Can the United States enhance international stability by dramatically increasing its arms exports to outside nations? The Bush Administration certainly seems to think so. Recent reports indicate that in this fiscal year alone, the Department of Defense has agreed to transfer more than $32 billion in weapons and other military equipment to foreign governments, compared with $12 billion just three years ago. These are heady numbers, even for the number one exporter of arms in the world.
Even more notable than the sheer quantity of weapons being transferred is the roster of arms recipients. There are some usual suspects on the list; traditional U.S. allies like Egypt, Israel, and our NATO partners. Other recipients are better acquainted with ethnic strife and conflict than stability and democracy, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, India, and Pakistan. Bruce S. Lemkin, the Air Force Deputy Undersecretary, has stated that, “This is not about being gunrunners. This is about building a more secure world.” But some Members of Congress are fearful of a “spiraling arms race that in the end could decrease stability.”
One of the concerns is that the U.S. does not have a very good track record in accounting for inventories of transferred arms. Recently, the American military lost track of approximately 190,000 pistols and automatic rifles that were transferred to Iraqi security forces in 2004 and 2005. A recent report by Amnesty International notes that these small arms transfers were marked by a “poorly managed and unaccountable process” that led “to diversions of supplies to armed groups and illicit markets.”
Travis Sharp, a Military Policy Analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, also worries that in a world of tremulous alliances, the U.S. could end up looking down the barrel of its own weapons—as we have in the past in both Afghanistan and Iraq. In Sharp’s words: “Once you sell arms to another country, you lose control over how they are used, and the weapons, unfortunately, don’t have an expiration date.” Lemkin, however, seemed dismissive of such fears, stating, “Would you rather they bought the weapons and aircraft from other countries? Because they will.”
That rhetoric will sound familiar to gun violence prevention advocates—similar language is often employed by the gun lobby to justify weak regulations that allow criminals easy access to firearms. The “logic” is that there are already too many guns in circulation in America anyway, and criminals will get their hands on them no matter what you do, so why bother putting any obstacles in their path that could interfere with the shopping habits of law-abiding gun owners?
Sadly, this philosophy has been embraced by the Bush administration. The U.S. has been a non-participant in recent negotiations aimed at curbing the illegal international trade in small arms. After intense lobbying by pro-gun groups, including the National Rifle Association, the U.S. government virtually boycotted a recent United Nations meeting that sought to address this issue through work on a Global Arms Trade Treaty.
Is the United States shirking its responsibilities as a model of democracy and the world’s number one exporter of arms to ensure that its weapons do not end up in the hands of human rights violators? According to researcher Helen Hughes, “Governments can either carry on ignoring the horrific consequences of irresponsible international arms transfers or they can meet their obligations in an arms trade treaty with a ‘golden rule’ on human rights that will actually help save people’s lives.”
We certainly hope the next administration will choose the latter course, for the betterment of all mankind.