Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Defunding America’s Wars At Home And Abroad

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

Think of it as a war system that's been coming home for years. The murder of George Floyd has finally shone a spotlight on the need to defund local police departments and find alternatives that provide more genuine safety and security. The same sort of spotlight needs soon to be shone on the American military machine and the wildly well-funded damage it's been doing for almost 19 years across the Greater Middle East and Africa.

Distorted funding priorities aren't the only driving force behind police violence against communities of color, but shifting such resources away from policing and to areas like jobs, education, housing, and restorative justice could be an important part of the solution. And any effort to boost spending on social programs should include massive cuts to the Pentagon's bloated budget. In short, it's time to defund our wars, both at home and abroad.


In most states and localities, spending on police and prisons outweighs what the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., once described as "programs of social uplift." The numbers are staggering. In some jurisdictions, police alone can account for up to 40 percent of local budgets, leaving little room for other priorities. In New York City, for instance, funding the police department's operations and compensation costs more than $10 billion yearly -- more, that is, than the federal government spends on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationwide, more than $100 billion annually goes into policing.

Now, add to that another figure: what it costs to hold roughly two million (yes 2,000,000!) Americans in prisons and jails -- roughly $120 billion a year. Like policing, in other words, incarceration is big business in this country in 2020. After all, prison populations have grown by nearly 700 percent since 1972, driven in significant part by the "war on drugs," a so-called war that has disproportionately targeted people of color.

The Elephant in the Room: Pentagon Spending
In addition to the police and prisons, the other major source of American militarized spending is, of course, the Pentagon. That department, along with related activities like nuclear weapons funding at the Department of Energy, now gobbles up at least $750 billion per year. That's more than the military budgets of the next 10 countries combined.

Just as prisons and policing consume a startling proportion of state and local budgets, the Pentagon accounts for more than half of the federal government's discretionary budget and that includes most government functions other than Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. As Ashik Siddique of the National Priorities Project has noted, the Trump administration's latest budget proposal "prioritizes brute force and militarization over diplomatic and humanitarian solutions to pressing societal crises" in a particularly striking way. "Just about every non-militarized department funded by the discretionary budget," he adds, "is on the chopping block, including all those that focus on reducing poverty and meeting human needs like education, housing, labor, health, energy, and transportation."

Spending on the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border and the deportation of immigrants through agencies like ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and Customs and Border Protection totals another $24 billion annually. That puts U.S. spending on police, prisons, and the Pentagon at nearly $1 trillion per year and that doesn't even include the soaring budgets of other parts of the American national security state like the Department of Homeland Security ($92 billion) and the Veterans Administration ($243 billion -- a cost of past wars). Back in May 2019, Mandy Smithberger of the Project on Government Oversight and I had already estimated that the full national security budget, including the Pentagon, was approximately $1.25 trillion a year and that estimate, of course, didn't even include the police and the prison system!

Another way of looking at the problem is to focus on just how much of the federal budget goes to the Pentagon and other militarized activities, including federal prisons, immigration enforcement, and veterans benefits. An analysis by the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies puts this figure at $887 billion, or more than 64 percent of the federal discretionary budget including public health, education, environmental protection, job training, energy development, housing, transportation, scientific research, and more.

Making the Connection: The 1033 Program
Ever since images of the police deploying armored vehicles against peaceful demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, hit the national airwaves in 2014, the Pentagon's program for supplying "surplus" military equipment to local police departments has been a news item. It's also gotten intermittent attention in Congress and the Executive Branch.

Since 1997, the Pentagon's 1033 Program, as it's called, has channeled to 8,000 separate law enforcement agencies more than $7.4 billion in surplus equipment, including Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles of the kind used on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, along with rifles, ammunition, grenade launchers, and night-vision devices. As Brian Barrett has pointed out at Wired, "Local law enforcement responding to even nonviolent protests has often looked more like the U.S. Armed Forces." Political scientist Ryan Welch co-authored a 2017 study suggesting, when it came to police departments equipped in such a fashion, "that officers with military hardware and mindsets will resort to violence more often and more quickly."

Under the circumstances and given who's providing the equipment, you won't be surprised to learn that the 1033 program also suffers from lax oversight. In 2017, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) created a fake law enforcement agency and was able to acquire $1.2 million worth of equipment through the program, including night-vision goggles and simulated M-16A2 rifles. The request was approved within a week of the GAO's application.

The Obama administration finally implemented some reforms in the wake of Ferguson, banning the transfer of tracked vehicles, grenade launchers, and weaponized aircraft, among other things, while requiring police departments to supply more detailed rationales describing their need for specific equipment. But such modest efforts -- and they proved modest indeed – were promptly chucked out when Donald Trump took office. And the Trump administration changes quickly had a discernible effect. In 2019, the 1033 program had one of its biggest years ever, with about 15,750 military items transferred to law enforcement, a figure exceeded only in 2012, in the Obama years, when 17,000 such items were distributed.

As noted, the mere possession of military equipment has been shown to stoke the ever stronger "warrior culture" that now characterizes so many police departments, as evidenced by the use of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams armed with military weaponry for routine drug enforcement activities. It's hardly just SWAT teams, though. The weaponry and related items provided under the 1033 program are widely employed by ordinary police forces. NBC News, for instance, reported that armored vehicles were used at least 29 times in response to Black Lives Matter protests organized since the murder of George Floyd, including in major urban areas like Philadelphia and Cincinnati. NBC has also determined that more than 1,100 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles have been distributed to local law enforcement agencies under the MRAP program, going to communities large and small, including Sanford, Maine, population 20,000, and Moundsville, West Virginia, population 8,400.

A report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has similarly documented the use of Pentagon-supplied equipment in no-knock home invasions, including driving up to people's houses in just such armored vehicles to launch the raids. The ACLU concluded that "the militarization of American policing is evident in the training that police officers receive, which encourages them to adopt a 'warrior' mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies, as well as in the equipment they use, such as battering rams, flashbang grenades, and APCs [Armored Personnel Carriers]."

Who Benefits?
Companies in the military-industrial complex earn billions of dollars selling weapons, as well as building and operating prisons and detention facilities, and supplying the police, while theoretically dealing with problems with deep social and economic roots. Generally speaking, by the time they're done, those problems have only become deeper and more rooted. Take, for example, giant weapons contractors like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon that profit so splendidly from the sales of weapons systems to Saudi Arabia, weaponry that, in turn, has been used to kill tens of thousands of civilians in Yemen, destroy civilian infrastructure there, and block the provision of desperately needed humanitarian assistance. The result: more than 100,000 deaths in that country and millions more on the brink of famine and disease, including Covid-19.

Such major weapons firms have also been at the front of the line when it comes to benefiting from America's endless post-9/11 wars. The Costs of War Project at Brown University estimates that the United States has spent over $6.4 trillion on just some of those overseas conflicts since 2001. Hundreds of billions of those dollars ended up in the pockets of defense contractors, while problems in the U.S., left far less well funded, only grew.

And by the way, the Pentagon's regular budget, combined with direct spending on wars, also manages to provide huge benefits to such weapons makers. Almost half of the department's $750 billion budget goes to them. According to the Federal Procurement Data System's latest report on the top recipients of government contracts, the five largest U.S. arms makers alone -- Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics -- split well over $100 billion in Pentagon awards among them in 2019. Meanwhile, those same five firms pay their CEOs a total of approximately $100 million per year, with hundreds of millions more going to other top executives and board members.

Meanwhile, in the Trump years, the militarization of the border has become a particularly lucrative business opportunity, with General Atomics, for instance, supplying ever more surveillance drones and General Dynamics supplying an ever more intricate and expensive remote sensor surveillance system. There are also millions to be made running privatized prisons and immigrant detention centers, filling the coffers of firms like CoreCivic and the GEO Group, which have secured record profits in recent years while garnering about half their revenues from those two sources.

Last but not least is the market for even more police equipment. Local forces benefit from grants from the Department of Homeland Security to purchase a wide range of items to supplement the Pentagon's 1033 program.

The True Bottom Line
Much has been written about America's failed post-9/11 wars, which have cost trillions of dollars in taxpayer treasure, hundreds of thousands of lives (American and otherwise), and physical and psychological injuries to hundreds of thousands more. They have also propped up sectarian and corrupt regimes that have actually made it easier for terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS to form and spread. Think of it as the ultimate boomerang effect, in which violence begets more violence, while allowing overseas terrorist organizations to thrive. As journalist Nick Turse has noted with respect to the militarization of U.S. Africa policy, the growth in American military operations on that continent has proceeded rather strikingly in conjunction with a proliferation of new terrorist groups. Put the best light on them and U.S. counterterror operations there have been ineffective. More likely, they have simply helped spawn further increases in terrorist activities in the region.

All of this has, in turn, been an ongoing disaster for underfunded domestic programs that would actually help ordinary Americans rather than squander their tax dollars on what passes for, but obviously isn't, "national defense." In the era of Covid-19, climate change, and an increased focus on longstanding structural racism and anti-black violence, a new approach to "security" is desperately needed, one that privileges not yet more bombs, guns, militarized police forces, and aircraft carriers but public health, environmental protection, and much-needed programs for quality jobs and education in underserved communities.

On the domestic front, particularly in communities of color, police are more often seen as an occupying force than a source of protection (and ever since the 1033 program was initiated, they've looked ever more like such a force as well). This has led to calls for defunding the police and seeking other means of providing public safety, including, minimally, not sending police to deal with petty drug offenses, domestic disputes, and problems caused by individuals with mental-health issues. Organizations like the Minneapolis-based Reclaim the Block have put forward proposals for crisis response by institutions other than the police and for community-based programs for resolving disputes and promoting restorative justice.

Shifting Priorities
Sharp reductions in spending on police, prisons, and the Pentagon could free up hundreds of billions of dollars for programs that might begin to fill the gap in spending on public investments in communities of color and elsewhere.

Organizations like the Movement for Black Lives and the Poor People's Campaign are already demanding these kinds of changes. In its moral budget, a comprehensive proposal for redirecting America's resources toward addressing poverty and away from war, racism, and ecological destruction, the Poor People's Campaign calls for a $350 billion annual cut in Pentagon spending -- almost half of current levels. Likewise, the platform of the Movement for Black Lives suggested a 50 percent reduction in Pentagon outlays. And a new youth anti-militarist movement, Dissenters, has called for defunding the armed forces as well as the police.

Ultimately, safety for all Americans will depend on more than just a shift of funding or a reduction in police armaments. After all, George Floyd and Eric Garner -- just two of the long list of black Americans to die at the hands of the police -- were killed not with high-tech weapons, but with a knee to the throat and a fatal chokehold. Shifting funds from the police to social services, dismantling police forces as they now exist, and creating new institutions to protect communities should be an essential part of any solution in the aftermath of Donald Trump's presidency. Similarly, investments in diplomacy, economic assistance, and cultural exchange would be needed in order to help rein in the American war machine which, of course, has been attended to in ways nothing else, from health care to schooling to infrastructure, has been in this century. When it comes to both the police and the Pentagon, the sooner change arrives the better off we'll all be. It's long past time to defund America's wars, both abroad and at home.


William D. Hartung, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

Copyright 2020 William D. Hartung

Will Trump Ride Pentagon Spending to Reelection?

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

Donald Trump likes to posture as a tough guy and part of that tough-guy persona involves bragging about how much he’s spent on the U.S. military. This tendency was on full display in a tweet he posted three days after an American drone killed Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad:

“The United States just spent Two Trillion Dollars on Military Equipment. We are the biggest and by far the BEST in the World! If Iran attacks an American Base, or any American, we will be sending some of that brand new beautiful equipment their way… and without hesitation!”

That tweet was as much a message to the American public as to Iran’s rulers. Its subtext: that Donald J. Trump (and he alone) has restored the U.S. military to greatness after two terms of neglect under the less-than-watchful eye of Barack Obama, that he’s not afraid to use it, and that he deserves credit for everything he’s done, which means, of course, widespread political support. Never mind that Washington has “only” spent about one-third of his claimed $2 trillion on military equipment since he took office and that Pentagon spending reached a post-World War II record high in the Obama years. No surprise there: Trump has never let the facts get in the way of a good story he’s dying to tell.

He has, by the way, made similar claims to his most important audience of all: his donors. At a January 17th get-together with key supporters at Mar-a-Lago, his lavish Florida resort, he bragged that Pentagon spending had increased by $2.5 trillion on his watch. In fact, that figure is closer to total Pentagon spending in the Trump years. For his claim to be accurate, the Pentagon budget would have had to be $0 in January 2017 when he entered the Oval Office. Still, however outlandish what he says about the military may be, the underlying theme remains remarkably consistent: I’m the guy who’s funding our military like never before, so you should keep supporting me big time.

Don’t get me wrong. In collaboration with Congress, Donald Trump has indeed boosted the Pentagon budget to near-record levels. At $738 billion this year alone, it’s already substantially higher than U.S. spending at the peaks of the Korean and Vietnam Wars or during the Reagan military buildup of the 1980s. It’s more than the total amount spent by the next seven nations in the world combined (five of which are U.S. allies). Only Donald Trump could manage to distort, misstate, and exaggerate sums that are already beyond belief in the service of an inflated self-image and ambitious political objectives.

Political Manipulation and “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs”

President Trump’s recent antics should come as no surprise. His use of Pentagon spending and military assistance for political gain has been hiding in plain sight since he entered the Oval Office. After all, that’s what the impeachment charges against him were all about. He was manipulating U.S. military aid to Ukraine to strong-arm its government into generating dirt on Joe Biden whom Trump, obsessed by poll numbers, saw at the time as his most threatening rival.

And don’t forget the president’s penchant for dipping into the Pentagon budget to pay for his cherished wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, a vanity project that plays extremely well with his political base. So far, he’s proposed taking $13.3 billion from the Defense Department’s budget to fund that “big, fat, beautiful wall,” $6.1 billion of which has already been granted to him. For good measure, Trump pushed the Pentagon to award a $400 million contract for building part of the wall to Fisher Sand and Gravel, a North Dakota firm owned by one of his donors.

For Trump, the Ukraine scandal and the wall aside, the real politics of Pentagon spending — that is, of translating military dollars into potential votes in 2020 — will come, he hopes, from his relentless touting of the alleged jobs being generated by weapons production. His initial major foray into portraying the buying and selling of arms as a jobs program for the American people occurred during a May 2017 trip to Saudi Arabia, his first foreign visit as president. He promptly announced a $110 billion arms deal with the Saudi regime that would, he swore, mean “jobs, jobs, jobs” in the United States.

In reality, the agreement itself — and the jobs to come from it — were both far less than advertised, but the message was clear enough: this country’s deal-maker extraordinaire was selling weapons over there and bringing jobs back in a major way to the good old U.S. of A. Even though many of the vaunted arms deals he boasted about had been reached during the Obama years, he had, he insisted, gotten the Saudis to pay through the nose for weaponry that would put staggering numbers of Americans to work.

The Saudi gambit was planned well in advance. In the middle of a meeting with a Saudi delegation in a reception room next door to the White House, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner suddenly called Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson. He asked her about a missile-defense system the administration wanted to include in the mega-arms package the president was planning to announce during his upcoming visit to the Kingdom. According to a New York Times account of the meeting, the Saudis’ jaws dropped when Kushner dialed up Hewson in front of them. They were amazed that things actually worked that way in Trump’s America. That call apparently did the trick, as the Lockheed missile-defense system was indeed incorporated into the arms deal to come.

The arms-sales-equals-jobs drumbeat continued when Trump returned home from his foreign travels, most notably in a March 2018 White House meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. There, in front of TV cameras, the president brandished a map showing where tens of thousands of U.S. jobs linked to those Saudi arms deals would supposedly be created. Many of them were concentrated in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan that had provided his margin of victory in the 2016 election.

His trumpeting of employment linked to Saudi arms sales went further over the top when he claimed that more than half a million American jobs were tied to the sales his administration had negotiated. The real number is expected to be less than a tenth of that total and well under .03% of the U.S. labor force of more than 164 million people.

Much as Trump would like Americans to believe that U.S. weapons transfers to the brutal Saudi dictatorship are a boon to the economy, they are, in reality, barely a blip on the radar screen of total national employment. The question, of course, is whether enough voters will believe the president’s Saudi arms fairy tale to give him a bump in support.

Even after the Saudi regime’s murder of journalist and critic Jamal Khashoggi, the president continued to argue that the revenues from those arms deals were a reason to avoid a political rupture with that nation. Unlike on so many other issues, Trump’s claims on arms sales and jobs are maddeningly consistent, if also maddeningly off the mark.

Trump to Ohio: “You Better Love Me”

Perhaps the president’s most blatant linkage of Pentagon spending-related jobs to his political future came in a March 2019 speech at an Army tank plant in Lima, Ohio. After a round of “U.S.A! U.S.A.!” chants from the assembled crowd, Trump got right down to it:

“Well, you better love me; I kept this place open, that I can tell you. [Applause.] They said, ‘We’re closing it.’ And I said, ‘No we’re not.’ And now you’re doing record business… And I’m thrilled to be here in Ohio with the hardworking men and women of Lima.”

Of course, the president wasn’t actually responsible for keeping the plant open. In the early 2010s, the Army had a plan to put that plant on “mothball” status for a few years because it already had 6,000 tanks — far more than it needed. But that plan had been ditched before Trump ever took office in no small part due to bipartisan pressure from the Ohio congressional delegation.

Misleading statements aside, the Lima plant is doing just fine at a time when the Pentagon budget is running at nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars per year, and Trump is capitalizing on it. He repeatedly returned to the jobs argument in his Lima speech, and even reeled off a list of other parts of the country involved in tank production:

“Our investment will also support thousands of additional jobs across our nation to assemble these incredible Abrams tanks. The engines are from Alabama, transmissions are from Indiana, special armor from Idaho, and the 120-millimeter gun — and the gun parts from upstate New York and from Pennsylvania. All great places. In Ohio alone, almost 200 suppliers churn out parts and materials that go into every tank that rolls off this factory’s floor. Incredible.”

Trump may not be able to find all the places in which the U.S. is at war on a map, but he’s made a point of getting well briefed on where the money that fuels the U.S. war machine goes, because he views that information as essential to his political fortunes in 2020.

The Domestic Economics of Weapons Spending

What Trump failed to mention in his Lima speech is that much of America is not heavily dependent on Pentagon weapons outlays. The F-35 combat aircraft, the most expensive weapons system in history and widely touted as a major job creator, is a case in point. The plane’s producer, Lockheed Martin, claims that the project has created 125,000 jobs spread over 45 states. The reality is far less impressive. My own analysis suggests that the F-35 program produces less than half as many jobs as Lockheed claims and that more than half of them are located in just two states — California and Texas. In fact, many of them are located overseas.

Most states are not heavily dependent on Pentagon spending. According to that institution’s own figures, in 39 of the 50 states less than 3% of the economy is tied to it. In other words, 97% or more of the economic activity in most of the country has nothing to do with such spending.

In reality, despite the dreams and claims of the president, the national economy as a whole, as well as the economies of the vast majority of states, would be far better off if Pentagon spending were reduced and the funds freed up were invested elsewhere. That’s because it’s actually a particularly poor job creator. Spending on infrastructure or green-energy projects, for example, would create one and one-half times as many jobs as Pentagon spending does. Putting the same money into the public education system would create roughly twice as many jobs. In 2019, in a paper for Brown University’s Costs of War Project, Heidi Peltier showed that shifting $125 billion per year from the Pentagon to green manufacturing would result in a net increase of 250,000 jobs nationwide.

As for places that do depend on Pentagon dollars in a significant way, recent polling shows that even residents of those areas are willing to support cuts in the Department of Defense’s bloated budget. Writing in the Nation, Guy Saperstein of the New Ideas Fund and Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione note: “Our polling suggests that the majority of voters will still call for cuts in Pentagon spending even if it affects their local communities, both because they believe their communities will recover and the money could be spent in more productive ways in the long run.”

That sentiment was remarkably strong in such communities, with 77% of poll participants agreeing with the statement that “members of Congress who use the Pentagon budget to send more jobs to their districts should find ways to support their local economies by building things that actually improve people’s lives.”

The best option for creating alternative jobs for workers displaced by a reduction in Pentagon spending is large-scale investment in green energy and sustainable infrastructure. Not only could a comprehensive Green New Deal create millions of new jobs, but it would provide employment across a broad range of occupations, potentially absorbing workers from defense, coal, and other industries. The only issue is political will, no small problem in Washington in the Trump years. Even a progressive president would undoubtedly encounter serious difficulty enacting such changes if the Senate remains in Republican hands after the 2020 elections.

Will Trump’s Gamble Work?

Donald Trump isn’t the first president to try to parlay Pentagon funding into political support, but he’s been more aggressive and systematic in his efforts than any president in memory. That doesn’t necessarily mean the ploy will work. Admittedly, there are high profile weapons projects in key swing states like Ohio (tanks), Pennsylvania (artillery), and Wisconsin (combat ships and armored vehicles). Still, in 2020, many voters are visibly looking for more than just business as usual, as evidenced by significant support for initiatives like the Green New Deal.

Running as the candidate of the military-industrial complex while ignoring urgent problems like climate change may not prove to be the magic formula for political success Trump expects it to be. That could be especially true if his opponents put forward concrete plans to create new non-military jobs in areas particularly dependent on the Pentagon budget.

Ten months from now we’ll know whether Trump’s attempt to ride the Pentagon to reelection was a wise gamble or ultimate foolishness. In the meantime, tax dollars going into the U.S. military continue to rise.

William D. Hartung, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 William D. Hartung

America’s Arms Sales Addiction

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

It’s no secret that Donald Trump is one of the most aggressive arms salesmen in history. How do we know? Because he tells us so at every conceivable opportunity. It started with his much exaggerated “$110 billion arms deal” with Saudi Arabia, announced on his first foreign trip as president. It continued with his White House photo op with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in which he brandished a map with a state-by-state rundown of American jobs supposedly tied to arms sales to the kingdom. And it’s never ended. In these years in office, in fact, the president has been a staunch advocate for his good friends at Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and General Dynamics — the main corporate beneficiaries of the U.S.-Saudi arms trade (unlike the thousands of American soldiers the president recently sent into that country’s desert landscapes to defend its oil facilities).

All the American arms sales to the Middle East have had a severe and lasting set of consequences in the region in, as a start, the brutal Saudi/United Arab Emirates war in Yemen, which has killed thousands of civilians via air strikes using U.S. weaponry and pushed millions of Yemenis to the brink of famine. And don’t forget the recent Turkish invasion of Syria in which both the Turkish forces and the Kurdish-led militias they attacked relied heavily on U.S.-supplied weaponry.

Donald Trump has made it abundantly clear that he cares far more about making deals for that weaponry than who uses any of it against whom. It’s important to note, however, that, historically speaking, he’s been anything but unique in his obsession with promoting such weapons exports (though he is uniquely loud about doing so).

Despite its supposedly strained relationship with the Saudi regime, the Obama administration, for example, still managed to offer the royals of that kingdom a record $136 billion in U.S. weapons between 2009 and 2017. Not all of those offers resulted in final sales, but striking numbers did. Items sold included Boeing F-15 combat aircraft and Apache attack helicopters, General Dynamics M-1 tanks, Raytheon precision-guided bombs, and Lockheed Martin bombs, combat ships, and missile defense systems. Many of those weapons have since been put to use in the war in Yemen.

To its credit, the Obama administration did at least have an internal debate on the wisdom of continuing such a trade. In December 2016, late in his second term, the president finally did suspend the sale of precision-guided bombs to the Royal Saudi Air Force due to a mounting toll of Yemeni civilian deaths in U.S.-supplied Saudi air strikes. This was, however, truly late in the game, given that the Saudi regime first intervened in Yemen in March 2015 and the slaughter of civilians began soon after that.

By then, of course, Washington’s dominance of the Mideast arms trade was taken for granted, despite an occasional large British or French deal like the scandal-plagued Al Yamamah sale of fighter planes and other equipment to the Saudis, the largest arms deal in the history of the United Kingdom. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, from 2014 to 2018 the United States accounted for more than 54 percent of known arms deliveries to the Middle East. Russia lagged far behind with a 9.5 percent share of the trade, followed by France (8.6 percent), England (7.2 percent), and Germany (4.6 percent). China, often cited as a possible substitute supplier, should the U.S. ever decide to stop arming repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia, came in at less than one percent.

The U.S. government’s stated rationales for pouring arms into that ever-more-embattled region include: building partnerships with countries theoretically willing to fight alongside U.S. forces in a crisis; swapping arms for access to military bases in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and other Persian Gulf states; creating “stability” by building up allied militaries to be stronger than those of potential adversaries like Iran; and generating revenue for U.S. weapons contractors, as well as jobs for American workers. Of course, such sales have indeed benefited those contractors and secured access to bases in the region, but when it comes to promoting stability and security, historically it’s been another story entirely.

The Nixon Doctrine and the Initial Surge in Mideast Arms Sales

Washington’s role as the Middle East’s top arms supplier has its roots in remarks made by Richard Nixon half a century ago on the island of Guam. It was the Vietnam War era and the president was on his way to South Vietnam. Casualties there were mounting rapidly with no clear end to the conflict in sight. During that stopover in Guam, Nixon assured reporters accompanying him that it was high time to end the practice of sending large numbers of U.S troops to overseas battlefields. To “avoid another war like Vietnam anywhere in the world,” he was instead putting a new policy in place, later described by a Pentagon official as “sending arms instead of sending troops.”

The core of what came to be known as the Nixon Doctrine was the arming of regional surrogates, countries with sympathetic rulers or governments that could promote U.S. interests without major contingents of the American military being on hand. Of such potential surrogates at that moment, the most important was the Shah of Iran, with whom a CIA-British intelligence coup replaced a civilian government back in 1953 and who proved to have an insatiable appetite for top-of-the-line U.S. weaponry.

The Shah’s idea of a good time was curling up with the latest copy of Aviation Week and Space Technology and perusing glossy photos of combat planes. Egged on by the Nixon administration, his was the first and only country to buy the costly Grumman F-14 combat aircraft at a time when that company desperately needed foreign sales to bolster the program. And the Shah put his U.S.-supplied weapons to use, too, helping, for instance, to put down an anti-government uprising in nearby Oman (a short skip across the Persian Gulf), while repressing his own population at the same time.

In the Nixon years, Saudi Arabia, too, became a major weapons client of Washington, not so much because it feared its regional neighbors then, but because it had seemingly limitless oil funds to subsidize U.S. weapons makers at a time when the Pentagon budget was beginning to be reduced. In addition, Saudi sales helped recoup some of the revenue streaming out of the U.S. to pay for higher energy prices exacted by the newly formed OPEC oil cartel. It was a process then quaintly known as “recycling petrodollars.”

The Carter Years and the Quest for Restraint

The freewheeling arms trade of the Nixon years eventually prompted a backlash. In 1976, for the first (and last) time, a presidential candidate — Jimmy Carter — made reining in the arms trade a central theme of his 1976 campaign for the White House. He called for imposing greater human-rights scrutiny on arms exports, reducing the total volume of arms transfers, and initiating talks with the Soviet Union on curbing sales to regions of tension like the Middle East.

Meanwhile, members of Congress, led by Democratic Senators Gaylord Nelson and Hubert Humphrey, felt that it was long past time for Capitol Hill to have a role in decision-making when it came to weapons sales. Too often Congressional representatives found out about major deals only by reading news reports in the papers long after such matters had been settled. Among the major concerns driving their actions: the Nixon-era surge of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, then still an avowed adversary of Israel; the use of U.S.-supplied weapons by both sides in the Greek-Turkish conflict over the island of Cyprus; and covert sales to extremist right-wing forces in southern Africa, notably the South African-backed Union for the Total Independence of Angola. The answer was the passage of the Arms Export Control Act of 1978, which required that Congress be notified of any major sales in advance and asserted that it had the power to veto any of them viewed as dangerous or unnecessary.

As it happened, though, neither President Carter’s initiative nor the new legislation put a significant dent in such arms trafficking. In the end, for instance, Carter decided to exempt the Shah’s Iran from serious human-rights strictures and his hardline national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, undercut those talks with the Soviet Union on reducing arms sales.

Carter also wanted to get the new Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) he established — which eventually morphed into the U.S. Central Command — access to military bases in the Persian Gulf region and was willing to use arms deals to do so. The RDF was to be the centerpiece of the Carter Doctrine, a response to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the fall of the Shah of Iran. As the president made clear in his 1980 State of the Union address: “An attempt by any outside forces to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States. It will be repelled by use of any means necessary, including the use of force.” Selling arms in the region would prove a central pillar of his new doctrine.

Meanwhile, most major sales continued to sail through Congress with barely a discouraging word.

Who Armed Saddam Hussein?

While the volume of those arms sales didn’t spike dramatically under President Ronald Reagan, his determination to weaponize anti-communist “freedom fighters” from Afghanistan to Nicaragua sparked the Iran-Contra scandal. At its heart lay a bizarre and elaborate covert effort led by National Security Council staff member Oliver North and a band of shadowy middlemen to supply U.S. weapons to the hostile regime of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. The hope was to gain Tehran’s help in freeing U.S. hostages in Lebanon. North and company then used the proceeds from those sales to arm anti-government Contra rebels in Nicaragua in violation of an explicit Congressional ban on such aid.

Worse yet, the Reagan administration transferred arms and provided training to extremist mujahedeen factions in Afghanistan, acts which would, in the end, help arm groups and individuals that later formed al-Qaeda (and similar groups). That would, of course, prove a colossal example of the kind of blowback that unrestricted arms trading too often generates.

Even as the exposure of North’s operation highlighted U.S. arms transfers to Iran, the Reagan administration and the following one of President George H.W. Bush would directly and indirectly supply nearly half a billion dollars worth of arms and arms-making technology to Iran’s sworn enemy, Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein. Those arms would bolster Saddam’sregime both in its war with Iran in the 1980s and in its 1991 invasion of Kuwait that led to Washington’s first Gulf War. The U.S. was admittedly hardly alone in fueling the buildup of the Iraqi military. All five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the U.S., the Soviet Union, France, the United Kingdom, and China) provided weapons or weapons technology to that country in the run-up to its intervention in Kuwait.

The embarrassment and public criticism generated by the revelation that the U.S. and other major suppliers had helped arm the Iraqi military created a new opening for restraint. Leaders in the U.S., Great Britain, and other arms-trading nations pledged to do better in the future by increasing information about and scrutiny of their sales to the region. This resulted in two main initiatives: the United Nations arms trade register, where member states were urged to voluntarily report their arms imports and exports, and talks among those five Security Council members (the largest suppliers of weapons to the Middle East) on limiting arms sales to the region.

However, the P-5 talks, as they were called, quickly fell apart when China decided to sell a medium-range missile system to Saudi Arabia and President Bill Clinton’s administration began making new regional weapons deals at a pace of more than $1 billion per month while negotiations were underway. The other suppliers concluded that the Clinton arms surge violated the spirit of the talks, which soon collapsed, leading in the presidency of George W. Bush to a whole new Iraqi debacle.

The most important series of arms deals during the George W. Bush years involved the training and equipping of the Iraqi military in the wake of the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But $25 billion in U.S. arms and training was not enough to create a force capable of defeating the modestly armed militants of ISIS, when they swept into northern Iraq in 2014 and captured large swaths of territory and major cities, including Mosul. Iraqi security forces, short on food and equipment due to corruption and incompetence, were also short on morale, and in some cases virtually abandoned their posts (and U.S. weaponry) in the face of those ISIS attacks.

The Addiction Continues

Donald Trump has carried on the practice of offering weaponry in quantity to allies in the Middle East, especially the Saudis, though his major rationale for the deals is to generate domestic jobs and revenues for the major weapons contractors. In fact, investing money and effort in almost anything else, from infrastructure to renewable energy technologies, would produce more jobs in the U.S. No matter though, the beat just goes on.

One notable development of the Trump years has been a revived Congressional interest in curbing weapons sales, with a particular focus on ending support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. (Watching Turkish and Kurdish forces face off, each armed in a major way by the U.S., should certainly add to that desire.) Under the leadership of Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA), and Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA), Congress has voted to block bomb sales and other forms of military support for Saudi Arabia, only to have their efforts vetoed by President Trump, that country’s main protector in Washington. Still, congressional action on Saudi sales has been unprecedented in its persistence and scope. It may yet prevail, if a Democrat wins the presidency in 2020. After all, every one of the major presidential contenders has pledged to end arms sales that support the Saudi war effort in Yemen.

Such deals with Saudi Arabia and other Mideast states may be hugely popular with the companies that profit from the trade, but the vast majority of Americans oppose runaway arms trading on the sensible grounds that it makes the world less safe. The question now is: Will Congress play a greater role in attempting to block such weapons deals with the Saudis and human-rights abusers or will America’s weapons-sales addiction and its monopoly position in the Middle Eastern arms trade simply continue, setting the stage for future disasters of every sort?

William D. Hartung, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

Copyright 2019 William Hartung