The Gaza war has demonstrated the strategic utility and resilience of the detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, its longer-term sustainability may depend on unpredictable regional dynamics or other outside factors.
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In early August, Reuters reported that the administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was “preparing an overhaul of arms export policy to increase the emphasis on human rights,” with a formal unveiling of a new Conventional Arms Transfer policy expected as early as September. Such a policy, with a heightened focus on human rights, would track with Biden’s February 2020 declaration as a presidential candidate that he would put human rights “at the core of U.S. foreign policy.” Newly installed as president, Biden echoed this commitment stating, “We must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values,” including “upholding universal rights.” Such a departure from his predecessor’s policies could have a major impact on the global arms trade and U.S.-Gulf relations. However, in just over eight months, Biden has shown several times that there may be a disconnect between his words and actions when it comes to dealing – with a lot of flexibility – with certain friends and allies. The administration thus faces “growing accusations of talking big on human rights without fully backing it up.” This begs the question of whether these new announcements are likely to lead to concrete policy shifts.
As a presidential candidate, Biden made a lot of commitments about changes he would make to President Donald J. Trump’s policies and asserted he would take a different tack to what Trump trumpeted as his more commercial approach to exporting military equipment. In 2018, Trump revised the Conventional Arms Transfer policy to give more weight to commercial concerns in U.S. weapons export decisions. Since he became president, Biden and his team on several occasions have signaled that their approach will be different. A U.S. official suggested that “while economic security will remain a factor,” the Biden administration would “reprioritize” issues such as U.S. national security and human rights. And in January, the administration suspended for further review arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that had been approved at the end of the Trump administration.
During recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on Near East, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Regional Security Mira K. Resnik reasserted human rights and the rule of law as national security priorities. This may hint at a real change in the weighting of the Conventional Arms Transfer policy to tack away from Trump’s mercantilist accents and renew an emphasis on human rights, centered on efforts, in her words, “to ensure U.S. origin equipment is not used to perpetrate human rights violations and to minimize the risk of civilian casualties by our partners.” This administration’s apparent resolve to transform the U.S. weapons export policy is notably linked to the expressed need to revise the U.S. engagement in what has been described as the “Yemen quagmire,” with continued U.S. support under the two previous administrations, “even as the conflict stalemated, the humanitarian emergency grew and reports of coalition atrocities mounted.”
In addition to a determination to distance itself from the way things were done before, the Biden team might see some recent events at the national and international levels as a suggestion that tools other than arms sales and military assistance could be used in a more efficient and urgent way to advance diplomacy – reaffirmed by Resnik as “the best way to deal with today’s challenges.” In particular, the continuing pandemic as well as the repeated and dramatic manifestations of the impact of global warming are a call to leaders everywhere to seriously reconsider their priorities and their definition of national security. The current U.S. administration may have genuinely decided to answer that call. How much of an impact it is likely to have on its arms sales, particularly to some of its most lucrative markets such as the Gulf countries, Egypt, and Israel, is however unclear.
As noted by a group of experts on arms trade, in Biden’s first hundred days, his administration failed to deliver on its declarations that it would represent a major break with the Trump era in the realm of military sales. In fact, a congressional aide working on the new Conventional Arms Transfer policy interviewed by Reuters noted that the new people in charge seemed “to be in the same mode as the Trump people in promoting arms exports.” This is indeed what the first several months of the Biden administration have shown. Two weeks after Biden’s statement about the new U.S. foreign policy anchored in diplomacy and human rights, his administration approved a $197 million missile sale to Egypt, despite concerns about the country’s human rights record and amid news that the Egyptian government had just arrested family members of Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian American human rights activist. By the end of February, the administration announced that it would limit future military sales to Saudi Arabia to “defensive” weapons without specifying what this designation covered. And in April, the State Department announced that the $23 billion arms package to the UAE that was under review since January would go through – although it could still be imperiled over U.S. concerns about the country’s ties to China, and Abu Dhabi reportedly fears it could also get caught up in the Biden administration’s general review of arms sales.
A strict and indiscriminate new Conventional Arms Transfer policy based on human rights could affect many Middle East clients, and it would represent a radical break with the approach over decades of U.S. arms exports. However, it seems the new policy will have a much more modest effect overall. One of the aides working on it suggested that it would mostly affect sales of firearms that police or paramilitary forces could use against populations. The aide suggested this could be the case with countries such as the Philippines. If true, this would be welcomed as a step in the right direction by sponsors of the Philippine Human Rights Act, a bill introduced in Congress in June that advocates “cutting off U.S. military aid and arms sales to the Duterte regime in the Philippines based on its abysmal human rights record.” But when Elisa Epstein, the Washington advocacy officer at Human Rights Watch, wrote in July that it was “time for the U.S. to stop selling weapons to human rights abusers,” the Philippines was only one of three countries she singled out: “the Biden administration is selling weapons to at least three human rights abusers – the Philippines, Egypt and Israel – despite a pledge to make human rights central to its foreign policy.” Similarly calling for a halt on arms sales to human rights abusers in August, journalist Alex Galitsky cited “the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds in Northern Syria by Turkey, the devastation inflicted upon the people of Yemen by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, or Pakistan’s enabling of regional extremists and abysmal human rights record at home.” So how can such an apparent disconnect between the administration’s words and actions be explained regarding abiding by its own commitment to resolutely new foreign policy dynamics?
In the United States, as in most major global arms exporting countries, there is a strong constituency of proponents of weapons exports to the Middle East as an efficient way to sustain many jobs at home and promote security and stability in recipient states and the region. Experts and advocates of revisiting the centrality of weapons transfers as well as military assistance in U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, have however put these core beliefs into perspective.
Jonathan D. Caverley, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, demonstrated that U.S. arms sales to the Middle East and North Africa have less impact on employment than domestic arms purchases (themselves qualified as “a poor job creator” by Bill Hartung), or arms exports elsewhere. At Tufts University, a World Peace Foundation research project focused on dispelling myths about the arms trade also found that clean energy, health care, and education all create more U.S. jobs per $1 billion spent.
In her recent testimony, Resnik reaffirmed the notion that security cooperation enhances partner countries’ “ability to meet their own legitimate defense needs, thereby contributing to regional security.” However, the role of arms sales and military assistance in promoting security and stability in recipient states and the broader region has been repeatedly challenged as weapons exports can alter regional balances and potentially create more insecurity and instability. This has often been the case in wartime situations that transition abruptly and messily to postconflict changes in authority – including, but not only, security concerns related to whose hands transferred arms might fall into down the road.
In this respect, the recent collapse of the Afghan state, with little to no fight from the military trained by the United States, has given policymakers pause and is seen by many experts and scholars as an opportunity to reassess the validity and relevance of classic arguments surrounding weapons exports and military assistance to the Middle East. One argument is that the rhetoric of empowering partners masks a reality in which U.S. defense contractors collect most of the profits. Laleh Khalili, a professor of international politics at Queen Mary University of London noted that, of the money the United States spent in Afghanistan, 80% to 90% “found its way back to the US via contracts” with private military companies as well as other corporations. Commenting on the same issue, Saqib Qureshi, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, wrote that the “Taliban didn’t win in Afghanistan, the defense contractors did.”
Proponents of the status quo often argue that U.S. policymaking is too incremental and too embedded in pragmatic, interest-based calculations focused on what are deemed unavoidable commercial and geostrategic rivalries to experience the kind of change those critical of crude realism in foreign policy call for. Given how influential these voices remain in Washington, DC, and what Biden has shown of his stance on these issues so far, this administration is likely to simply tweak or revamp its arms export policies rather than deeply transform them. This does not mean that they will not or should not start exploring other options for cooperation – and redefining “national security” – in the future as well. When it comes to U.S.-Gulf relations, for instance, these could range from helping Gulf countries to strengthen and improve their education and training systems to better answer the needs of their development plans and labor markets to cooperating on projects around environmental and food security.
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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