The Ukraine and Yemen wars underscore the role of the United States as the world’s largest arms dealer
Analysts say the defense industry has spent billions of dollars lobbying Congress while quietly making far more profits making weapons that fuel deadly conflicts in Ukraine, Yemen and around the world under federal arms sales deals who have little effective congressional oversight.
There is a dangerous “feedback loop” between major arms manufacturers in the United States, which make billions in profits from arms sales, the countries that arm themselves with those arms, and the US government, which uses arms sales as “tools” to gain economically and diplomatic leverage, according to Dan Auble, a researcher at Money-in-Politics Tracker Open Secrets.
“Unfortunately, it is ultimately the local people who suffer from the ongoing wars that are fueled by these overseas arms sales,” Auble told reporters on Thursday.
The US is the world’s largest arms dealer, followed by Russia, France and the UK, with the US responsible for 39 percent of global arms exports, according to the Stockholm International Peace Institute.
In the meantime, Open Secrets reports that major US arms manufacturers such as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics are capitalizing on conflicts, have spent a total of $2.5 billion lobbying Congress over the past 20 years, with $177 million spent on lobbying in the last year alone. Raytheon Technologies was the defense industry’s biggest financier in 2021, investing $15.3 million in lobbying Congress where ever-expanding military budgets offer endless profit opportunities.
About 43 percent of US arms exports went to the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are major buyers. Both countries lead a coalition fighting in Yemen’s civil war, entering its eighth year. An estimated 377,000 people have died in Yemen due to fighting, displacement, starvation and disease in what the United Nations has described as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
US-made weapons — from helicopters to bombs and missile systems — are being used in Yemen, killing civilians, despite recent assurances from the Saudi and Biden governments that US weapons will be used only for defense purposes, he said Auble. Congress has made several attempts to end US involvement in Yemen’s brutal civil war, but none have been successful.
“There is currently a truce in place that leaves some [humanitarian] Help is coming, but it remains to be seen how well this will hold up,” Auble said. “Of course, previous ceasefires have not done that.”
President Joe Biden campaigned to end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, but after an initial lull in arms sales, the Biden administration approved a $500 million deal to buy helicopters and a $650 million air-to-aircraft contract. Air missiles in 2021. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) introduced a joint resolution in the House of Representatives to block the sale of missiles, but the resolution did not pass.
Like gun manufacturers, the governments of some gun users spend heavily on lobbying and influence. An analysis of federal registrations of “foreign agents” shows that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have spent $130 million since 2016 on media campaigns in the US and lobbying dozens of members of Congress on arms sales and other issues, it said Auble.
There is also a humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, where millions have been displaced and thousands of civilians have been killed since Russia’s brutal invasion began in February. Since April 1, the US has approved $12 million in security aid to Ukraine, bringing total US military aid to the embattled nation to more than $3 billion, according to the Forum on the Arms Trade. More than two dozen other nations and the European Union have sent weapons or security support to Ukraine.
Russia’s bloody aggression and attacks on civilians have shocked the world, and US military aid to Ukraine enjoys strong support in Congress and the Biden administration. However, anti-war activists argue that throwing arms into a complex proxy war that pits Russia’s imperialist ambitions against the expansionist NATO alliance is deeply misguided and not the way to build peace. Indeed, an influx of arms from the United States can prolong and exacerbate wars and the misery of civilians.
Jennifer Erickson, associate professor of political science at Boston College and researcher at the World Peace Foundation, said ongoing armed conflicts generally do not discourage US arms sales to foreign governments, especially when those governments are regular customers.
“The US exports fairly consistently to most armed conflicts around the world,” Erickson said Thursday while promoting a new report on US arms sales. “This is partly because U.S. export law gives presidents significant flexibility for presidential policies and preferences.”
US presidents use arms sales to build regional alliances and pursue global economic goals, but arms sales pose “unsolvable risks,” according to Erickson. The precautions taken by the US to ensure that weapons do not fall into the “wrong hands” often fall short.
Of course, the US government’s notion of “right hands” does not always ensure that the weapons are not used to wage bloody wars and kill civilians. Weapons are durable and can be reused in ways the government cannot predict or control, and risk falling into the hands of a wide range of armed groups, including those opposed to US interests.
Despite these risks, Erickson said, “Congress is structurally unable to effectively control arms sales for a number of reasons.” Aside from lobbying by foreign governments and the defense industry, the president is only legally required to notify lawmakers of sales over $14 million, and those notifications often leave Congress just a month to act. When Congress opposes a gun sale, the legislature must pass legislation by a two-thirds majority to avoid a presidential veto, and in modern history no such effort has ever been successful.
“We just haven’t seen it,” Erickson said, adding that presidential power “rules supreme” in U.S. decisions about arms transfers.
For example, in recent years Senator Bernie Sanders and other progressives have joined forces with isolationist Republicans to pass historic war-power resolutions to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, but this one Efforts were either rejected by other lawmakers or defeated with a presidential veto that Congress could not overrule.
Bipartisan proposals to end US complicity in Yemen’s civil war have enjoyed significant public support, and Erickson said the effort represents a “best-case scenario” for congressional action on arms sales. Nevertheless, they failed.
As China and Russia flex their imperialist muscles, a “New Cold War” mentality grips both US policymakers and global leaders as the world’s major powers enter an age of renewed competition. According to Erickson’s report, this could reinforce US reluctance to halt arms transfers to active conflict zones such as Yemen and Ukraine.
Congress could step in and reform the rules governing arms sales, for example by lowering the $14 million threshold for notifying lawmakers or requiring a “substantive risk analysis” on whether US-made weapons could be used in genocide or war crimes with a mechanism that would allow a sale to be easily refused.
However, Erickson and Auble said that members of Congress are often focused on domestic affairs and their own political careers, and there is little political incentive for lawmakers to venture into the arms trade arena.
“I think that still leaves the question of whether Congress wants to do anything at all,” Erickson said.