US foreign arms sales spike to nearly $20B in the dog days of summer

Connor Echols, Responsible Statecraft, August 10, 2022 — Between July 15 and August 2, Washington signed off on billions of dollars worth of military deals, over a third of which went to autocracies.

Much of the Beltway has been on vacation in recent weeks, doing anything they can to get away from the sweltering DC sun. But while wonks cooled down, U.S. arms sales to foreign countries heated up, with the State Department approving almost $20 billion worth of deals in little more than two weeks — that is, more than $1 billion in military sales per day.

One third of those sales went to Middle East autocracies, highlighting the contradictions of President Joe Biden’s avowed commitment to democracy promotion. As Lauren Woods of the Center for International Policy noted in War on the Rocks, these deals were likely years in the making, with Biden ultimately giving them “​​the green light to continue.”

“[A]lthough initially signaling a slowdown, this administration now resembles every other recent administration in terms of volume and value of arms sales,” Woods wrote, noting that the United States is by far the world’s leading exporter of weapons. “And this is true for countries with poor human rights records as well.”

The top recipients of recent deals were Germany, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the Netherlands, all of whom purchased more than $1 billion worth of military equipment. Other notable buyers include Kuwait, Taiwan, and Norway, whose purchases helped bring total foreign arms sales this year to nearly $60 billion. But the largest beneficiaries were American defense primes.

As Bill Hartung of the Quincy Institute argued in Forbes, “the tenor of defense industry leaders has been to posture as defenders of democracy” given their role in providing arms to Ukraine. But “they fail to mention sales to repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and the Philippines that have killed thousands of their own citizens while — in the case of Saudi Arabia and the UAE — spearheading an invasion in Yemen that has resulted in nearly 400,000 direct and indirect deaths.”

And it’s no accident that these deals continue to line the pockets of defense industry titans. “You can count on the arms industry to do everything in its power to keep the weapons gravy train running,” wrote Hartung, “making use of millions in annual campaign contributions, 700 paid lobbyists, and millions in contributions to sympathetic think tanks that frequently take industry-friendly positions.”

The spate of arms sale approvals began on July 15, but the most controversial ones came on August 2, when the State Department signed off on deals to send a new round of missiles to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In Responsible Statecraft, Daniel Larison castigated these weapons transfers as immoral.

“Any military support that helps Saudi Arabia and the UAE to continue their interventionist policies in Yemen is an unacceptable enabling of an unjust war and should be rejected by Congress,” Larison wrote.

The moves also come amid a push to slow military support for Egypt, a long-time American partner in the Middle East with a dismal human rights record. Washington already agreed to send Cairo more than $2 billion worth of weapons earlier this year, but civil society groups argue that Biden still has the opportunity to hold up $300 million in direct military support.

“The consistent pattern of human rights abuses committed by the Egyptian government, and evidence that U.S. military equipment has been used in such violations, should require the administration to suspend all arms transfers to Egypt in order to comply with longstanding U.S. law,” the groups, which included the Project on Middle East Democracy, Freedom House, and Democracy for the Arab World Now, wrote in an open letter. “Short of that, it is necessary to withhold the full $300 million.”

Nevertheless, the Biden administration has shown no signs that it wants to slow down sales to questionable recipients. Just yesterday, the State Department signed off on a deal that will send $74 million worth of Javelin missiles to Brazil, a backsliding democracy with a right-wing populist leader. With that, total arms sales for the last month jumped past $20 billion.

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