Myths of Mideast Arms Sales

By William D. Hartung

The Bush administration’s proposal to send $20 billion worth of arms and $43 billion in military aid to U.S. allies in the Middle East has been promoted by repeating a series of time-worn myths that should have long since been abandoned. With a shooting war in Iraq and a war of words with Iran well under way, the last thing the region needs is a new influx of high tech weaponry.

The suggestions of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that this flood of armaments will be “stabilizing” in the short term while underscoring the U.S. commitment to “moderates” in the region over the longer term is a prime example of this historical amnesia.

Take Saudi Arabia, which continues to pursue policies that are moderate in name only. Not only is Riyadh one of the most undemocratic regimes in the world, but it has more often than not used its financial resources to promote extremism and repression elsewhere. From financing fundamentalist madrassahs in Pakistan to supporting Sunni insurgents in Iraq, the regime has a long track record of opposing the values of democracy and moderation that the Bush administration claims are the overarching principles of its foreign policy. It’s hard to see how selling Saudi Arabia more military equipment will change this pattern, any more than arming the Shah of Iran in the 1970s and the Afghan rebels in the 1980s promoted stability in those countries.

Some elements of the proposed package are particularly disturbing. Satellite guided bombs are not “defensive weapons”,” as the administration claims. Using them would be ill-advised, if not disastrous.

This raises the question of who exactly would Riyadh use these weapons against. Iran? Iraq? Israel? Internal opponents?

Iran has no intention of invading Saudi Arabia; if it wants to undermine Saudi security it is far more likely to work via proxy, a tactic that the Saudis are well-equipped to counter in kind.

An attack on Iraq in the context of a civil war would only exacerbate tensions and help savage any remnants of stability that remain there.

Attacking Israel would be a suicide mission, given Tel Aviv’s substantial military superiority. The only plausible scenarios – and the ones most feared by Israeli officials – would be if a rogue pilot attempted to strike without authorization or an even more extremist regime were to overthrow the current Saudi government.
Last but not least, using satellite guided bombs against armed extremists within Saudi Arabia would be the wrong tool for the job, like trying to kill a swarm of mosquitoes with a sledge hammer. Good intelligence would be a far more effective tool. What if the Bush administration tried to foster greater intelligence cooperation instead of casting its two top cabinet officials in the role of second-rate arms brokers?

In the short-term, these scenarios may not be high probability events, but as the U.S. experiences with arming the Shah of Iran and the Afghan rebels demonstrate, weapons supplied now can be used against U.S . interests down the road as political conditions change.

If a symbol of U.S. commitment to Saudi Arabia is needed, there are plenty of other tools at Washington’s disposal, in the realms of diplomacy, economic cooperation, and coordinated law enforcement efforts, among others. Not to mention the fact that the funds the Saudis expend for this proposed deal would be far more productive – and stabilizing – if they were invested in economic and social programs within the kingdom.

For all of these reasons, the U.S. Congress must take preemptive action to try to derail or reshape the Middle East arms package. Since Congress was granted the right to stop major arms deals via a joint resolution of disapproval under the Arms Export Control Act of 1976, it has never successfully done so via a formal vote. But there have been instances where the threat of Congressional action has led to the restructuring or delaying of specific deals.

A successful effort to block or reshape the Mideast arms package must begin with detailed hearings as soon as Congress starts its fall term. Waiting for a formal notification from the executive branch, as skeptics like Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Joseph Biden and House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Tom Lantos have pledged to do, will be too little too late. Given the inherent problems with this arms package, it is unlikely to withstand public scrutiny. It is up to Congress to take the lead in promoting a real debate on this critical issue.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the New America Foundation