Build Back Better (Weapons Sales Only)

You wanted health care, affordable housing and a dignified wage? Best I can do is help the arms trade.

Build Back Better (Weapons Sales Only)
A procession of tanks in front of the Capitol marks the inauguration of Franklin D Roosevelt to his third term on Jan. 20, 1941. Keystone/Hulton Archive, via Getty

Edited by Sam Thielman

REMEMBER WHEN PEOPLE HOPED JOE BIDEN would be another FDR? Well, here's a sense in which he still could be!

A year after Biden's inauguration, the Forum on the Arms Trade has graded his administration's record on arms exports and related select weapons-trade issues. A grade of C, for instance, means "no net change to pre-existing policy that was middle of the road." A grade of D is a "net decline to pre-existing middle-of-the-road policy or failure to improve dangerous pre-existing policy." At the risk of taking the suspense out of this post, we don't have to worry how the Forum defines an A or a B.

Biden gets a D Minus on Arming Authoritarians in The Middle East. Democracy for the Arab World Now's John Hursh, his proctor for the subject, recaps the past year. Going through with $170 million in weapons sales to Egypt—extra sales, atop the $1 billion annual weapons deal Egypt gets—despite Egypt showing none of the human rights improvement Congress required for that weapons package. We've already covered the weapons sales and deals with Saudi Arabia. And there’s the $23 billion deal with the United Arab Emirates, primarily for the F-35. (Hursh thinks the UAE's recent suspension of the deal is a bargaining tactic.)

"In sum," Hursh writes, "these actions show the administration’s hypocrisy towards centering U.S. foreign policy on human rights and ending military assistance to authoritarian regimes, as well as its disregard for supporting democracy and the rule of law in the Middle East."

Biden gets a C Minus on Arms Transfers to Taiwan from the Arms Control Association's Michael Klare. Amid the background of a coalescing Cold War, Biden sold Taiwan 40 howitzers for $750 million. Taiwan isn't something I cover, so I'll turn it over to Klare, who's also a longtime defense correspondent for The Nation: "Transfers of these howitzers and other costly weapons systems will do little to enhance Taiwan’s self-defense capability in the event of a Chinese invasion while highlighting the island’s dependence on U.S. military support, increasing the risk of U.S. involvement in a future cross-Strait conflict." Cool.

Biden gets a D on Arms Sales to Risky Countries from Cato's Jordan Cohen. I asked Cohen what he meant by "risky," and he helpfully referred me to this paper he co-authored on it.

"We define risk as a balance between the country’s government corruption, instability, domestic and international human rights abuses, and if the state is involved in conflict. Thus ‘risk’ is the combination of these four vectors. Another way to frame it is that risk is a combination of factors —including government corruption and stability, human rights abuses, and involvement in conflicts—that lead to outcomes such as weapons being used in human rights violations, unwanted arms dispersion, and improving authoritarian control over a country," he explained.

Now back to his report card. "Little suggests" the administration's alleged inclusion of human rights as a factor in arms sales "is an honest goal," Cohen writes. "Beyond saying many of the right things, until the administration makes an honest effort to reduce risk in sales, the U.S. continues to be complicit in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, supportive of murderous governmental policies in the Philippines, accepting of weapons dispersion to criminal organizations in Mexico, and many other calamitous situations around the globe." By an "honest effort," Cohen clarified over email, he means eliminating arms sales to countries on that risk matrix.

Biden's highest grade is a C, from the Project on Government Oversight's Mandy Smithberger. When it comes to the Pentagon Revolving Door between sections of the military-industrial complex, Biden shows only the normal amount of corruption, rather than the baroque, Trumpist sort that made a Raytheon lobbyist the secretary of defense. Lloyd Austin, we'll have you know, was merely a Raytheon board member.

Biden gets a D Plus on Landmine Policy, which is honestly just too fucking bleak for me to think about today.

I asked the Forum on the Arms Trade if they had similar year-one grades for Trump, Obama or any other of Biden's predecessors. Apparently they don't quite have apples-to-apples comparisons. But here's a Trump-year-one blog post that shows Trump just blowing Obama out of the water on foreign-military-sales notifications. (That's when the State Department announces that they intend to sell a foreign country military-designated equipment.) And here's a 2011 assessment of Obama's arms-sales record—though not with the same categories—from the Forum's Jeff Abramson.

People talk a lot lately about how Biden's agenda has run aground. Here, it advances frictionlessly. That three-quarter-trillion dollar defense bill is no anomaly.

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LISTEN TO HOW THE DEFENSE INDUSTRY is practically inviting investors to speculate on conflict in the Middle East. Here's a dispatch from the Dubai air show earlier this month:

The United Arab Emirates’ more than $14 billion in military spending this year alone highlights how many opportunities there are in the country despite a contracted economy because of the pandemic, said Nicholas Dawson, a Middle East analyst at Forecast International, a Newtown, Connecticut-based market consulting firm. Expenditures are expected to increase even more as the region continues to be a “hotbed of conflict,” he said.

For example, recent incidents of Iran harassing U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf may result in countries such as the Emirates and Qatar building up their defenses in case of escalation and threats to their interests, he said.

[Executives in charge of publicly traded armaments companies have a few reasons to hype exciting new killing fields, but the most pressing is that the end of the direct occupation of Afghanistan has been bad for their stock options. John W. Mollard, acting CFO of Lockheed-Martin, told analysts on an earnings call in October that the withdrawal had cost his company some $200 million for the fiscal year. “[O]ne of the other external factors [affecting sales] was the recently announced and executed withdrawal of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan,” Mollard said. “The primary impact to us is in a contract of a special ops logistics support program. We had some other Afghan drawdown related impacts. In total, it's about a $200 million year-over-year headwind.”

Gregory J. Hayes, CEO of Raytheon, sounded like the Tiger King. This year, his company projected it would lose $75 million it might otherwise have earned supporting the war. “[With] the pullout in Afghanistan, there's about a $75 million impact to full year revenue, not huge but meaningful,” he told investors. “That will not recover, obviously. Those are services that we were providing to the U.S. government or the Afghan government prior to the pullout.” Decreased revenues from supply chain and hiring problems caused by the pandemic might return, Hayes said. “The Afghanistan piece won't come back.”—Sam]

IF I HAD BEEN ABLE to say anything insightful about the hostage nightmare at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville during shabbat services last week, you would have read that instead of this. Antisemitic violence is eternal—I recommend reading this four-volume history by Leon Poliakov—but during moments of its acceleration, the weight of that history bears down.