Obama and arms sales

During the Obama years, with little media attention or Congressional debate, the United States has engaged in record levels of weapons exports, many of them to the conflict-ridden Middle East and Persian Gulf region.  U.S. arms sales topped $60 billion last year, and U.S. corporate and governmental transfers account for an astounding three-quarters of the global trade.

On Wednesday, the administration offered a comprehensive justification of its approach to arms transfers by issuing the first official policy directive on conventional arms sales in nearly two decades.  The document, Presidential Policy Directive 27, tries to thread the needle by calling for active promotion of U.S. exports while simultaneously promising to show restraint in deciding who gets U.S. arms and arms-manufacturing technology.  This is no small challenge, but the administration believes it is up to the task.

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The most promising element of the new policy is its pledge to forego sales where there is a likelihood that the weapons transferred will be used to conduct genocide or other atrocities, violate international humanitarian law, or contribute to violations of human rights.  The directive’s language on this score is more explicit than that contained in the prior policy, and it holds out hope that human rights will be restored to a central place in arms transfer decision making after years of being subordinated to other concerns.  Tom Kelly, the State Department's acting assistant secretary for political-military affairs, underscored this point when he told Reuters that "we wanted to make sure that it's very clear that human rights considerations really are at the core of our arms transfer decisions."

The real question is how this new rhetoric will be applied in practice.  In a number of high profile cases, most notably Saudi Arabia -- which is on the receiving end of agreements that will supply tens of billions of dollars of weaponry of all sorts, from advanced fighter planes to guns and ammunition -- other considerations have clearly trumped human rights concerns.  It will be important for Congress and the public to look closely at future cases and try to hold the administration to its commitments on this front.

An equally important question is how the new policy will be implemented.  It has been released in parallel with an ongoing administration effort to loosen arms export controls, an initiative that could make it easier for tyrants and terrorists to get their hands on U.S. weaponry in contradiction to the spirit of the new arms sales policy directive.  These transfers would not occur as a result of active decisions on the part of the administration, but due to the effects of taking thousands of items off of the United States Munitions List (USML) and placing them on the less restrictive Commerce Control List (CCL).  This change will mean that these items will no longer require a license from the State Department to be exported, and will instead be subject to the less stringent controls maintained by the Department of Commerce.

The implications of this landmark change in how arms exports are handled are far reaching.  The kind of rigorous human rights-related vetting of arms exporters and arms recipients that occurs under the State Department’s review process will no longer happen in the case of many militarily useful items.  Three dozen allies will be eligible to receive large numbers of military-related items without any license at all – a potential boon to smugglers who often set up front companies within the borders of U.S. allies in hopes of importing U.S. arms and arms components and re-transferring them to prohibited destinations like Iran and China.  And former Justice Department officials have suggested that the removal of the requirement for many U.S. arms exporters to register with the State Department will make it harder to detect, prevent, and prosecute illegal transfers.

These potential negative outcomes are not the intent of the administration’s arms export control reforms.  But they are likely outcomes that flow from the fact that the administration has tilted too far towards simplifying matters for arms exporting companies at the expense of maintaining or streamlining existing controls.  It is time for Congress to take a closer look at the administration’s arms export decontrol initiative and make changes that will ensure that all significant military items continue to be carefully scrutinized on human rights grounds, and that any loopholes that may make it easier for smugglers to successfully transfer U.S. equipment into the wrong hands are closed.  Doing so would better align the administration’s export control procedures with the intent of its new conventional arms export policy.  It would also ensure that U.S. arms export decisions better promote U.S. security interests.

Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.