Holding the Government Accountable

Fueling the Arms Race in the Middle East

by Doug Tuttle

As U.S. President George W. Bush embarked on his January 2008 Middle East tour, he formally notified Congress of a major U.S. arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The notification, which came just one day before the president was to arrive in Saudi Arabia, detailed a much anticipated arms sale, which is part of a major arms package to Gulf States first announced in July 2007. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates – stand ready to receive $20 billion dollars worth of U.S.-made military equipment intended to demonstrate a U.S. commitment to security in the region and assist allies in their efforts to ward off possible threats from al-Qaida, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. Although potentially helpful for single state security in the Gulf region, these sales continue a disjointed and ineffective regional policy, which contradict the longstanding tenets of U.S. arms export policy and threaten long-term Middle Eastern security.

The United States has long seen Gulf countries as profitable arms trading partners. Since the end of the first Gulf War, the United States has delivered more weapons to the region than any other country in the world, including more than $18 billion worth of U.S. manufactured arms, which totals nearly a quarter of all arms deliveries to Gulf countries during that period. In May 2006, President Bush further cemented the United States as the region’s top arms exporter through the Gulf Security Dialogue, whose objective is reviving U.S.-GCC defense cooperation, moderating regional terrorism and proliferation threats, and responding to regional changes in balance of power by providing a framework for U.S. engagement with GCC countries.

Although the Bush administration believes the proposed arms sale is consistent with its Middle East policy, it contravenes longstanding U.S. arms export policy. The Arms Control Export Act (ACEA) of 1976 prohibits the sale of weapons that would undermine long-term security and stability, weaken democratic movements, support military coups, escalate arms races, exacerbate ongoing conflicts, be used to commit human rights abuses or support human rights abusers, or cause arms buildups in unstable regions.

The Saudi weapon sale disregards a number of these guidelines. For example, the sale promotes additional arms buildup in the already unstable region. Worth $123 million, the sale sends 900 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM), bomb components, technical manuals, spares parts and engineering and technical support to the Kingdom. The JDAM kits are satellite-guided tail kits that are attached to traditional “dumb bombs” making them precision guided and all-weather “smart bombs.” The proposed sale includes 550 kits for MK-82 500-pound bombs, 250 kits for MK-84 2000-pound bombs, and 100 kits for BLU-109 2000-pound bombs, greatly increasing Saudi Arabia’s precision strike capabilities. These weapons are viewed by some as a threat to Israel. Thus, the United States must abide by its longstanding commitment to help Israel maintain its qualitative military edge (QME) and ensuring that Israel maintains a technological military advantage in the region. Therefore, the United States has announced plans to sell Israel $30 billion worth of U.S.-made military equipment, which could include 10,000 JDAM kits, including “smarter” kits than those promised to Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi sale also threatens regional security. The arms buildup could spur Iran into a more aggressive search for technologically advanced weaponry beyond their traditional sources of China and Russia, and could further invigorate Iran’s aspirations of becoming a nuclear power. Although U.S. intelligence believes that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, the National Intelligence Estimate released in November 2007 concludes that, “Iran has the scientific, technological, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so.”

The Saudi sale also supports human rights abusers and undermines democracy. Despite U.S. efforts to promote democratic principles and better Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, the 2006 State Department human rights report states that significant human rights violations were reported in Saudi Arabia, including, “no right to peacefully change the government; infliction of severe pain by judicially sanctioned corporal punishments; beatings and other abuses… and significant restriction of civil liberties--freedoms of speech and press, including the Internet; assembly; association; and movement.” The report also includes evidence that the Saudi government committed severe violations of religious freedom. In other words, U.S. taxpayers are supporting arms sales to a regime that does not uphold American democratic principles and human rights practices.

In addition to the defiance of U.S. arms trade principles and law, critics of the sale argue that Saudi Arabia has done little to reign in terrorism. In July 2007, American officials said that a majority of suicide bombers in Iraq were of Saudi origin, as were nearly half of all foreign fighters in Iraq. Although Saudi Arabia denies such allegations, many also believe that the Saudi Arabia continues to bankroll terrorist organizations. Congressman Steve Rothman, D-N.J., a co-sponsor of resolution that would block the Saudi arms deal called Saudi Arabia “one of the top financiers of terrorism.”

The Saudi deal is the first sale under the GCC arms initiative to draw significant criticism from Congress. In October 2007, over 188 members of Congress signed a letter to President Bush, penned by Reps. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Christopher Carney, D-Pa., stating their opposition to the possible deals, if the administration did not provide assurance that the deal would not harm U.S. military forces in the region or undercut Israel’s qualitative military edge. Many in Congress believe that simply putting conditions on the sale is inadequate, and seek to stop it completely. When Congress was formally notified about the sales details, Reps. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., and Robert Wexler, D-Fla., along with 51 co-sponsors, introduced H.J. Res. 76, a Joint Resolution of Disapproval, which if passed within 30 days of the formal notification, would block the sale of the JDAM tail kits to Saudi Arabia. Wexler has argued that “[U.S.] Weapons sales should only go to a dedicated ally committed to the war on terror, a stable Iraq, and security for Israel. Saudi Arabia does meet these preconditions.” Although many in Congress support the Joint Resolution of Disapproval, Lynne Weil, spokesperson for Chairman Tom Lantos of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the chairman does not intend to consider the resolution, meaning it will most likely die in committee.

Although the bill is unlikely to move forward, Congress has built momentum and support in scrutinizing arms sales to the region. A dialogue has been started that highlights the ineffectiveness of U.S. arms sales to the Middle East. In the last two decades, arms deals to the Persian Gulf have done little to enhance human rights, increase regional security, or consolidate democratic principles. Instead, U.S. weapons sales to the region are fueling weapons buildups, violating tenets of U.S. arms export policy, and threatening long-term peace in the region. A more valuable commitment to the region would be a coherent policy toward peace and security not predicated on defense agreements and short-term policy objectives. Unfortunately, it appears unlikely that that commitment will come from the White House. While it is not the place of Congress to set foreign policy, it does have the power and the obligation to check foreign policy gone wrong. Congress must continue to scrutinize arms deals on the merits of their adherence to U.S. export guidelines, regional stability and U.S. policy objectives, to ensure arms transfers do not cause more harm than good.