The phrase “Obama has a lot on his plate” is the understatement of the year. The president has a to-do list a mile long, and every day a new crisis (like the coup in Honduras) gets added to the list. Can we really fault him if he sneaks the occasional smoke?

But before he heads out to the presidential woods, one of the tasks still undone is to update and revise U.S. arms export policy. The last official version of U.S. arms export policy is from the Clinton years. In addition to the usual rhetoric about promoting regional stability, ensuring U.S. military superiority, and promoting “peaceful conflict resolution and arms control, human rights, democratization,” Presidential Decision Directive 34 (February 1995) inserted a new consideration: “enhanc[ing] the ability of the U.S. defense industrial base to meet U.S. defense requirements and maintain long term military superiority at lower costs.” In other words, a potential arms sale should be judged in part on whether it is good for weapons manufacturers.

Not every administration needs a formal export policy. Under the guise of the global war on terror, President George W. Bush fast-tracked weapons sales, released countries from arms embargoes, and pumped more money into foreign military aid. His policy was — in essence —sell, sell, sell, and he did it without issuing a formal policy statement.

But now, President Barack Obama needs to decisively break with Bush era practices. Unfortunately, so far the administration is opting for less clarity and more verbiage.

With Friends Like These

At a May 2009 Defense Writers Group convened by the Center for Media and Security, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy was asked “whether the Obama administration will follow the general policy of supporting exports?” and “do you anticipate any change in terms of where US arms will be sold?” Flournoy responded: “We don’t have a sort of arms sale policy as much as more a sense of commitment to building partner capacity.” But she asserted that the United States isn’t going to “hawk” a given weapon system around the world. She said something similar a month earlier, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: We “have a direct interest in helping our allies and partners build their capacity to be security contributors, to be able to step up alongside us in shoring up the international system.”

Vice Admiral Jeffrey Wieringa, the head of the Pentagon agency that administers weapons exports, was blunter: “We sell stuff to build relationships.”

But last year, the United States sold arms or military services to well over 100 nations. Can they all really be reliable security partners? If not, will the Obama administration shorten this extensive list of customers? And will it seek better ways to build ties to countries like Pakistan than sending them nuclear-capable F-16 fighters, which are more likely to be used against India than in fighting al-Qaeda or the Taliban?

Absent an explicit shift away from Bush administration policies, U.S. weapons sales are likely to continue to fuel conflict and abet human rights abuses. During the two Bush terms, the majority of U.S. arms sales to the developing world went to countries that our own State Department defined as undemocratic regimes and/or major human rights abusers. And over two-thirds of the world’s active conflicts involved weapons that had been supplied by the United States.

One thing is clear. In the absence of a firm and clear policy, a lot of weapons are being exported. In fiscal year 2008, the foreign military sales program sold $36 billion in weapons and defense articles, an increase of more than 50% over 2007. Sales for the first half of 2009 reached $27 billion, and could top out at $40 billion by the end of the year. In contrast, through the early 2000s, arms sales averaged between $8-13 billion per year.

The Push Factor

Among the many limitations of Undersecretary Flournoy’s formulation of the Pentagon’s “commitment to building partner capacity” is that it avoids confronting the domestic constituency for weapons exports, namely weapons manufacturers and their congressional allies.

This dynamic is now being played out over the F-22 Raptor. This irrelevant high-tech wonder, originally conceived to counter a Soviet-era plane that was never built, has for the moment been saved from the ignobility of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ cutting room floor by a concerted effort from Lockheed Martin executives, machinist union members, and congressional representatives with manufacturing facilities in their districts (and company checks in their coffers). The Air Force has said they don’t need the F-22, and Gates himself pointed out that it had flown no missions in Iraq or Afghanistan.

But rather than planning for the eventuality that the F-22 production line will close in a year or two, Lockheed Martin and its allies are fighting back. They may or may not win their battle to add up to a dozen F-22s to this year’s military budget. But should these efforts fail, they have a fallback position: export them. Japan, Israel, and Australia have all expressed strong interest in the fighter plane. Current law prohibits foreign sales of the F-22, but Lockheed and its friends in Congress are pushing to change that. Japan is playing its part by harping on fears of foreign competition. Japan has announced that if the F-22 is not available it could go with the European Typhoon instead.

Japan’s stoking of the competitive fires is just one example of rising global demand for high-tech weapons. A dozen or so nations are in the market for fighter planes, including Brazil, Denmark, and Greece. And as Boeing’s Vice President Robert Gower told reporters in Paris, “It is a great time to be in the fighter business.”

Loren Thompson, a pro-export pundit with the Lexington Institute — and not so coincidentally, a consultant to Lockheed Martin — takes it a step further, predicting that for the United States, “weapons could be the single biggest export item over the next ten years.”

Increased weapons sales will certainly help defense contractors weather the current economic crisis. But they won’t help the overall U.S. economy or the security of the international community.

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Frida Berrigan is a senior program associate at The New America Foundation's Arms and Security Initiative.

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