Arms Sales to Dictators: The Strategic Glue of U.S. Domination
New York Times story touches parts of the Trump elephant, but misses the empire in the room
Do you recall the parable from India of the six blind men and the elephant? Each man touched a different part of an elephant, and so each concluded something different about its nature (it’s a wall, a snake, a rope, a spear...). The lesson is that one has to put together all the parts before knowing the whole.
The New York Times recently published a wonderful “touching the elephant” news story on arms sales to the formerly colonized countries under presidents Obama and Trump. The article gives us a rare glimpse into the “how” of this multi-billion dollar business, but this focus on the commercial side of things ignores the all-important “why.” Using another elephant metaphor, you might say the Times, like most mainstream commentators on U.S. foreign policy, misses the empire in the room.
Explaining arms sales without an understanding of the imperial necessity that drives them calls to mind a dismissive reaction in 1961 by Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He’d been asked about U.S. policy in South Viet Nam, which was then just another post-colonial country in our global network of friendly regimes propped up with arms, cash, “military advisers,” and spies. RFK replied: “We’ve got 20 Viet Nams a day to handle!” He could never have guessed that we would shortly kill two million people to preserve what the Pentagon Papers called the “credibility” of our implied threat to “handle” the rest of them the same way if need be.
So, the Times has published a fascinating article, but one that places undue emphasis on distinctions that are fundamentally without a difference in the context of the U.S. strategy of domination of the global battle space through alliances with cooperative regimes. These distinctions include civilian versus military casualties, offensive versus defensive weapons, Trump versus Obama, and the State Department’s interests versus those of the rest of the national security bureaucracy.
Titled Why Bombs Made in America Have Been Killing Civilians in Yemen, the Times story shows us, from the perspectives of a few of the corporate and government players, the ins and outs of the approval of sales of bombs to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen’s civil war. It reads like a true-life version of a novel I recently published, Arms Deals: A Mar’Shae McGurk Thriller about “Shopping to Get Yours.”
Here's the timeline:
· Despite Saudi Arabia invading Yemen in March 2015 and causing substantial civilian casualties with air attacks from the very first day, the Obama administration, under a policy of “defensive” support for Saudi Arabia, approved a Raytheon sale to the Kingdom of 120,000 bombs for $3 billion. Deliveries of the bombs continued for a year and a half until Obama suspended them in December 2016, his last month in office, in response to a particularly deadly and well-reported attack on civilians in the capital city of Sana’a in October.
· Soon after his inauguration in January 2017, Trump lifted the suspension of bomb deliveries. However, in June 2017, Republican Senator Bob Corker, the chair of the Foreign Relations committee, put a “hold” on future ‘pre-notifications” of proposed sales of “lethal military equipment” to Saudi Arabia and a number of other Gulf countries. The hold included a $2 billion contract for more Raytheon bombs, but it was not related to the war in Yemen. It was intended to end the Gulf states’ pressure campaign against Qatar because of stories published by Qatari-based al-Jazeera and alleged Qatari support for terrorism. While the campaign against Qatar continues today, that hold was lifted in February 2018.
· However, Corker’s top Democratic counterpart on the Foreign Relations committee, Senator Bob Menendez, quickly placed a new hold on future sales of bombs to Saudi Arabia because of civilian casualties in Yemen. These sales also included the $2 billion Raytheon follow-on contract. Menendez’s hold was strengthened by congressional reaction to the Saudi government’s murder of journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.
· Menendez’s hold was finally overturned by the rare decision in May 2019 by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to approve the Saudi sale and other delayed Gulf sales under an emergency provision of the arms export act. This provision gives Congress 30 days to enact a law blocking the sale, and Congress did pass such a law. However, the Senate failed to overturn President Trump’s veto. Neither chamber addressed the issue in a must-have appropriation bill to set up a more credible confrontation with the president, so the arms continued to flow.
Of course, this being the Times, much of its story is opinion masquerading as news. In “these troubled times,” which apparently started November 9, 2016, the left-leaning traditional and social media are part of “the resistance” to President Trump and his policies. Their news stories present harsh opinions on Trump’s escapades as fact and “fact-checking.”
Opinion as news at the Times goes back at least as far as the 2002 buildup to the invasion of Iraq, with reporter Judith Miller’s phony case for “weapons of mass destruction” being just the tip of the iceberg that killed hundreds of times more people than were lost on the Titanic. And it’s long been egregious in the Times’ elimination of critiques in its flood of articles supporting the speculative narrative of dangerous, human-caused “climate change.”
But lately the Times has gone way off the rails to promote all manner of politically-correct narratives as fact. The enforced closing of the climate change debate -- first on campuses dominated by activist professors who were, as Joseph Ellis argues, “not merely unscholarly, but anti-scholarly,” and then in the Times and other left-leaning media -- was in many ways the dry run for today’s pervasive “cancel culture.”
Consider the Times’ tendentious, race-focused 1619 Project, which started with a novel, false, and actually really loopy claim, given the well-documented political thought of the American Revolution, that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” Slavery was indeed the price of union, in 1776, 1787, and even 1860, in Abraham Lincoln’s campaign platform. However, there was no threat to American slavery from Britain until well after the Revolutionary consensus had been adopted and open combat had begun.
So, it’s not unexpected that the Times would create a narrative about Saudi sales to please its rebellious staff and regular readers, which is that Trump pushes arms sales for their economic benefits “with little regard for how the weapons are used,” and not for reasons of “diplomacy” and with concern for human rights, as President Obama did. But that narrative is deeply misleading.
Starting with the demise of President Carter’s policies of reducing sales to human right abusers and telling State Department officials in a “leprosy” memo not to assist or even interact with American companies trying to sell weapons, all presidents have pushed arms sales for the jobs and profits they deliver to military contractors -- and hence the votes they deliver to both parties. It’s telling that the demise actually occurred during Carter’s presidency, well before President Reagan’s Secretary of State Alexander Haig formally revoked the policies.
I know this all too well from my 20 years of trying and failing, in Congress as a staffer and around Congress as a lobbyist, to ban arms transfers to dictators. In 1992, for example, candidate Bill Clinton and President Bush competed to be the first to override the opposition of both the State and Defense Departments and sell advanced fighter aircraft to Saudi Arabia. Since then, every president has talked about limiting the economic waste, human rights abuses, and regional tensions that come with arms sales to repressive regimes in the Middle East, but then has gone ahead and set records in real dollar terms for arms sales there, and globally.
President Obama made a visit to Saudi Arabia early in his presidency, just like Trump, and made the same hard push for the Saudis to waste their money on American weapons, not Britain’s or Russia’s. All that’s really different about Trump on arms sales is that he dispenses with the sweet talk.
It’s important to note that arms sales actually add little to overall American employment and profit, but add a lot to the particular jobs and profits of the union and the owners at the particular exporting corporation. How can that be? Why wouldn’t an arms sale help the American economy as a whole?
First, the sales are effectively subsidized by the taxpayer, who could have spent the subsidy elsewhere or just let it hum through the domestic economy. This is true even when the sale is not funded by U.S. foreign aid, because the Pentagon paid to create the arms-makers’ production lines for its own purchases, so it is solely the companies who profit from the additional foreign sales. In addition, the sales stimulate demand by regional competitors who use U.S. foreign aid to try to keep up. For example, Israel’s aid-funded purchases counter the military challenges from Saudi and Emirati cash sales. Even the Pentagon gets in on this scam, asking for a next generation of weapons to be able to defeat those we just exported.
Arms sales also provide a rationale for more U.S. military deployments in a region, because the threat level and instability have increased. By aiding dictators, the sales often lead to civil war and economic disaster, reducing American export opportunities. Finally, and most fundamentally, by the reality of “additionality,” our economy would have received export demand as an indirect result of any purchase by the country that instead bought our weapons.
As economist Bill Hartung explained in a letter to the Times about its article and Trump’s 25-times exaggerated claim of half a million jobs from Saudi sales, the arms jobs from a sale simply displace other jobs in other categories of our economy in which the Saudis would have spent their money. And even if the Saudis had spent the money on arms from France, water treatment plants from Australia, or movies from Bollywood, a good share of the increased purchasing power in the global economy would have led to follow-on purchases in the world’s biggest economy – ours.
That’s the beauty of additionality when your economy is central to the world economy, and your currency is held as a reserve and used as an instrument throughout the world! You don’t have to worry about particular sales – unless you have something else on your mind than overall employment and profit. And U.S. policy does have something else on its mind: holding together the empire.
Arms sales are the glue for our system of domination of the former colonial countries. These countries had hoped they were done with foreign control after their independence movements succeeded in the decades after World War II. Looking at the map of U.S. military deployments today, you can tell that their hopes were dashed. We are the new empire, and we use arms sales to bind our friendly dictators to it.
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Perhaps it’s not really the Times’ fault that the article misses the elephant in the room here, our empire. By telling an inside story, and telling it well, the Times pretty much has to stick to the issues that the insiders tackle. Still, it would have been nice if there had been an attempt to get commentary from analysts who could place the tale in the context of our foreign policy.
Of course, that sounds like I wish the Times had called me to comment on behalf of my anti-imperial American Exceptionalism Media Project, which of course I would have loved. But there are any number of thinkers and think-tanks out there who could have done the job. There’s Ted Galen Carpenter at the libertarian, anti-interventionist Cato Institute, John Feffer and Phyllis Bennis at the left-leaning, anti-interventionist Institute for Policy Studies, and Andrew Bacevich and Steven Wertheim at the Soros-Koch funded anti-imperial Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. And academia is surprisingly replete with scholars whose anti-imperial analysis is a historical conclusion, rather than an advocacy of change. Any of them could have helped the Times see that the primary reason for U.S. arms sales differs from the largely commercial reasons of our badly outdistanced competitors, Russia, France, China, and Britain.
That reason is empire, for which perhaps the Times intended “diplomacy” to be polite shorthand. Only France, and only in its formerly formal but still effective West African colonial empire, acts like us in this regard.
When a country uses U.S. arms it is bound logistically to our network of air, land, sea, space, and covert forces, and to our intelligence and communications agencies. U.S. military strategy has achieved domination in all battle spaces, in all corners of the world. For that, it needs forward basing, logistical and intelligence support, and cooperation that is both rapid and sustained. It takes a village of allies to allow us to bestride the globe in our “fly every day, fight by tonight” state of readiness.
Intelligence pours in and individual relationships are cemented as our forces and agents interact constantly with other countries’ personnel on training, equipping, spying, and joint exercises. Purchasers come to be regarded, and regard themselves, as our allies, despite the lack of treaties approved by the Senate or formal Status of Forces agreements reported to Congress.
By missing the context of empire, the Times goes down four blind alleys. First, it cites many officials bemoaning civilian casualties from Saudi air raids. Second, it makes distinctions between types of weapons. Third, it focuses on differences between the Obama and Trump administrations in motivation and in operation. Fourth, it complains that the State Department and its human rights concerns have been marginalized under Trump. Let’s take these in order.
Civilian casualties: The bombing of civilians in Yemen, whether caused by insouciance, purpose, or collateral reality, is not at the core of the humanitarian crisis there. The war itself is the crisis. Attacks by air and ground forces always extract a direct cost in lives and property. However, it is the indirect impact of war on the economy and hence family income and public infrastructure that is the real killer. Especially in developing countries where services and survival are already close to the edge, lives are lost in the millions every decade to war’s inevitable disease, malnutrition, and medical meltdown.
Senator Menendez’s 2018 “hold” on Saudi sales wasn’t, as the Times claims, an “attempt to stop the arms feeding the Yemen war.” It was only a reaction to bad targeting: “I don’t have an ideological problem” with arms sales to Saudi, he says in the article, but only with uses that “violate international norms” and hit civilians.
Differentiating between types of weapons: The Saudis asked President Obama to approve the invasion of Yemen a few hours before it began in March 2015. He did, but the Times reports that he decided to offer “primarily defensive support,” based on the need to help Saudi fend off missile attacks from Yemen. Of course, in war such an offensive-defensive distinction is impossible. Sales of U.S. arms and training and even bomb sales continued until civilian casualties in Sana’a in October led to the December 2016 suspension of bomb deliveries. U.S. military and intelligence cooperation in targeting, battlefield information, and aerial refueling continued throughout Obama’s term.
Considering some weapons as “offensive” as opposed to “defensive” is reminiscent of the Reagan administration’s efforts, often successful, to encourage war-weary Members of Congress to provide the Nicaraguan contras “humanitarian” aid like food and uniforms and “non-lethal” aid like medical supplies and communications gear. There is no such thing as humanitarian and non-lethal aid to a killing machine. An army fights on its stomach and sends in attack orders on field telephones.
Non-governmental backers of the UN Arms Trade Treaty, which came into force in 2014, made the same sort of mistake by agreeing to limit it to blocking only particular weapons that had been misused. The proposed Nobel Peace Laureates Arms Trade Code of Conduct from the 1990’s had the right idea: to support democracy and stop human rights abuses you need to cut off ALL weapons and military support to dictators and repressive regimes, not just the bombs they drop or the bullets they fire. They can get those anywhere if you’ve already sold them the infrastructure to use it.
If the civilian toll in Sana’a was so horrific, why did Obama feel the need to maintain overall aid and support for Saudi Arabia’s military forces? Because the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have had an alliance since 1945, when it was cemented with a DC-3 aircraft given to founding King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, complete with pilots and crew, and a flock of sheep given to President Roosevelt. They give us and the West access to oil and provide military, diplomatic, and intelligence cooperation. We provide their military infrastructure and sustain their continued rule.
Delaying deliveries of a few new bombs was a symbolic rather than concrete effort to reduce the civilian toll. It was not even a policy decision to push for an end to the war itself, let alone a threat to undo the underlying imperial bargain. The continuation of the U.S.-Saudi bargain, repeated daily in the scores of developing countries that make up our imperial support system, was a given.
Obama vs. Trump: The Times ardently looks for differences between the Obama and Trump administrations, particularly in their working relations with arms exporters. It should have looked for similarities instead, particularly the similar imperative they inherited to preserve the empire. Obama backed the war to maintain our strategic relationship with the Saudi monarchy and to keep it actively supporting negotiations for the Iran nuclear deal. Trump kept on backing Saudi Arabia for the first reason alone.
The Times argues, without evidence, that Trump’s reversal of Obama’s suspension of bomb deliveries and support for more sales helped “prolong” the war. But the Obama suspension was not even intended to end the war, but rather to make sure it was conducted properly, against military targets.
Then the Times makes much of what it calls a “statement of regret” by 30 former Obama officials, including UN ambassador Samantha Power and National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who now call for a suspension of U.S. support for the war. Note that this is not the same as what would really be required to move Saudi Arabia to settlement, a threat to end U.S. military relations.
First of all, there is not one word of regret in the statement. Instead, it is a flat-out justification for the Obama decision, which it calls a policy of “conditional support” designed to “gain leverage” with the Saudis to reduce civilian casualties and spur a diplomatic settlement. The statement contrasts this noble policy – which is nonsensical to its core – with a “blank check” Trump policy of “unconditional support” for a Saudi victory.
One of the signers, NSC staffer Andrew Miller, told the Times that “the war had gone in a direction we had not anticipated.” Oh, really? Like in Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, and Syria, all of which Obama once bombed or drone-attacked, along with Yemen, in a single day? What direction should you expect when you back a party to a civil war? After a career at the State Department sending weapons to Middle East dictators, Miller now “promotes Middle East democracy” at the Carnegie Institute.
Another signer is Steve Pomper, who wants us to know that he and his fellow NSC staffers were “serious, humane people.” He told the Times that: “People make miscalculations all the time. But it was striking to me as I reflected on my time in the Obama administration that it wasn’t just that we embarked on this escapade -- it’s that we didn’t pull ourselves out of it.”
This notion that helping an ally when it goes to war is a “miscalculation” recalls the claim by many officials that the Viet Nam war was a “mistake.” But Obama backing and then continuing to back our ally Saudi Arabia at war, like President Johnson backing and continuing to back our ally South Viet Nam, was no miscalculation or mistake – it was an inevitable result of the network of imperial bargains that constitute our foreign policy in developing countries.
Pomper now writes about Obama’s “atrocity prevention” program at the Holocuast Museum and chairs the International Crisis Group. He made a few other telling comments to the Times. The Saudi arms sales, he says, were “like flypaper in trapping the U.S. in Yemen.” But flypaper glues both ways. Arms sales also glue our allies to our empire’s need for bases and support.
At the NSC Pomper worked on what appear to be unsuccessful attempts to train Saudi pilots into not hitting civilians, but he admits that there was a larger issue at play here: “We were in Yemen. We shouldn’t have been there.” Really? Having an empire means you have to back your imperial allies. To paraphrase Bobby Kennedy, we’ve got 20 Yemens a day to handle. They come with the territory for an empire.
Pomper’s work on training is part of a decades-old imperial sleight of hand, under all administrations, in which bureaucrats try to convince human rights activists, despite massacre after massacre and coup after coup, that U.S. military training improves not just military performance but attitudes and behaviors about human rights and democracy. But this entire debate is a dodge.
The strategic purpose of the program is not found in performance or behavior, but in the creation of a network to gather intelligence and increase cooperation in future crises. The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency keeps careful track of where the trainees and their U.S. military contacts and their postings, so that they can connect with each other quickly when U.S. forces need inside information, access to intelligence, and help with operations.
Another signer was Susan Rice’s top deputy at the NSC. Ben Rhodes told the Times that the Saudi invasion “happened so quickly” with no time for Obama’s usual “very rigorous process.” But the decision to back Saudi Arabia could have been changed any time during the year and a half between the invasion and the suspension of a tiny component of assistance.
Rhodes said that backing the Saudi invasion was like “getting in a car with a drunk driver.” Solipsistically, Rhodes seems not to have considered that perhaps the entire framework of our arms sales to developing countries makes us, and not the recipients, the drunk driver, unable to stop doing what she knows is dangerous to human health and well-being.
Rhodes is an English major who became a speechwriter, first for the 9/11 commission and later for candidate Obama. Incredibly he rose to became the number two White House official for national security and be named by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the top 100 global thinkers. Only in America, land of opportunity. Among Rhodes’ finest global thoughts is surely this mystifying one in the Times, about policy in Yemen: “Looking back, I wonder what we might have done differently, particularly if we’d somehow known that Obama was going to be succeeded by a President Trump.”
On the commercial side, the Times is particularly shocked, shocked that Raytheon has great access to executive branch officials under Trump. But like all of us on all sides of policy, Raytheon should be able to exercise its First Amendment right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Access doesn’t guarantee anything more than a hearing, and government officials benefit from hearing divergent, even admittedly self-interested views.
And officials do hear such views, all the time, not just from lobbyists, the media, and angry citizens, but from their allies in Congress. And not just on every sale with local jobs at stake but on every issue in every permutation under the sun. I’ve met with staff at State, Defense, Treasury, AID, the NSC, and the White House under many administrations to advocate such things as a ban on arms to dictators, an end to U.S. support for military forces and wars from Central America to Africa and the Middle East, a ban on anti-personnel landmines, a requirement for self-destructing fuses on cluster bombs, an end to World Bank loans to governments whose armies won’t let civilian authorities audit their budgets, and more recently, some sanity on blocking electricity projects in Africa over an always projected but never occurring climate crisis. Sometimes it made no immediate difference, sometimes it did, but it’s how DC works.
The Times acknowledges that Raytheon’s CEO was able to have a conversation with Susan Rice to ask her to reverse the suspension of bomb deliveries. She just said no – although that was easy, since the decision was only Obama’s for a month. Trump just said yes, as would eventually have happened with any president when an American company has produced an item, on promise of payment, with the approval of the U.S. government, and now can’t get paid.
The Times reveals that Raytheon hired former State Department officials as lobbyists, which the Project on Government Oversight told the Times is “legalized corruption” because the lobbyists are “being hired for who they know.” But why is hiring experts with the ability to talk knowledgeably and credibly to staff and Members of Congress corrupt? We all, human rights groups and arms sellers, hire people with connections to push our proposals. Who got corrupted? As I show in my arms novel, corruption occurs when lobbyists arrange contingent donations, and there is no evidence of that in the Times story.
Trump approved a new arms sales policy guidance that has the purpose of “economic security” in it, which the Times says is a first. It may be a first in print, but it certainly is not the first time that administrations considered economics as part of arms sales decisions. Raytheon merged with United Technologies. These are huge corporations surviving on Pentagon spending. Congress and the administration have tremendous political and economic incentives to keep them bustling. Arms sales have long helped bring unit prices down for the Pentagon, and let the Pentagon off the hook to keep the production lines open itself when its own buy slows or ends.
Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro, the bȇte noire of the story for his work “to bring to heel a bunch of career bureaucrats” who were slow-walking sales that the president had approved, told the Times: “I don’t advocate for companies. I advocate for the president and workers and for our men and women in uniform.” That is all well and good, but he, like all the Obama staff, are also advocating for the imperial network that supports our men and women in uniform as they implement our strategy of dominating the global battle space.
Of course, the Times story delightfully proves that arms corporations like Raytheon strain credulity when they say they don’t try to make policy, but only follow it. I haven’t heard that one since a memorial policy event in 2006 for Cornell professor Arch Dotson, from one his arms-dealing former students. I reminded him that Bruce Jackson, the vice president of Lockheed-Martin, which wanted to and did then sell fighter planes to Poland, served as the co-chair of the Committee to Expand NATO in the 1990s, alongside Democratic power lawyer Greg Craig.
Weakening the State Department: Finally, the Times presents aggrieved officials arguing that both the State Department as a whole and its bureau that monitors countries’ records on democracy and human rights were not as closely consulted on arms sales as in previous administrations. This is a strange complaint, coming from the cabinet department that must rule on all arms sales.
In this case, Secretary Rex Tillerson worked with Senator Corker to hold up new Saudi sales for seven months in an attempt to force the Kingdom to end its pressure on Qatar. Trump backed Saudi Arabia in the dispute, and Tillerson finally accepted the president’s repeated, explicit order to move on. Only then did he meet with Corker to ask him to lift the hold. The Times reports that Raytheon devoted itself to overturning the hold, but it sure took a long time against the powerful State Department bureaucracy.
State Department officials “worried that a White House trade advisor with no foreign policy role was expediting arms sales with profound diplomatic consequences.” Navarro’s response was that he just “accelerated” the pace of approval. The Times said that this prodding “diminished” the stature of the State Department, as did White House son-in-law Jared Kushner’s failure to invite a State Department official to a planning session on potential sales to discuss during Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia. But in every administration, every arms deal has multiple players with differing agendas. Companies don’t just sit back and hope for the best when a billion-dollar deal enters the approval pipeline. They look for staff in various departments and agencies who agree with sales, and then ask them to check in to see what is taking so long at the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.
Some in the State Department’s monitoring bureau for human rights felt that “the administration did not seem concerned about human rights issues.” But what is the “concern” that was demonstrated in previous administrations? As I learned in 1983 when writing Human Rights: The Carter Record, the Reagan Reaction with Anne-Marie Smith for the Center for International Policy, at the end of the day of internal debate and public posturing, arms sales are almost always approved.
The monitoring bureau was called Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs when it was founded because of post-Watergate concerns about our links to despots and because of a reform law that barred arming human rights abusers…except when it didn’t. Despite being led by stellar human rights advocates, the bureau has never, under either Democratic or Republican administrations, been a player when it comes to arms and training for big buyers. From the start, everybody understood the bromide that “human rights is for little countries that don’t matter, not big countries that do.”
President Carter’s appointee, civil rights icon Patt Derian, was marginalized along with Roberta Cohen and her other deputies by imperial hawks like Richard Holbrooke at State’s East Asia bureau and Zbigniew Brzezinski at the National Security Council. Under President Clinton the bureau was renamed Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and was led by international human rights experts John Shattuck and then Harold Koh. They and NSC democracy czar Mort Halperin made powerful arguments that were brushed aside every crunch-time.
President Obama went a step further, and actually appointed two leaders of human rights groups, Michael Posner of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch. They played what long-time human rights activist Holly Burkhalter calls “the common scold” as well as any of their predecessors, but to no avail. Despite their lovely speeches, Obama, like all previous administrations, set records for arms sales to dictators.
Malinowski, now in the House, criticized Trump’s arms sales in the Times story, saying that “people look to us” to stand for more than “our naked self-interest.” He is clearly not listening to the people I know in the developing world, who tend to see us an obvious empire pursuing our obvious military self-interests as we, for example, kept arming and training the Bahraini police after they shot down pro-democracy demonstrators in 2011. We read that Trump’s policies were “met with alarm” in the bureau, but I hope that such policies of previous presidents were as well. The imperial bargain requires arms sales, and there is almost always a military necessity, a will that finds a way to frustrate the promotion of democracy and human rights.
As an example of reduced concern for human rights, the Times reported that the bureau was not in on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s emergency decision to provide arms to Saudi Arabia. This makes sense, though. The U.S. government has had 45 years to bar sales to Saudi Arabia on human rights grounds, and has always chosen not to. What role would the bureau play in the decision? There is no longer a Christopher committee, which deputy secretary Warren Christopher used under Carter to force the various national security bureaucracies to at least listen to the case for human rights conditionality.
In addition, it is hard to compare the bureau’s exclusion to what previous administrations did, since those emergency authorities had only been used three times before. Assuming that Pompeo kept his circle small because he wanted to control leaks that could have derailed the decision as it was being planned, this Times story full of unnamed bureau sources shows he made the right call.
A pairing of incidents during Steven Pomper’s tenure at the NSC reveals the necessary contradictions of prompting human rights under an empire. To defeat the Lord’s Resistance Army, liberal Democrats in Congress in 2010 pushed for aid to train and equip the Ugandan Army that maintains the corrupt and repressive Museveni regime. In 2014 Pomper approved helicopter lift for the Ugandan troops, but at the same time also moved a Pentagon regional Air Chiefs meeting out of Uganda because of the passage of an anti-gay criminal code. This mixed message was received as, well, mixed up: six years later in Uganda Museveni still rules as a dictator backed by his Army, the LRA is still abducting children, and it’s still a life sentence for “serial” gayness.
While presenting Trump as egregious in his commercial focus, the Times allows that human rights were also trumped because other presidents “sometimes show a willingness to achieve narrow goals by arming rough regimes.” Please! There is nothing narrow about empire. It's as big as the globe, and it dominates, indeed guarantees, all the inevitably positive decisions about arms sales to dictators. By missing the reality of our empire, the Times of necessity misses the core reason for the Saudi arms sales.
In this the Times is like the protesters who today are pressing elected governments to take down historical statues – and the vandals trying just to do it undemocratically. They think of evil systems as occurring in the mists of time, but we’ve got one going on right here, right now. I’d rather we were tearing down not statues of the past, but statutes of the present that permit arms sales to dictators.
Empires always portray themselves as humanitarian, and they easily find court historians who agree. John Bolton’s new book about the Trump White House reveals more about his myopia than about Trump’s. Bolton explaining how the world benefits from America’s global military dominance sounds just like a British minister in 1890 (and historian Niall Ferguson in 2002) explaining why British rule in Africa and India was not a brutal grab of resources, but rather a mutually beneficial mission of Livingstone’s three C’s -- commerce, Christianity, and civilization. Empire is evil, make no mistake. Just ask those who live under it, and under Trump, like under Obama, like under any president back to FDR, face a U.S.-armed and trained military force when they push for democracy and human rights.
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