By trying to block a $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, a bipartisan group of US senators is challenging one of the key forces that shape American foreign policy: the arms industry. Their campaign shines a light on the role that this industry plays in whipping up fears of danger in the world. How do Americans know that Saudi Arabia is a peace-loving country dedicated to fighting terrorism? The same way we know that Russia is a snarling enemy on a rampage of conquest: The arms industry tells us so.
“We must respond to the rise of ISIS terrorism, Russian aggression on NATO’s doorstep, provocative moves by Iran and North Korea, and an increasingly powerful China,” the Aerospace Industry Association recently declared. Issuing warnings through its own mouthpieces, though, is not enough to shape public opinion. The industry also sponsors “think tanks” that obligingly issue alarming reports warning of increasing peril everywhere. Many are run by former diplomats or military commanders. Their scary warnings, which seem realistic given the warners’ personal prestige and the innocent-sounding names of their think tanks, are aimed at persuading Americans and foreign governments to spend more billions of dollars on weaponry.
The ludicrously misnamed United States Institute for Peace, for example, is run by Stephen Hadley, a former national security adviser who also earns hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for his service on the board of Raytheon, a leading arms maker. Another arms maker, Lockheed Martin, which has just sold Poland an air-to-surface missile system and wants to sell more, has given the institute $1 million. It’s been a good investment. Hadley has urged that the United States “raise the cost for what Russia is doing in Ukraine” because “even President [Vladimir] Putin is sensitive to body bags.” The Institute of Peace wants European countries to double their military spending and also favors sending more weapons into the Ukraine powder keg.
The US Committee on NATO was founded by a former Lockheed executive and pushed successfully to expand the NATO alliance onto Russia’s doorstep. That sharply increased tension in Europe, which produces a handsome profit for the arms industry. Another influential think tank, the Atlantic Council, is funded by Raytheon and Lockheed. It faithfully produces articles with headlines like “Why Peace is Impossible With Putin,” and urges the United States and European countries to “commit to greater defense spending” and confront “a revanchist Russia.”
Critics of wasteful military spending have bitterly denounced the trillion-dollar project to produce a new fighter jet, the F-35, arguing that it is already obsolete in the age of drone warfare. Nonsense, replied the director of the Lexington Institute. In a recent article he called the F-35 “a revolutionary platform” with “capabilities that far exceed any current Western fighter.” Left unspoken was the fact that the Lexington Institute is another front for the arms industry, supported by contributions from Lockheed — the manufacturer of the F-35 — and from Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and other “defense” contractors.
Washington think tanks are only part of the matrix that promotes the American weapons industry. The roughly 50 companies that make up the industry shower members of Congress with millions of dollars in campaign contributions. They also parcel out contracts across the country, in order to employ people in as many congressional districts as possible. Components for the F-35, for example, are being made in 46 states. This practice is fiendishly effective in assuring that members of Congress continue to support new weapons projects, no matter how ill conceived.
The congressional rebellion against a new arms deal with Saudi Arabia is extraordinary. Four senators — two from each party — have offered a resolution that would force a Senate vote on the deal. Sixty-four members of the House of Representatives have signed a letter warning that the deal would have “a deeply troubling effect on civilians” in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is conducting a fierce military campaign. The United Nations has estimated that the Saudi-led coalition bombing Yemen is responsible for “twice as many civilian casualties as all other forces put together.” Yet the Obama administration wants to sell the Saudis 153 battle tanks made by General Dynamics, some of which are to be used in Yemen, as well as machine guns, grenade launchers, and other weapons.
Since taking office in 2009, Obama has made 42 arms deals with Saudi Arabia, worth a staggering $115 billion. For some members of Congress, the latest deal is a breaking point. They are reluctant to send weapons that will be used first in Yemen and then in other ways that support Saudi interests — which are not necessarily those of the United States. “There is an American imprint on every civilian life lost in Yemen,” said Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who is a cosponsor of the resolution to block the deal. Another cosponsor, Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, called the deal “a recipe for disaster and an escalation of an ongoing arms race in the region.”
Not surprisingly, the arms industry has mobilized its considerable power on Capitol Hill to block this Senate resolution. “We are fighting General Dynamics,” one supporter of the resolution said last week. A vote could come soon. Blocking this arms sale would be a rebellion against one of Washington’s richest lobbies. That would send welcome chills through the corridors of power in the Pentagon, the war industry, and Saudi Arabia.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.