Risky Business: The Role of Arms Sales in US Foreign Policy -- Part 2
April 12, 2018 A. Trevor Thrall and Caroline Dorminey / The Cato Institute
Though arms sales are of marginal value to national security and the pursuit of national interests, their negative consequences are often severe. Arms sales can spawn unwanted outcomes on three levels: blowback against the US and entanglement in conflicts; regional consequences in the buyer's neighborhood, such as the dispersion of weapons and increased instability; and consequences for the buyer itself, such as increased levels of corruption, human rights abuses, and civil conflict.
The Role of Arms Sales in US Foreign Policy -- Part 2 A. Trevor Thrall and Caroline Dorminey / The Cato Institute
Arms Sales Have Many Potential Negative Consequences
Though arms sales are of marginal value to national security and the pursuit of national interests, their negative consequences are varied and often severe. Arms sales can spawn unwanted outcomes on three levels: blowback against the United States and entanglement in conflicts; regional consequences in the buyer's neighborhood, such as the dispersion of weapons and increased instability; and consequences for the buyer itself, such as increased levels of corruption, human rights abuses, and civil conflict.
Effects on the United States. Though the goal of arms sales is to promote American security and US interests abroad, at least two possible outcomes can cause serious consequences for the United States. The first of these -- blowback -- occurs when a former ally turns into an adversary and uses the weapons against the United States. The second -- entanglement -- is a process whereby an arms sales relationship draws the United States into a greater level of unwanted intervention.
Blowback. The fact that the United States has sold weapons to almost every nation on earth, combined with frequent military intervention, means that blowback is an inescapable outcome of US arms sales policy. American troops and their allies have faced American-made weapons in almost every military engagement since the end of the Cold War, including in Panama, Haiti, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria. And even where the United States has not yet engaged in combat, American arms sales have bolstered the military capabilities of adversaries once counted as friendly.
Blowback can occur in at least three ways. First, a previously friendly regime becomes unfriendly. For example, the United States sold billions of dollars in weapons to the Shah of Iran during the 1970s in the hopes that Iran would provide a stabilizing influence on the Middle East. The sales included everything from fighter jets for air campaigns to surface-to-air missiles to shoot down enemy fighters.7
After the 1979 revolution, however, Iran used those weapons in its war with Iraq and enabled the new Iranian regime to exert its influence in the region. Panama, the recipient of decades of American military assistance, as well as host to a major military base and 9,000 US troops, was a similar case. In 1989, Gen. Manuel Noriega -- himself a CIA asset for more than 20 years -- took power and threatened US citizens, prompting a US invasion that featured American troops facing American weapons.
Blowback also occurs when the United States sells weapons to nations (or transfers them to nonstate actors) that, though not allies, simply did not register as potential adversaries at the time of the sale. The United States, for example, sold surface-to-air missiles, towed guns, tanks, and armored personnel carriers to Somalia during the 1980s.
Few officials would have imagined that the United States would find itself intervening in Somalia in 1992, or that the United States and its allies would provide billions in weapons and dual-use equipment to Iraq in an effort to balance against Iran, only to wind up confronting Iraq on the battlefield to reverse its annexation of Kuwait.
And finally, blowback can occur when US weapons are sold or stolen from the government that bought them and wind up on the battlefield in the hands of the adversary. For example, the Reagan administration covertly provided Stinger missiles to the Mujahideen, who were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s; they in turn sold them off eventually to Iran and North Korea, among others.
More recently, the Islamic State managed to capture from the Iraqi government a stunning number of Humvees and tanks the United States had sold to Iraq to rebuild its military capabilities after the 2003 invasion, as well as enough small arms and ammunition to supply three divisions of a conventional army.
These examples of blowback demonstrate how difficult it can be to forecast the long-term outcomes of arms sales and how obvious it is that selling weapons carries a number of risks. Predicting what exactly will happen is hard, but predicting that arms sales to clients with red flags are likely to end badly is quite easy. Iraq was a fragile state ravaged by a decade's worth of American intervention and rife with terrorism and civil conflict; to transfer such large quantities of weapons to its military and police force under such conditions was to invite disaster.
Entanglement. Arms sales raise the risk of entanglement in two ways. First, they can represent early steps down the slippery slope to unwise military intervention. Consider a case like the Syrian civil war or the many cases during the Cold War in which the United States wanted to support rebels and freedom fighters against oppressive governments.
In the majority of those cases, American leaders were wary of intervening directly. Instead, the United States tended to rely on money, training, and arms sales. But by taking concrete steps like arms sales to support rebel groups, Washington's psychological investment in the outcome tends to rise, as do the political stakes for the president, who will be judged on whether his efforts at support are successful or not. As we saw in the Syrian civil war, for example, Barack Obama's early efforts to arm Syrian rebels were roundly criticized as feckless, increasing pressure on him to intervene more seriously.
History does not provide much guidance about how serious the risk of this form of entanglement might be. During the Cold War, presidents from Nixon onward viewed arms sales as a substitute for sending American troops to do battle with communist forces around the world. The result was an astonishing amount of weaponry transferred or sold to Third World nations, many of which were engaged in active conflicts both external and internal.
The risk of superpower conflict made it dangerous to intervene directly; accordingly, the Cold War-era risk of entanglement from arms sales was low. Today, however, the United States does not face nearly as many constraints on its behavior, as its track record of near-constant military intervention since the end of the Cold War indicates. As a result, the risk of arms sales helping trigger future military intervention is real, even if it cannot be measured precisely.
The second way in which arms sales might entangle the United States is by creating new disputes or exacerbating existing tensions. US arms sales to Kurdish units fighting in Syria against the Islamic State, for example, have ignited tensions between the United States and its NATO ally Turkey, which sees the Kurds as a serious threat to Turkish sovereignty and stability.
Meanwhile, ongoing arms sales to NATO nations and to other allies like South Korea and Taiwan have exacerbated tensions with Russia, China, and North Korea, raising the risk of escalation and the possibility that the United States might wind up involved in a direct conflict.
Regional Effects. Arms sales do not just affect the recipient nation; they also affect the local balance of power, often causing ripple effects throughout the region. Though advocates of arms sales trumpet their stabilizing influence, as we have noted above, arms sales often lead to greater tension, less stability, and more conflict. Because of this -- and the complementary problem of weapons dispersion -- the regional impact of arms sales is less predictable and more problematic than advocates acknowledge.
Instability, Violence, and Conflict. First, arms sales can make conflict more likely. This may occur because recipients of new weapons feel more confident about launching attacks or because changes in the local balance of power can fuel tensions and promote preventive strikes by others.
A study of arms sales from 1950 to 1995, for example, found that although arms sales appeared to have some restraining effect on major-power allies, they had the opposite effect in other cases, and concluded that "increased arms transfers from major powers make states significantly more likely to be militarized dispute initiators."
Another study focused on sub-Saharan Africa from 1967 to 1997 found that "arms transfers are significant and positive predictors of increased probability of war." Recent history provides supporting evidence for these findings: since 2011, Saudi Arabia, the leading buyer of American weapons, has intervened to varying degrees in Yemen, Tunisia, Syria, and Qatar.
Second, arms sales can also prolong and intensify ongoing conflicts and erode rather than promote regional stability. Few governments, and fewer insurgencies, have large enough weapons stocks to fight for long without resupply.
The tendency of external powers to arm the side they support, however understandable strategically, has the inevitable result of allowing the conflict to continue at a higher level of intensity than would otherwise be the case. As one study of arms sales to Africa notes, "Weapons imports are essential additives in this recipe for armed conflict and carnage."
Third, this dynamic appears to be particularly troublesome with respect to internal conflicts. Jennifer Erickson, for example, found that recipients of major conventional weapons are 70 percent more likely to engage in internal conflicts than other states. Though halting arms sales alone is not a panacea for peace and stability, arms embargoes can help lessen the destructiveness of combat in both civil and interstate wars simply by restricting access to the means of violence.
Finally, because of their effects on both interstate and internal conflict, arms sales can also erode rather than promote regional stability. As noted in the previous section, where the United States seeks to manage regional balances of power, arms sales often create tension, whether because the American role in the region threatens others or because American clients feel emboldened.
The Middle East, for example, has seesawed between violence and tense standoffs for the past many decades, at first because of Cold War competition and more recently because of the American war on terror. The notion that increased US arms sales since 9/11 made the Middle East more stable is far-fetched to say the least.
Similarly, though many argue that American security commitments to countries like Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea have produced greater stability, there is a strong case to be made that the opposite is now true. American support of South Korea has driven North Korea to develop nuclear weapons; the presence of US missile defense systems in South Korea has aggravated China, and American support of Taiwan produces continual tension between the two powers.
Dispersion. The United States uses a number of procedures to try to ensure that the weapons it sells actually go to authorized customers and to monitor the end use of the weapons so that they do not wind up being used for nefarious purposes. The Department of State even compiles a list of banned countries, brokers, and customers. But most of these tools have proved ineffectual.
Programs like Blue Lantern and Golden Sentry aim to shed light on the service life of American weapons sold abroad through end-use monitoring. While the description of US end-use monitoring ("pre-license, post-license/pre-shipment, and post-shipment") sounds comprehensive, it's actually anything but.
In fiscal year 2016, the agency in charge of approving and monitoring arms sales, the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC), authorized 38,398 export-license applications -- down more than 50 percent from 2012 after the government shifted some weapons to the Department of Commerce's purview. To oversee more than 35,000 export licenses annually, the DDTC has a full-time staff of only 171 people.
The Blue Lantern program is executed by embassy staff in recipient countries but administered back in Washington by only nine State Department employees and three contractors. Twelve people can't possibly track everything that happens to billions of dollars' worth of advanced weaponry transferred to dozens of countries abroad each year.
Nor is the process designed to correct problems. On one hand, end-use violations can result in individuals and companies being prevented from making future purchases. On the other hand, there is no evidence that end-use monitoring has changed the pattern of American arms sales in any way.
The United States, in truth, has little or no control over what happens to the weapons it sells to other nations. The result is that year after year weapons of all kinds end up falling into the hands of unreliable, risky, or just plain bad actors, at which point they're used in ways neither the United States nor its customers intended.
American weapons have frequently wound up being used against Americans in combat. And even more often, local and regional actors, including criminal gangs, have employed them in their own conflicts. In civil wars, regime collapse, or other extreme cases, factions steal weapons and use them for their own purposes, as ISIS did in Iraq.
Iraq, as previously noted, provides an excellent case study in the inability of the United States to prevent dispersion. As part of US efforts to rebuild Iraq's military and security capabilities after the 2003 invasion, the United States sent Iraq roughly $2.5 billion worth of American weapons through 2014, including everything from small arms to "armored personnel carriers, military helicopters, transport aircraft, anti-tank missiles, tanks, artillery and drones."
Despite the presence of thousands of US troops in-country and the very close relationship between those troops and their Iraqi counterparts, many of those weapons went missing. Between 2003 and 2008 alone, 360,000 out of 1 million small arms disappeared, along with 2,300 Humvees.
A sizable chunk of this weaponry would later end up in the hands of ISIS. The Iraqi army, trained and equipped by the American military, dissolved when faced by ISIS and left their weapons behind for the terrorist group to pick up and use for conquering and holding territory.
A UN Security Council report found that in June 2014 alone "ISIS seized sufficient Iraqi government stocks from the provinces of Anbar and Salah al-Din to arm and equip more than three Iraqi conventional army divisions."
Data collected by Conflict Armament Research in July and August of 2014 showed that 20 percent of ISIS's ammunition was manufactured in the United States -- likely seized from Iraqi military stocks.93 In short, dispersion enabled the spread of ISIS and dramatically raised the costs and dangers of confronting the group on the battlefield.
Regime Effects. Finally, arms sales can also have deleterious effects on recipient nations -- promoting government oppression, instability, and military coups. As part of the war on drugs, America inadvertently enabled the practice of forced disappearances. In the cases of Colombia, the Philippines, and Mexico, American weapons feed a dangerous cycle of corruption and oppression involving the police, the military, and political leaders.94
Though the United States provides weapons to Mexico ostensibly for counternarcotics operations, the arms transferred to the country often end up being used by police to oppress citizens, reinforcing the "climate of generalized violence in the country [that] carries with it grave consequences for the rule of law."95
Similarly, in Colombia and the Philippines the United States has supplied arms in an effort to support governments against external threats or internal factions and to combat drug trafficking, but with mixed results. A study of military aid to Colombia found that "in environments such as Colombia, international military assistance can strengthen armed nonstate actors, who rival the government over the use of violence."96
Recent research reveals that American assistance programs, like foreign military officer training, can increase the likelihood of military coups. US training programs frequently bought by other nations, most notably International Military Education and Training (IMET), gave formal training to the leaders of the 2009 Honduran coup, the 2012 Mali coup, and the 2013 Egyptian coup.97 In these cases, the training that was supposed to stabilize the country provided military leaders with the tools to overthrow the government they were meant to support.
The Case for a New Approach
So far we have argued that arms sales lack a compelling strategic justification, amplify risks, and generate a host of unintended negative consequences. These factors alone argue for significantly curtailing the arms trade. But the case for doing so is made even stronger by the fact that greatly reducing arms sales would also produce two significant benefits for the United States that cannot otherwise be enjoyed.
The first benefit from reducing arms sales would be greater diplomatic flexibility and leverage. Critics might argue that even if arms sales are an imperfect tool, forgoing arms sales will eliminate a potential source of leverage. We argue that, on the contrary, the diplomatic gains from forgoing arms sales will outweigh the potential leverage or other benefits from arms sales.
Most importantly, by refraining from arming nations engaged in conflict, the United States will have the diplomatic flexibility to engage with all parties as an honest broker.
The inherent difficulty of negotiating while arming one side is obvious today with respect to North and South Korea. After decades of US support for South Korea, North Korea clearly does not trust the United States. Similarly, US attempts to help negotiate a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians have long been complicated by American support for Israel.
To stop arming one side of a contentious relationship is not to suggest that the United States does not have a preferred outcome in such cases. Rather, by staying out of the military domain the United States can more readily encourage dialogue and diplomacy.
Forgoing arms sales is likely to be a superior strategy even in cases where the United States has an entrenched interest. In the case of Taiwan, for example, though it is clear that Taiwan needs to purchase weapons from other countries to provide for its defense, those weapons do not have to be made in the United States. Having Taiwan buy from other suppliers would help defuse US-China tensions.
Even if Taiwan's defenses remained robust, China would clearly prefer a situation in which American arms no longer signal an implicit promise to fight on Taiwan's behalf. This could also promote more productive US-China diplomacy in general, as well as greater stability in the Pacific region. Most important, breaking off arms sales would also reduce the likelihood of the United States becoming entangled in a future conflict between Taiwan and China.
The second major benefit of reducing arms sales is that it would imbue the United States with greater moral authority. Today, as the leading arms-dealing nation in the world, the United States lacks credibility in discussions of arms control and nonproliferation, especially in light of its military interventionism since 2001. By showing the world that it is ready to choose diplomacy over the arms trade, the United States would provide a huge boost to international efforts to curtail proliferation and its negative consequences.
This is important because the United States has pursued and will continue to pursue a wide range of arms control and nonproliferation objectives. The United States is a signatory of treaties dealing with weapons of mass destruction, missile technology, land mines, and cluster munitions, not to mention the flow of conventional weapons of all kinds. The effectiveness of these treaties, and the ability to create more effective and enduring arms control and nonproliferation frameworks, however, depends on how the United States behaves.
This is not to say that unilateral American action will put an end to the problems of the global arms trade. States would still seek to ensure their security and survival through deterrence and military strength. Other weapons suppliers would, in the short run, certainly race to meet the demand. But history shows that global nonproliferation treaties and weapons bans typically require great-power support.
In 1969, for example, Richard Nixon decided to shutter the American offensive-biological-weapons program and seek an international ban on such weapons. By 1972 the Biological Weapons Convention passed and has since been signed by 178 nations.98 In 1991 President George H. W. Bush unilaterally renounced the use of chemical weapons.
By 1993 the United States had signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, which now has 192 signatories.99 Both of these efforts succeeded in part because the United States took decisive early action in the absence of any promises about how others would respond.100 Without US leadership, any effort to limit proliferation of major conventional weapons and dangerous emerging technologies is likely to fail.
The United States should reorient its arms sales policy to ensure that sales provide strategic benefits and to avoid producing negative unintended consequences. At a practical level, this means reducing arms sales dramatically, especially to nations with high risk factors for negative outcomes.
Officials should look for other ways to conduct foreign policy in situations where arms sales have been common tactics -- such as when the United States negotiates access to military bases or seeks cooperation in the war on terror. The arms sales process should also be revised in order to ensure that all sales receive more thorough scrutiny than has been the case to date.
To implement this new vision for arms sales we recommend the following steps:
1. Issue an Updated Presidential Policy Directive on Arms Sales
Most importantly, the president should issue a new Presidential Policy Directive reorienting US arms sales policy so that the new default policy is "no sale." The only circumstances in which the United States should sell or transfer arms to another country are when three conditions are met:
(1) there is a direct threat to American national security;
(2) there is no other way to confront that threat other than arming another country; and
(3) the United States is the only potential supplier of the necessary weapons.
The reasoning behind this recommendation is threefold: first, as noted, the United States enjoys such a high level of strategic immunity that there is currently no direct security rationale for arms sales to any nation.
Second, even if one believes that the United States has an interest in helping other nations defend themselves against internal enemies (e.g., Iraq, Afghanistan) or external ones (e.g., South Korea, Taiwan, NATO countries), there are other ways the United States can help instead of supplying weapons.
Finally, by halting the sales of weapons the United States will decrease the risk of entanglement in conflicts that do not directly involve American security. It will also improve the diplomatic flexibility of the United States to play the role of honest broker and to exert moral leverage on dueling parties.
2. Immediately Stop Selling Weapons to Risky Nations
The first step in implementing a new approach should be to stop selling weapons to the countries most likely to misuse weapons or to lose control of them. Based on the risk assessment described here, we recommend that the United States immediately halt the sale of weapons to any nation that scored in the "highest risk" category for any risk factor, or which is actively engaged in conflict.
Taking this action would immediately add 71 nations to the list of embargoed nations until further notice. This simple and commonsense step would mitigate some of the worst negative consequences and stop the United States from enabling conflicts abroad.
3. Improve and Respond to End-Use Monitoring
The United States should significantly expand its tracking of the use and misuse of American weapons. The current system of end-use monitoring does not collect enough data on how weapons are used once they are transferred.
This is largely because the system is designed to monitor and prevent instances of dispersion and corruption and is not necessarily focused on the use of force by the client military and government. Rather than focusing on tracking abuse down to a single military unit, end-use monitoring should hold countries accountable for the actions of their militaries as a whole.
End-use monitoring should take into account the bigger picture of a country's strategic environment and should assess weapons sales based on a proposed customer's history, actions, and participation in ongoing conflicts. End-use monitoring should be tracked and reported annually, and the results should be made public to enforce oversight and give Congress the information needed to make better-informed decisions.
4. Amend the AECA to Require Congressional Approval for All Arms Sales
Finally, we recommend that the AECA be amended to require congressional approval for all arms sales. The current law is designed to make arms sales easy by making it difficult for Congress to block them. Blocking a sale requires a majority vote in both houses of Congress, with such votes typically cropping up inconveniently in the middle of other, more-pressing issues on the legislative agenda. Congress has exerted little or no influence over arms sales and has allowed the executive branch near-complete autonomy.
Requiring a congressional vote to approve arms sales, on the other hand, would subject arms deals to much more intense scrutiny than has traditionally been the case, and blocking misguided arms sales would be much easier. Requiring a separate piece of legislation to approve each arms deal, not simply requiring a resolution against, would encourage deliberations about the strategic benefits of any proposed deal.
Selling major conventional weapons is a risky business, especially to nations where conditions are ripe for bad outcomes. After decades of selling weapons to almost any nation that asks, enough evidence has accumulated to make it clear that the costs outweigh the benefits. Policy change is long overdue.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump has embraced the conventional wisdom. In addition to the massive $110 billion deal with Saudi Arabia, Trump has seized on the tensions with North Korea to encourage Japan and other Asian allies to buy more American weapons. For Trump, the rationale was simple: "It's a lot of jobs for us and a lot of safety for Japan."101
As we have argued here, this conventional wisdom is misguided. Instead of turning first to arms sales, which are likely to inflame tensions in hot spots like the Pacific Rim or the Middle East, the United States should rely more heavily on diplomacy. The United States does not need the limited economic benefits arms sales provide -- and it certainly does not need the strategic headaches that come with them.