In a move that poses grave risks to U.S. security, the Trump administration’s newly released conventional arms transfer policy will put jobs and the interests of arms manufacturers ahead of safety, security, and human rights in its decisions on who the United States should arm.
This bias should come as no surprise given President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump lawyers to Supreme Court: Jan. 6 committee 'will not be harmed by delay' Two House Democrats announce they won't seek reelection DiCaprio on climate change: 'Vote for people that are sane' MORE’s penchant for promoting U.S. weapons sales and touting the jobs that they create. From calling foreign leaders to urge them to speed up purchases of U.S. combat aircraft to using a White House meeting with the Saudi crown prince to brag about which states would gain jobs from specific sales to Riyadh, President Trump seems to be obsessed with the alleged economic benefits of the weapons trade.
Given its numerous mentions of creating jobs, making life easier for weapons contractors, and bolstering the U.S. defense industrial base, one might think the Trump administration’s new directive is a statement of economic policy rather than a carefully crafted expression of national security concerns.
It’s not that human rights considerations are completely absent in the new policy statement, but the document sets an extremely low bar. The directive calls for observing existing law regarding human rights and arms transfers, without pointing to specific sections of the law or how they will be interpreted. Thankfully, the Trump policy statement indicates that the U.S. will not sell weapons to nations that may use them to commit genocide or otherwise violate the laws of war. But this is hardly a ringing endorsement of making human rights a major factor in arms sales decisions, and it is a far cry from the multiple mentions of human rights in the Obama administration directive that it will replace.
The Trump administration’s arms export approach doesn’t just differ from the Obama administration’s in the way it is described. There is already concrete evidence that human rights are taking a back seat to commercial concerns and a desire to curry favor with questionable allies. Early on, the Trump administration reversed human rights-based suspensions of sales to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Nigeria that had been imposed during the Obama era.
The Saudi case is a litmus test of whether human rights and broader security concerns will have any role at all in the Trump administration’s approach to arms trading. The United States has long been a top supplier of weaponry to Saudi Arabia, and it has continued to do so during that nation’s brutal intervention in Yemen. Fighting in Yemen has gone on for over three years and resulted in thousands of civilian casualties through air strikes, not to mention putting millions of Yemenis at risk of famine and fatal disease.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) has rightly pointed out that Saudi actions in Yemen “look like war crimes,” which should be reason enough for the Trump administration to stop selling arms that can be used to prosecute the war in Yemen, even by the standards of its own, watered-down policy statement.
Arms sales decisions should be about security, not jobs. But if jobs are going to be introduced as a reason to trade in weapons, we should at least have a little truth in advertising. As economists at the University of Massachusetts have demonstrated, weapons manufacturing is the least effective way to create jobs. Exporting virtually any other product would have a greater economic payoff.
In addition, most new arms deals involve so-called “offsets” — agreements to steer business to the recipient nation in exchange for their purchase of U.S. weapons. For example, F-35 combat aircraft being sold in Japan will be assembled there, not in the United States.
Under Saudi Arabia’s new long-term economic plan, the goal is for 50 percent of the content of arms purchased by Riyadh to be built in Saudi Arabia. U.S. firms have already pledged allegiance to this goal by setting up coproduction agreements and joint ventures that, if successful, will help Saudi Arabia build its very own arms industry. So much for “American jobs.”
It will be up to Congress and the public to restrain the president’s appetite for runaway arms trading. A good place to start would be by blocking any new deals for bombs or other combat equipment that Saudi Arabia can put to work in its shameful intervention in Yemen. And all new sales should be scrutinized for their potential role in enabling human rights abuses, fueling conflict, or inadvertently putting U.S. weapons in the hands of potential adversaries.
Rather than buy into Trump’s claims about arms sales generating U.S. jobs, Congress should do its job by making sure that the commercial interests don’t override the national interest when it comes to arms exports.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.