It’s been a busy year for American arms sales — “busier than ever” as one official put it in June. In the first eight months of 2017, by the latest count, the total value of U.S. “arms transfer notifications” has almost doubled compared to the same period last year, reaching $48 billion.
The Trump administration’s moves in the area of weapons exports have included approving a deal to sell $12 billion worth of fighter jets to Qatar less than a week after the president labeled the nation “a funder of terrorism,” and reversals of restrictions on sales to countries including Bahrain and Nigeria. In recent weeks Defense News has reported that the State Department “set a new one-year record for clearing weapon sales, with $75.9 billion cleared by the department and announced by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency in fiscal 2017.” (Fiscal 2017 is different from the first eight months of 2017, and Defense News noted some “important caveats” on its numbers).
Now, however, we may see an even further increase in the rate at which the U.S. distributes a wide range of its high-tech killing machines to a motley crew of far-flung governments around the world. Politico reports this week on a new White House National Security Council “arms transfer initiative” that “aims to make U.S. companies more competitive when allies are shopping for fighter jets, ground vehicles, warships, missile defenses and other military gear in an intensely competitive market,” according to the news outlet’s anonymous sources.
In what is perhaps a sign of our dystopian times, and in keeping with what might charitably be called President Donald Trump’s “protectionist worldview,” U.S. policymakers appear to be pursuing this state capitalist scheme with hopes of boosting the American economy in accordance with free market principles — even if those principles need to be contorted beyond recognition to make it work.
The new initiative would reportedly “include establishing a more active government role in pushing U.S. products, beyond what military and diplomatic officials already do to help defense firms sell their wares internationally. This could also strengthen the defense industrial base and create jobs on production lines that Pentagon investments don’t fully support.”
The new initiative is “about making sure we are doing everything we can to promote the competitiveness of American trade,” Politico anonymously quoted “a State Department official” as saying. The article continues:
The changes, which officials insist are also intended to enhance Americans’ interests around the world, would be the latest in a series of moves by Trump to relax former President Barack Obama’s restrictions on U.S. military activities.
The Trump administration recently launched a review of export regulations governing drone technology that had been put in place in 2015, and is also reported to be taking steps to make it easier for American arms manufacturers to sell to international buyers.
It has also green-lighted sales of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia that the Obama administration held up up over concerns they have been used to kill civilians in the offensive against rebels in Yemen. In addition, Trump has reversed restrictions on arms sales that were in place for Bahrain and Nigeria. (…)
Another potentially controversial step the administration is considering would develop new ways to leverage U.S. diplomacy to help companies get a leg up on foreign contracts. The U.S. government already plays a role in helping American companies compete, including deploying security assistance officers from the Pentagon and State Department who work out of U.S embassies.
The White House’s new arms export push reportedly involves the departments of State, Defense and Commerce, and could include changes to rules including the Conventional Arms Transfer Policy and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, the latter of which have not been updated significantly in over three decades.
Experts expressed skepticism that the changes could do much to improve the United States position internationally, however, in interviews with Politico.
“The United States is the world’s largest arms exporter,” pointed out Rachel Stohl, director of the Conventional Defense Program at the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C. think tank. “Are there markets closed to the United States? Yes. Are there reasons they are closed? Yes. Are those reasons good? I think they are.”
Similarly, William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, another Washington think tank, noted that American companies already “dominate the world market.”
“I don’t know how much of a bigger footprint they could have,” he said.
Hartung added, however, that Trump appeared more focused than Obama on “jobs, jobs, jobs.” He characterized this latest arms export initiative as “domestic pork-barrel politics dressed up as national security.”