involved in promoting and processing arms sales. Arms manufacturers further diminish the benefits of arms sales to the economy by offering "offset" arrangements on most major deals. Offsets involve a pledge by the manufacturer to steer business to the purchasing country worth anywhere from 50 to 100 percent of the original sale--an arrangement that often takes business from Amefican companies and gives it to overseas suppliers. As noted above, arms sales fuel regional arms races that in turn are used to justify additional Pentagon spending for "regional contingencies," costing taxpayers tens of billions of dollars in added military budget costs every year.
And last but not least, pushing arms on third-world countries stunts their economic growth, reducing demand for other goods and services in the process. An International Monetary Fund study released in late 1993 demonstrated that a 20-percent coordinated reduction in military spending worldwide would stimulate increased markets for consumer goods worth up to $190 billion per year, a sum four-to-five times the size of the entire international arms market. When all these direct subsidies and indirect costs are taken into account, the benefits of the any is trade to the overall U.S. economy are marginal at best.
The oft-heard rationale of last resort for U.S. arms sales--"If we don't do it, somebody else will"--is even less persuasive now than it was during the cold war. The U.S. so dominates the market now that even a unilateral change in policy would have important short-term impacts in stemming the flow of arms to regions of tension. In 1992, the most recent year for which full statistics are available, U.S. sales to the third world were three-and-one-half times greater than those of France, ten times greater than those of Russia, and a hundred times greater than those of China. For the most advanced systems such as top-of-the-line fighter planes and main battle tanks, only a few West European allies sell equipment comparable to that offered by the United States, so it would be relatively easy to limit access to these systems given the requisite political will. For the broader trade in guns, missiles, and other "small arms" that are fueling many of the world's ethnic conflicts, a multilateral effort would be required to achieve meaningful controls. But even at this level, the United States could exert enormous political and diplomatic leverage if it were to adopt a true policy of controlling arms sales and pressuring other major suppliers to do the same.
Once the underlying realities of the arms trade are taken into account, the Clinton administration's arms-sales policy boils down to a combination of pork barrel politics and outmoded cold-war strategic thinking. Only a concerted campaign of public pressure will persuade Bill Clinton to abandon this misguided approach and redeem his campaign pledge to work toward controlling this deadly business.
WILLIAM D. HARTUNG is a senior research fellow at the World Policy Institute at the New School for Social Research and the author of And Weapons for All (Harper Collins, 1994), a critique of U.S. arms-sales policies from the Nixon through the Clinton administrations.
Sale of the century: Bill Clinton's amazing arms bazaar | Commonweal | Find Articles
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