The New York Times headline said it all: “Middle East War Adds to Surge in International Arms Sales.” The conflicts in Gaza, Ukraine, and beyond may be causing immense and unconscionable human suffering, but they are also boosting the bottom lines of the world’s arms manufacturers. There was a time when such weapons sales at least sparked talk of “the merchants of death” or of “war profiteers.” Now, however, is distinctly not that time, given the treatment of the industry by the mainstream media and the Washington establishment, as well as the nature of current conflicts. Mind you, the American arms industry already dominates the international market in a staggering fashion, controlling 45% of all such sales globally, a gap only likely to grow more extreme in the rush to further arm allies in Europe andthe Middle East in the context of the ongoing wars in those regions.
In his nationally televised address about the Israel-Hamas and Russia-Ukraine wars, President Biden described the American arms industry in remarkably glowing terms, noting that, “just as in World War II, today patriotic American workers are building the arsenal of democracy and serving the cause of freedom.” From a political and messaging perspective, the president cleverly focused on the workers involved in producing such weaponry rather than the giant corporations that profit from arming Israel, Ukraine, and other nations at war. But profit they do and, even more strikingly, much of the revenues that flow to those firms is pocketed as staggering executive salaries and stock buybacks that only boost shareholder earnings further.
President Biden also used that speech as an opportunity to tout the benefits of military aid and weapons sales to the U.S. economy:
“We send Ukraine equipment sitting in our stockpiles. And when we use the money allocated by Congress, we use it to replenish our own stores, our own stockpiles, with new equipment. Equipment that defends America and is made in America. Patriot missiles for air defense batteries, made in Arizona. Artillery shells manufactured in 12 states across the country, in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas. And so much more.”
In short, the military-industrial complex is riding high, with revenues pouring in and accolades emanating from the top political levels in Washington. But is it, in fact, an arsenal of democracy? Or is it an amoral enterprise, willing to sell to any nation, whether a democracy, an autocracy, or anything in between?
Arming Current Conflicts
The U.S. should certainly provide Ukraine with what it needs to defend itself from Russia’s invasion. Sending arms alone, however, without an accompanying diplomatic strategy is a recipe for an endless, grinding war (and endless profits for those arms makers) that could always escalate into a far more direct and devastating conflict between the U.S., NATO, and Russia. Nevertheless, given the current urgent need to keep supplying Ukraine, the sources of the relevant weapons systems are bound to be corporate giants like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. No surprise there, but keep in mind that they’re not doing any of this out of charity.
Raytheon CEO Gregory Hayes acknowledged as much, however modestly, in an interview with the Harvard Business Review early in the Ukraine War:
“[W]e don’t apologize for making these systems, making these weapons… the fact is eventually we will see some benefit in the business over time. Everything that’s being shipped into Ukraine today, of course, is coming out of stockpiles, either at DoD [the Department of Defense] or from our NATO allies, and that’s all great news. Eventually we’ll have to replenish it and we will see a benefit to the business over the next coming years.”
Hayes made a similar point recently in response to a question from a researcher at Morgan Stanley on a call with Wall Street analysts. The researcher noted that President Biden’s proposed multi-billion-dollar package of military aid for Israel and Ukraine “seems to fit quite nicely with Raytheon’s defense portfolio.” Hayes responded that “across the entire Raytheon portfolio you’re going to see a benefit of this restocking on top of what we think will be an increase in the DoD topline as we continue to replenish these stocks.” Supplying Ukraine alone, he suggested, would yield billions in revenues over the coming few years with profit margins of 10% to 12%.
Beyond such direct profits, there’s a larger issue here: the way this country’s arms lobby is using the war to argue for a variety of favorable actions that go well beyond anything needed to support Ukraine. Those include less restrictive, multi-year contracts; reductions in protections against price gouging; faster approval of foreign sales; and the construction of new weapons plants. And keep in mind that all of this is happening as a soaring Pentagon budget threatens to hit an astonishing $1 trillion within the next few years.
As for arming Israel, including $14 billion in emergency military aid recently proposed by President Biden, the horrific attacks perpetrated by Hamas simply don’t justify the all-out war President Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has launched against more than two million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, with so many thousands of lives already lost and untold additional casualties to come. That devastating approach to Gaza in no way fits the category of defending democracy, which means that weapons companies profiting from it will be complicit in the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe.
Repression Enabled, Democracy Denied
Over the years, far from being a reliable arsenal of democracy, American arms manufacturers have often helped undermine democracy globally, while enabling ever greater repression and conflict — a fact largely ignored in recent mainstream coverage of the industry. For example, in a 2022 report for the Quincy Institute, I noted that, of the 46 then-active conflicts globally, 34 involved one or more parties armed by the United States. In some cases, American arms supplies were modest, but in many other conflicts such weaponry was central to the military capabilities of one or more of the warring parties.Nor do such weapons sales promote democracy over autocracy, a watchword of the Biden administration’s approach to foreign policy. In 2021, the most recent year for which full statistics are available, the U.S. armed 31 nations that Freedom House, a non-profit that tracks global trends in democracy, political freedom, and human rights, designated as “not free.”
The most egregious recent example in which the American arms industry is distinctly culpable when it comes to staggering numbers of civilian deaths would be the Saudi Arabian/United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen, which began in March 2015 and has yet to truly end. Although the active military part of the conflict is now in relative abeyance, a partial blockade of that country continues to cause needless suffering for millions of Yemenis. Between bombing, fighting on the ground, and the impact of that blockade, there have been nearly 400,000 casualties. Saudi air strikes, using American-produced planes and weaponry, caused the bulk of civilian deaths from direct military action.
Congress did make unprecedented efforts to block specific arms sales to Saudi Arabia and rein in the American role in the conflict via a War Powers Resolution, only to see legislation vetoed by President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, bombs provided by Raytheon and Lockheed Martin were routinely used to target civilians, destroying residential neighborhoods, factories, hospitals, a wedding, and even a school bus.
When questioned about whether they feel any responsibility for how their weapons have been used, arms companies generally pose as passive bystanders, arguing that all they’re doing is following policies made in Washington. At the height of the Yemen war, Amnesty International asked firms that were supplying military equipment and services to the Saudi/UAE coalition whether they were ensuring that their weaponry wouldn’t be used for egregious human rights abuses. Lockheed Martin typically offered a robotic response, asserting that “defense exports are regulated by the U.S. government and approved by both the Executive Branch and Congress to ensure that they support U.S. national security and foreign policy objectives.” Raytheon simply stated that its sales “of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia have been and remain in compliance with U.S. law.”
How the Arms Industry Shapes Policy
Of course, weapons firms are not merely subject to U.S. laws, but actively seek to shape them, including exerting considerable effort to block legislative efforts to limit arms sales. Raytheon typically put major behind-the-scenes effort into keeping a significant sale of precision-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia on track. In May 2018, then-CEO Thomas Kennedy even personally visited the office of Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez (D-NJ) to (unsuccessfully) press him to drop a hold on that deal. That firm also cultivated close ties with the Trump administration, including presidential trade adviser Peter Navarro, to ensure its support for continuing sales to the Saudi regime even after the murder of prominent Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi.
The list of major human rights abusers that receive U.S.-supplied weaponry is long and includes (but isn’t faintly limited to) Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Turkey, Nigeria, and the Philippines. Such sales can have devastating human consequences. They also support regimes that all too often destabilize their regions and risk embroiling the United States directly in conflicts.
U.S.-supplied arms also far too regularly fall into the hands of Washington’s adversaries. As an example consider the way the UAE transferred small arms and armored vehicles produced by American weapons makers to extremist militias in Yemen, with no apparent consequences, even though such acts clearly violated American arms export laws. Sometimes, recipients of such weaponry even end up fighting each other, as when Turkey used U.S.-supplied F-16s in 2019 to bomb U.S.-backed Syrian forces involved in the fight against Islamic State terrorists.
Such examples underscore the need to scrutinize U.S. arms exports far more carefully. Instead, the arms industry has promoted an increasingly “streamlined” process of approval of such weapons sales, campaigning for numerous measures that would make it even easier to arm foreign regimes regardless of their human-rights records or support for the interests Washington theoretically promotes. These have included an “Export Control Reform Initiative” heavily promoted by the industry during the Obama and Trump administrations that ended up ensuring a further relaxation of scrutiny over firearms exports. It has, in fact, eased the way for sales that, in the future, could put U.S.-produced weaponry in the hands of tyrants, terrorists, and criminal organizations.
Now, the industry is promoting efforts to get weapons out the door ever more quickly through “reforms” to the Foreign Military Sales program in which the Pentagon essentially serves as an arms broker between those weapons corporations and foreign governments.
Reining in the MIC
The impetus to move ever more quickly on arms exports and so further supersize this country’s already staggering weapons manufacturing base will only lead to yet more price gouging by arms corporations. It should be a government imperative to guard against such a future, rather than fuel it. Alleged security concerns, whether in Ukraine, Israel, or elsewhere, shouldn’t stand in the way of vigorous congressional oversight. Even at the height of World War II, a time of daunting challenges to American security, then-Senator Harry Truman established a committee to root out war profiteering.
Yes, your tax dollars are being squandered in the rush to build and sell ever more weaponry abroad. Worse yet, for every arms transfer that serves a legitimate defensive purpose, there is another — not to say others — that fuels conflict and repression, while only increasing the risk that, as the giant weapons corporations and their executives make fortunes, this country will become embroiled in more costly foreign conflicts.
One possible way to at least slow that rush to sell would be to “flip the script” on how Congress reviews weapons exports. Current law requires a veto-proof majority of both houses of Congress to block a questionable sale. That standard — perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn — has never (yes, never!) been met, thanks to the millions of dollars in annual election financial support that the weapons companies offer our congressional representatives. Flipping the script would mean requiring affirmative congressional approval of any major sales to key nations, greatly increasing the chances of stopping dangerous deals before they reach completion.
Praising the U.S. arms industry as the “arsenal of democracy” obscures the numerous ways it undermines our security and wastes our tax dollars. Rather than romanticizing the military-industrial complex, isn’t it time to place it under greater democratic control? After all, so many lives depend on it.
This piece has been republished with permission from TomDispatch.
Senator Lindsey Graham had two options walking into the Doha Forum in Qatar this weekend: find a way to triangulate his full-throated support for Netanyahu policies in Israel for the largely Palestinian-supportive Muslim audience Sunday, or wave his own flag without reservation. He went with the latter.
The South Carolina Republican made it clear he was no stranger to the region — he touted a long friendship with his host the Emir of Qatar and lauded the kingdom's role as international mediator and host to America's Fifth Fleet. But he didn't bat an eye to tell this audience — thousands of Muslims assembled from across the Gulf and the broader Middle East, plus attendees from Global South nations and Europe — that the U.S. veto of the ceasefire was one of the few things he thought the Biden Administration got right.
"President Biden ...You have risen to the occasion after October the seventh," he said, addressing the audience Sunday. "I have a world of difference with President Biden on many things. But when he vetoed the ceasefire resolution, he did the right thing and let me tell you why. Every ceasefire Hamas has ever entered has been broken and we're not going to do a ceasefire until hostages begin to be released like promised and would give the Israeli military the time and space they need to make sure that Hamas ceases to be a threat to Israel and the Palestinian people."
"So as a Republican, I am standing behind President Biden's decision, that resolution and the one that comes next."
He also said the only way there will be peace in the Middle East and to get the real culprit — Iran — and to start building a state for Palestine, was for the normalization process between Arab States and Israel to continue, with the Israel-Saudi deal the icing on the cake.
"I pledge in front of the world to help President Biden secure the votes in the United States Senate to make it possible for Saudi Arabia to have a defense agreement with us, which would then make it possible for Saudi Arabia, to recognize Israel," he declared. "Before the world I pledge my support, to help reconstruct a new Palestine but none of this is possible until you have a less corrupt younger Palestinian Authority, replacing the one we have. And a Hamas can no longer wreak havoc on Israel, on their own people.”
That potential U.S.-brokered Israel-Saudi deal have been deemed all but dead after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. Graham contended that aside from hating Jews, Hamas launched the attacks to kill any hope for that deal to go forward. Observers have come to similar conclusions — that the so-called Abraham Accords had left the Palestinians on the cutting room floor, inciting anger among the militant elements in Gaza. But unlike Graham, these critics' hold that the agreements are the problem — that regional leaders' shouldn't have allowed Israel to shunt the peace process to the side in the first place.
Not only did Graham ignore this fatal flaw of the agreements, he reveled in his own blind spots, choosing to ignore any culpability of the Netanyahu government over the decades leading to the violence and what appears today, an endless bombardment and on-the-ground military operation in Gaza with chances for further talks between the two sides dwindling by the hour. Instead, he appeared to blame Iran for everything.
"The biggest fear of the Ayatollah is that the Arab world, in conjunction with Israel, marches toward the light away from the darkness. (Iran hates) the idea that everybody in this room can find a way to work with Israel and live with Israel where everybody makes money and can live in peace. Because let me tell you, their agenda is different than yours. So I believe we cannot let Iran win."
He said he was committed to a two-state solution, and if there was any moment in his talk where he put any responsibility on Israel it was this: "I'm going to Israel soon and here's what I'm telling Israeli friends — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, none of these Arab countries can help you. Unless you make a commitment for a two state solution. ...To my friends in Israel the best thing you can do to beat Iran is to give the Palestinians a life where they're not dependent upon terrorist organizations that they can live and work and be prosperous."
How Israelis could get there, from here, was not explained by Lindsey Graham, or whether he honestly thought that was possible given the "hell on earth" Gaza is becoming today. But we know he doesn't believe that the civilian crisis on the ground now will reduce the chances for peace tomorrow, because of the way he reacted to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's remarks earlier this month.
Austin said “the lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”
“Strategic defeat would be inflaming the Palestinians? They’re already inflamed,” Graham continued. “They’re taught from the time they’re born to hate the Jews and to kill them. They’re taught math: If you have 10 Jews and kill six, how many would you have left?”
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In half a century of public life, U.S. President Joe Biden has demonstrated unwavering support for Israel. In this photo Biden is welcomed by Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, as he visits Israel amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 18, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/File Photo
Of all the foreign policy challenges President Joe Biden faces, most difficult is the war in Gaza. That is not because of the apparent geopolitical stakes; as Biden often says, China poses the most important long-term challenge and Russia is next. But while important, what happens between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as elsewhere in the Middle East, has not been in the same league.
Yet because of the war in Gaza, with its linkage to overall Israeli-Palestinian relations and risks of escalation to other parts of the region, there may soon be an explosion dwarfing all other concerns facing Biden and his team.
There is also another important reason that the war in Gaza now occupies center stage for the Biden administration: America’s attitudes towards and relations with Israel. Since Israel’s creation in the wake of World War II, most Americans have considered U.S. ties with the Jewish state as special, both because of its founding as a democracy committed to values similar to America’s and a shared perspective of “never again” stemming from the Holocaust. Even when Israel has fallen short, as for many years in its treatment of Palestinians, most Americans have given Israel the benefit of the doubt. Except on a handful of occasions, Washington consistently “has had Israel’s back” in Middle East crises and conflicts.
For both interests and values reasons, therefore, it was natural that immediately following the horrendous October 7 Hamas assault on southern Israel, in which some 1,200 people were killed and 240 more taken hostage, Biden declared total support for Israel’s military retaliation. His position was initially supported by most Americans, largely on a bipartisan basis.
But then the toll of destruction in Gaza mounted — as of this past week, more than 16,000 Palestinians have been killed, at least 40,000 more wounded, and more than 85 percent of the Strip’s population of more than two million has been rendered homeless with no safe place to go. All of this has been vividly displayed on U.S. television and cable media. Thus, the Biden administration began to rethink its hands-off support for Israel’s military campaign — but only with respect to its tactics, not its overall policy of destroying Hamas.
Washington worked through intermediaries, principally Qatar, to obtain a ”pause” in the Gaza fighting in order to get Hamas to release some hostages and increase the flow of humanitarian assistance from Egypt into Gaza. Following the end of the pause, however, U.S. appeals to Israel have been limited to try to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza, or, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it, "taking more effective steps to protect the lives of civilians.” But so long as Israel continues to pursue the extirpation of Hamas, significantly limiting civilian casualties is impossible, as the Biden team must recognize. Notably, the world sees that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has essentially rebuffed Biden, which impacts on U.S. credibility elsewhere, especially since the United States is universally seen as Israel’s sole patron. Certainly, America’s reputation for promoting humanitarian concerns has been severely damaged.
Both factors argue for the president to press Israel immediately to declare a cease-fire, not just a temporary “pause,” but one designed to end the war. Indeed, if we are to believe Israel’s own estimates, Hamas’s military capacities have already been heavily degraded, and the possibility of it again being able to mount a serious attack on Israel is low.
The gravity of risks in the Levant and potentially throughout the region means that the United States (and others) cannot once again return to indifference when this war ends. Biden has shown he is aware of this, and has recommitted himself to pursuing the so-called “two-state solution.” For years, however, it has been largely a mantra; and while it is the best outcome, its prospects are now even more remote given renewed Israeli fears provoked by the October 7 attack and its attendant atrocities, as well as increased Palestinian bitterness over the massive destruction and loss of life in Gaza.
Yet time is not on the side of “orderly diplomacy” that for a half-century has been the usual course. There is already a major risk of a new intifada on the West Bank, as most Palestinians have lost any hope of Israel’s willingness to recognize their basic human rights, much less permit a Palestinian state. They also see that Israel will not stop West Bank settlers from displacing and even murdering Palestinian civilians. The Palestinians also cannot count on support from Arab states. No Arab leader really cares for the Palestinians and none has even called into question their existing treaties with Israel or the so-called Abraham Accords.
Nor is it conceivable that, to do the necessary diplomatic work, the U.N. or countries other than the U.S. can lead or have any chance of success. Nothing will be possible unless Washington takes charge and makes clear to Israel that, as the occupying power, it must change its policies and practices toward the Palestinians.
On December 6 , U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres reiterated his “appeal for a humanitarian ceasefire to be declared.” In the U.N. Security Council Friday, the United States vetoed the resolution and was joined only by Britain’s abstention. The Biden administration thus tied itself even more to Israel’s slaughter in Gaza, carried out in major part with U.S.-supplied bombs. The veto further cheapened U.S. political and moral standing and made it harder for Biden to be seen as credible as a diplomatic leader once the war ends.
Until October 7, President Biden and his team gave Israel-Palestinian relations short shrift. So far, everyone has been lucky that the crisis has not spread across the region, with the possibility of wider war. Even so, Israel and Hezbollah have come to blows; Yemen has taken some pot-shots; and while Iran has been careful not to get directly involved, its proxies in Iraq and Syria have been engaged in some incidents.
But luck is not a policy. The president must know that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis can’t again be pushed aside when this war ends. He needs to rebuild trust in the United States for strategic competence and then as an honest broker. He needs to show that the United States will place its own interests first, not anyone else’s. He needs to augment his foreign policy inner circle with outside experts in strategy and regional dynamics, but free from biases. And he needs to be prepared to run risks in American domestic politics.
It's a difficult agenda, but nothing less will enable President Biden to protect and promote U.S. strategic, political, and moral interests.
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Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Dec. 10. (Vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”