n 1984, tensions were ratcheted up in the Middle East as Iranian F-4 jets flew into Saudi airspace.
Alarmed over this encroachment by its regional antagonist, Saudi Arabia deployed F-15s and two of Iran’s planes were shot down.
Fortunately, the incident never erupted into a war, and today it’s been all but forgotten.
But what remains remarkable is the origin of the weapons involved: the Saudi F-15s, the Iranian F-4s — even the air-to-air missiles that were fired — all manufactured by the United States.
For decades, America has used weapons shipments as an implement to shape world affairs, from its attempts to drive Marxists out of South America to its pushback against hostile regimes in the Middle East.
Some of these efforts have been successful, most notably when the Reagan administration ensnared the Soviet Union in a costly quagmire by arming the mujahideen of Afghanistan with Stinger missiles.
But even though the Cold War and its accompanying proxy conflicts have ended, the weapons continue to flow. Today, the world is awash in American materiel. The United States is the number one arms dealer on the planet and we control about half the global weapons market. In 2014, our arms sales to foreign clients jumped by $10 billion or an astonishing 35 per cent.
And just as Saudi Arabia’s made-in-America jets once attacked Iran’s made-in-America jets, various U.S.-armed rebels in Syria are today fighting against the Islamic State, which in the past has stolen our taxpayer-funded equipment.
As a matter of policy, recent arms shipments don’t exactly inspire confidence. To sustain their fight against Bashar al Assad’s regime, the Pentagon gave the Syrian rebels American weapons, many of which were promptly handed over to al Qaeda or commandeered by the Islamic State. Even the most optimistic Syrian observers estimate that 10-15 per cent of Western-provided equipment has been lost to jihadists.
Then there’s the matter of Saudi Arabia, whose military Washington helped build from the ground up through a series of arms deals. President Obama has only continued this project, inking a $60 billion agreement with the Kingdom in 2010 that included 84 F-15s and 70 Apache attack helicopters. Subsequent multibillion-dollar deals with Saudi Arabia and fellow Gulf nation Qatar helped drive up that 2014 record sales number.
Today, a coalition that includes Saudi Arabia and Qatar is using American weapons to pummel Yemen, which has produced a vacuum there into which al Qaeda has expanded (just like with our intervention in Libya — you think they would have learned something). Saudi Arabia has also used its military — now the third-best funded in the world — to crush uprisings in the nearby Sunni-ruled, Shia-majority island nation of Bahrain, as well as to suppress Shiite demonstrations at home.
That, combined with the Yemen campaign against the Shiite Houthi rebels, means a good number of Shias have been on the business end of weapons supplied by us.
With the Middle East increasingly riven by sectarianism, do we really want to seem like we’re taking sides in the Sunni-Shia conflict? With terrorism spreading quickly, do we really want to enable nations that are exacerbating the problem?
Not all of America’s arms deals are reckless. For example, bolstering South Korea’s defensive capabilities in order to counter Chinese and North Korean power is well within our interests. But recently, the primary driver behind the expanding weapons market has been Middle Eastern sales, where at best they have proven counterproductive and at worst they have trapped us in a vicious cycle — from Saddam Hussein to ISIS, our own guns keep getting pointed back in our direction.
So why doesn’t the Obama administration stop approving these deals, or at least seriously examine the issue? One reason is that arming foreign proxies is an easy solution, as it lets politicians boast about “doing something” while costing very little in blood and treasure.
Another reason is more outrageous. According to Aude Fleurant of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “in recent years exports are increasingly needed to help the U.S. arms industry maintain production levels at a time of decreasing U.S. military expenditure.” The weapons companies get more money, the government gets more R&D, the crony capitalist wheel keeps on turning.
If a policy in the private sector fails, it’s canceled before more money is wasted; if a policy in the federal government fails, too often it’s continued and even ramped up. Such is the case with our mass proliferation of weapons. As ISIS fighters motor around Syria in $1 billion worth of American U.S. military humvees, it’s past time for a reconsideration.