Under the guise of promoting a "security dialogue" in the Persian Gulf, the Bush Administration has proposed $63 billion in arms transfers to the Middle East over the next ten years. As is so often the case, team Bush seems to prefer to let the weapons do the talking, even when it claims to be engaging in diplomacy. The foundation of the deal is a pledge to sell $20 billion worth of high-tech arms to Saudi Arabia and the other oil-producing states in the Gulf. Items in the package reportedly include upgrades to Riyadh’s US-supplied fighter planes, satellite-guided bombs and combat ships. To ease any concerns about the Gulf buildup, the plan calls for increasing military aid to Israel and Egypt to $3 billion and $1.3 billion per year, respectively. That’s $43 billion in US taxpayer support over the next decade.
Why pour more weapons into the region now? The principal rationale appears to be to send a message to Iran that it must bend to US pressure to end its nuclear program, stop the flow of Iranian weapons to Iraqi insurgents and cease its support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Otherwise, the argument goes, not only will Tehran face the prospect of US military action but it will also be surrounded by neighbors armed with top-of-the-line US weaponry. The arms package will be seen as even more provocative by Iran in light of the latest move in the Bush Administration’s campaign to turn up the pressure on the regime: the recent decision to label its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization.
Threatening Iran with military strikes and arms sales to potential adversaries is more likely to spur Tehran to add to its own arsenal while being less open to talks on its nuclear program. If the Bush Administration is looking for a new designated enemy to stand in for the late Saddam Hussein, this approach will work just fine. But if it wants to solve the security problems of the region, it would be hard to come up with a more counterproductive policy.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have tried to paper over the real intent of the deal by arguing that it will promote "stability" by bolstering moderate regimes. This is a strange assertion, especially as regards Saudi Arabia. Not only are funds from Saudi sources supporting insurgents in Iraq, but they are financing Islamic extremism around the world. The Saudis also operate one of the most repressive regimes on the planet, in direct contradiction of the Administration’s continuing claims to be promoting democracy. The State Department’s latest human rights report on Saudi Arabia contains this upbeat passage: "Religious police harassed, abused and detained citizens and foreigners of both sexes." The most recent Human Rights Watch Saudi report points out that "the government undertook no major human rights reforms in 2006, and there were signs of backsliding in issues of human rights defenders, freedom of association, and freedom of expression." Sending more weapons will not reverse these trends, which does not bode well for long-term stability in the Saudi kingdom.
In Egypt, decades of US aid have had no positive impact on human rights or democracy. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak runs a quasi-Stalinist regime that won 88 percent of the vote in the last national elections while jailing numerous democracy advocates. As the State Department has acknowledged, torture is still widely practiced in Egyptian prisons, while Cairo’s overall human rights record is described as "poor." Rewarding the Egyptian government with an increase in US military aid is tantamount to condoning these repressive practices -- practices that are producing a popular backlash that could eventually lead to the end of the regime. If that happens, whatever government comes to power next will inherit huge stockpiles of US-supplied weaponry.
As for Israel, more military aid is the last thing it needs. In recent times Tel Aviv has used its military in ways that have undermined its own security as well as that of its neighbors. From the ongoing attacks on Gaza to last summer’s invasion of Lebanon, the Israeli government has unintentionally offered aid and comfort to hard-line forces, both among the Palestinians and in Lebanon. Israel has plenty of weapons; what it needs is a return to genuine diplomacy, ideally prodded by its closest ally, Washington.
Sixty years of arms racing has repeatedly undermined prospects for Middle East peace. Why should this latest round be any different? The only clear beneficiaries of this mega-deal will be US arms makers. Already gorging on expenditures for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, companies like Boeing, General Electric and General Dynamics can anticipate ten years of lucrative foreign sales if the deal goes forward. The arms lobby can be expected to vigorously support the deal if it is challenged on Capitol Hill.
Thankfully, there has been early opposition in Congress. Representative Anthony Weiner has pulled together a group of 114 House members opposed to the deal. Now the foreign affairs committee chairs in the House and Senate, Representative Tom Lantos and Senator Joe Biden, need to move from skepticism to opposition. They should hold hearings as soon as Congress comes back in September. And Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama need to join their rival John Edwards in roundly denouncing the deal. If there is a significant public debate about its likely impacts, it won’t withstand even minimal scrutiny.
Mideast stability can’t be promoted with arms, any more than democracy can be imposed through the barrel of a gun. Stopping or scaling back the Bush Administration’s Mideast arms package would be a step toward learning this lesson.