Egyptian coup should trigger broad re-examination of U.S. militarization of Middle East

After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, President Lyndon Johnson wisely warned that "this last conflict has demonstrated the danger of the Middle Eastern arms race of the last 12 years. Here the responsibility must rest not only on those in the area - but upon the larger states outside the area...We have always opposed this arms race, and our own military shipments to the area have consequently been severely limited." Yet, both he and his successors threw this caution to the wind, giving Israel and Egypt alone more than $100 billion in military grants and loans since then. While most of this money has been appropriated ostensibly to undergird the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, in fact it has directly impeded democracy in Egypt and especially freedom, justice and equality for the Palestinians.

Not only is the Obama administration clearly ignoring the law by keeping open the spigot of weapons to Egypt in the aftermath of the military’s coup; it also turns a blind eye to the law by providing Israel $3.1 billion in military aid per year, despite the fact that Israel clearly violates the Arms Export Control Act by using U.S. weapons not for “internal security” or “legitimate self-defense,” but to perpetuate its 46-year military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip and to commit gross and systematic human rights abuses against Palestinians, such as the injuring and killing of civilians, the demolition of Palestinian homes, and the illegal colonization of Palestinian land.     

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The problems, of course, go beyond U.S. military aid and weapons transfers to Israel and Egypt. The Middle East is one of the most heavily armed parts of the planet, which exacerbates the region’s conflicts. The United States is the top arms peddler to the world, and to the region, and thus is in the best position to exert leadership to reduce, or perhaps even establish a moratorium on, weapons transfers to the Middle East as did President Harry Truman in the 1950 Tripartite Declaration.

Instead, the Obama Administration, advancing what it perceives to be U.S. strategic interests (but in reality are the interests of the weapons corporations which pour tens of millions of dollars into lobbying and campaign contributions each year) has sharply increased U.S. weapons transfers the last two years. In 2011 the United States set a record with over $66 billion in arms deals (over three-quarters of the global total), according to the Congressional Research Service, with huge sales of sophisticated armaments to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman driving a tripling of U.S. weapons transfers from 2010 figures.

There are other urgent reasons and opportunities to work to de-militarize the region. Concerns over possible chemical weapons use in Syria, Israel’s nuclear arsenal estimated at between 75 and 400 warheads, and possible future Iranian development of nuclear weapons underscore the need to establish a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone (first proposed by Iran and Egypt in the late 1960s and reaffirmed by the UN resolution officially ending the first Iraq war in 1991, and by the 2005 and 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conferences).

Finland agreed to host a conference last year on such a zone, but the conference was postponed, hopefully to be convened this year. The United States has a key role to play in the success of such a conference, as one of the official conveners and as Israel’s benefactor, as surely it will have to lean on Israel to get it to participate in good faith. Ridding the region of unconventional weapons won’t be easy, but could hardly be more urgent, as the use of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction could devastate not only the peoples of the region, but possibly the global economy and environment.

While the current situation in Egypt justifiably holds the world’s attention, we should not miss the opportunity to ease tensions and act in the broader interests of peace for all the peoples of the region. Stopping the torrential flood of weapons into the Middle East would be a great place to start.

Martin is executive director of Peace Action and Peace Action Education Fund. Ruebner is National Advocacy Director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and author of Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace.