Lexington analyst: Obama arms sales 'a striking departure' from other Dems

President Obama has made arming Washington’s allies in the Middle East and Asia a key facet of his foreign policy, breaking with decades of Democratic practice, says a prominent defense analyst.

Over the last few months of 2011, the Obama administration inked deals to send U.S fighter jets and other systems to several key allies in the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East. Those transactions have been labeled by analysts as hedges against China’s military build-up and an increasingly aggressive Iran.

Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, in a Monday Forbes.com piece, called the administration’s arms sales “a striking departure from the ideological preferences of the post-Vietnam Democratic Party.”

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“The President and his [advisers] apparently have decided that well-armed allies are the next best thing to U.S. 'boots on the ground' when it comes to advancing America’s global security interests,” Thompson noted.

He highlighted a Dec. 24 announcement that Washington would sell Iranian rival Saudi Arabia nearly 85 Boeing-made F-15 fighter jets, along with advanced munitions.

“In the past, some Democrats in Congress might have questioned the propriety of selling high-tech weapons to a government noted for its conservative social policies,” Thompson wrote. “But administration officials described the deal as a pragmatic solution to regional security needs, one that would provide the world’s preeminent oil producer with the means to deter Iranian aggression without compromising Israel’s defense.

“What the president and his [advisers] have figured out is that, unlike sending troops to fight overseas, there is almost no downside to sending weapons,” Thompson said. “They allow partners such as Saudi Arabia to meet more of their own security needs indigenously rather than relying on an overstretched U.S. military, and they stimulate economic activity in America’s industrial heartland at a time when well-paying, unionized manufacturing jobs are hard to come by.”

Selling arms to allies produces jobs at home, making the strategy a political winner for Obama as his reelection campaign ramps up.

Boeing assembles its F-15s in Missouri, and GE makes its engines in Ohio. As Thompson points out, both are presidential swing states. If Obama or his eventual GOP opponent takes both states, that “could determine the outcome of the 2012 presidential race.”

The administration already has secured F-35 sales to Japan and Australia, with South Korea rumored to be ready to buy that Lockheed-made fighter.

It also will sell upgrade kits for Taiwan’s existing F-16s. 

The culmination of this work will leave Washington with nearly 150 F-35s in the Asia-Pacific region and more than 100 F-16s. That means about 250 of the world's most advanced warplanes are on their way to the region, even as China is building its own sophisticated jets and anti-aircraft systems.

“This shift has proven to be a good fit for an administration that inherited two unpopular wars, massive budget deficits, and a weak economy,” Thompson wrote. “Not only do arms sales make it easier to draw down overseas forces while bolstering the nation’s trade balance, but they undermine Republican rhetoric about Obama being soft on national security.  

“When a president sustains high rates of military spending, takes out the world’s most wanted terrorist, and sells the latest military technology to friends around the globe,” the Lexington COO wrote, “it’s difficult for his political opponents to explain how they could have been any harder on America’s enemies.”