William D. Hartung: Bush’s Arms Sales Boom Continues

By William D. Hartung

Since I wrote my piece on the arms trade for the 25th anniversary issue of World Policy Journal, the Bush boom in arms exports has actually accelerated. Major offers that were made between mid-September and early October of this year include a $7 billion agreement to sell a Lockheed Martin missile defense system to the United Arab Emirates; a $15 billion deal for Israel to receive the United States’ latest fighter plane, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (another Lockheed Martin product, in partnership with Boeing); and over $6 billion in offers to Taiwan for anti-missile systems, attack helicopters, and anti-ship missiles. The Obama administration will inherit these mega-deals, which are very hard to roll back once an official offer has been made.

These deals come at an ideal time for Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and other arms makers. The economic crisis will force some sort of re-evaluation of the Pentagon’s record budget, which is now at its highest level since World War II. Weapons systems on the chopping block could include Lockheed Martin’s F-22 and F-35 combat aircraft, Boeing’s costly and complicated Future Combat System (FCS) for the Army, and Northrop Grumman’s Virginia-class attack submarine. The big contractors won’t be out on the street begging for change, but they will be scrambling to support themselves in the style to which they have become accustomed during the Bush/Rumsfeld/Cheney years.

That means more lobbying, both to block Pentagon cuts and to advocate for even more lucrative exports. In the Clinton years, the arms industry’s agenda included promoting a new multi-billion dollar arms export loan fund; pushing tax breaks for weapons exporters; and lobbying for policy changes like the expansion of NATO (whose most visible non-governmental advocate was Lockheed Martin Vice President Bruce Jackson) that were likely to open up new markets. The full agenda of the industry in an Obama administration is less clear, but watch this space for details as they emerge.

As elaborated in my piece, the outlines of a more responsible arms transfer policy are relatively clear—more transparency and accountability in the dizzying array of military assistance programs that have sprouted up since September 11; a greater emphasis on human rights and conflict prevention in arms transfer decision making; and support for existing international efforts to curb dangerous systems like land mines and cluster munitions. The question is whether the Obama administration will make these common-sense initiatives part of its early first-term agenda, and how much the fear of potential “push back” from the arms industry may sway their decisions in this regard.

All of which is to say that advocates of curbing irresponsible arms exports need to make their voices heard early and often, both to get the attention of the new administration and to offer a counter-balance to the industry lobby.

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William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation and the co-editor of Lessons from Iraq: Avoiding the Next War (Paradigm Press, 2008). His article, “An Unstoppable Arms Trade,” can be found in World Policy Journal’s 25th anniversary issue, on newsstands now.

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