Some of these problems can be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, by, for example, conditioning future security assistance to Bahrain on a true democratic opening on the part of the current government. But as the largest supplier to the region – underscored most recently by a record $60 billion deal to provide combat aircraft, attack helicopters, bombs and guns to Saudi Arabia – the United States has a responsibility to play a leadership role in creating a comprehensive approach to limiting dangerous weapons exports.
One fruitful avenue would be to institute a freeze on the provision of major conventional weaponry to the Middle East and North Africa, accompanied by talks among major suppliers to the region to impose limits on the quantity and quality of weaponry to be supplied to the area.
A similar approach was undertaken in the wake of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, involving the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and China. Those talks fell apart in large part because the United States and other players were concluding major new weapons deals even as they were talking about restraint.
The hypocrisy of this approach contributed to the collapse of the talks, as these major suppliers feared giving a “leg up” to their competitors if they slowed the flow of their own sales to the region. Talks accompanied by a freeze could be more effective for precisely this reason.
A new approach should also entail a rethinking of the role of U.S. security assistance. Most notably, the over $1 billion per year in military assistance that was provided to the Mubarak regime in Egypt should be shifted towards aid for economic reconstruction and reform, in consultation with a new democratic government. This would go much further than the one-time, $1 billion in debt forgiveness to Cairo that was announced in the president’s speech.
A more difficult and arguably more urgent task will be stemming the flow of small arms and light weapons to the Middle East and North Africa. In Libya, for example, massive stocks of AK-47 rifles and shoulder-fired missiles have not only been used in the conflict but have also raised concerns about leakage of these armaments to non-state actors and undemocratic governments throughout the region, potentially including Al Qaeda affiliates. Keeping these deadly weapons out of war zones will require coordinated efforts in law enforcement, intelligence gathering, information sharing and in shutting down illicit financing sources.
Efforts along these lines are already underway under the auspices of the United Nations, regional bodies, and individual governments. These initiatives must be strengthened through the provision of greater resources and the prioritization of these efforts on the agendas of key governments.
Ultimately what is needed is a coordinated global approach to restricting arms transfers to human rights abusers and to conflict zones. Just such an initiative is under way at the United Nations in the form of talks aimed at instituting an Arms Transfer Treaty (ATT). To its credit, the Obama administration has reversed the policy of dogged opposition that characterized Bush administration policy towards an ATT, expressing instead openness towards the crafting of an effective agreement. This stated policy should be accompanied by energetic efforts to support the strongest treaty possible, including the use of U.S. leverage to bring other key nations on board.
No one knows for sure where the currents of change sweeping across the Middle East will end up, but curbing the flood of weapons to the area can only contribute to a positive outcome now and a more stable situation in the future. President Obama should revise our policy accordingly.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.