Opinion Editorial: U.S. Arms Sales and Proxy Wars

Photo Courtesy of usnews.com
Photo Courtesy of usnews.com

Mariel Richter

“To secure peace is to prepare for war,” sang Metallica in their famous 1990s “Don’t Tread on Me” song. To their credit, they were certainly not prescient enough to engage in the absolute mess that is today’s global political situation, for lack of a politer term. And yet, this is the very argument frequently cited by those supportive of the defense industries’ arming oppressive regimes, particularly in the Middle East. The logic follows that, in order to secure peace in the Middle East and to secure our resource in that region, we must arm these nations with weapons. The clear boost to the U.S. economy is merely the icing on the cake.

This pro-security argument has been resurrected to defend the apparently very controversial subject of arms sales (more on that later) in the midst of what is a non-stop media barrage of terror images originating from the neighbors of our biggest and most loyal customers. In a markedly different strategy than that of the past, when Israel was the only darling of Middle East, nations in the Arabian Gulf have quietly transformed their militaries, emerging from symbolic air fleets and national flying clubs to actual threats. These full-force militaries have been made over completely, with the U.S. as the makeup artist, gingerly sweeping highlighter over the crest of the Arabian spending budgets’ defined, yet hollow cheeks. An $80 billion weapons investment on the part of the Saudi Arabian government has left many people perplexed.

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which tracks global military spending, among other things, published reports stating that not only did Middle East arms imports raise by 61 percent between 2006-10 and 2011-15. Quatar’s imports rose 279 percent in only half a decade, according to SIPRI. Fun names of “peaceful” weapons like the Hellfire anti-tank missiles and Boeing’s telling C-17A Globemaster-III heavy transport aircraft have been acquired by Qatar, amassing a whopping $655 million worth of weapons and military hardware in 2015 alone. When was the last time you saw a triple digit increase related to sales? Certainly not in my neck of the finance woods. But defense contracting is another animal entirely, an exotic lion or falcon rather than a scruffy mixed breed available by way of the Humane Society. These are the weapons you need connections and high-end titles to view. Unless you’re a U.S. charity case, however. We seem to be extremely charitable lately!

Yemen and Saudi Arabia use F-15 fighter jets purchased from Boeing, while the UAE is decked out in Lockheed Martin’s F-16s. Even the way America sells weapons in the Middle East has changed drastically in the past year. Lockheed Martin is currently the largest U.S. defense contractor and it is worth noting that their business contributes 125,000 jobs in the United States and abroad. Their economic influence, among their peers, cannot be underestimated or ruled out when weighing the pros and cons of harsher arms sale laws.

Lockheed Martin (located in our own Bellevue, Nebraska) did not respond with comment at this time, but there is no doubt the general defense firm sentiment must be one of abject glee. This Middle East shopping spree is set to fund Middle Eastern proxy wars for years to come. The resource rich and conflict-full Middle East has not always had this unlimited access to the treasure trove of U.S. goodies. Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper write for the New York Times, saying that while the U.S. has always prioritized the health and wealth of Israel’s position in the Middle East, President Obama’s administration has extended that definition, for better or for worse, to include unofficial allies that see Iran as a threat. And by Iran, we do mean anyone allied with the Shiite sect of Islam, as that has become our curious target amidst the predominately Sunni terrorists in recent media.

Where is the discussion?

In a 24-hour news environment such as ours in the West, we have an unfortunate lack of discussion about the controversial realm of arms trade. Political pundits and thought leaders rave about the perils of ISIS and other threats to national security. They theorize in detail the causes of terrorist behavior, the modus operandi for mass shooters, the constant turmoil in the Middle East. And yet, the topic of arms sales and its role in these conflicts is relegated to discussions about domestic firearm scales. Rarely is there a mention of the role U.S. arms exports play in supporting proxy wars in the Middle East.

When I reached out for comment to professors, mainly at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), I received near immediate E-mail replies stating politely that arms sales is not their area of expertise and might I try someone else? As it turns out, no one I spoke to actually has expertise in arms sales. Perhaps because you would need to be a government worker or a defense firm worker to be considered an expert. Nonetheless, my prodding for mere insight into the global implications were met with cold resistance. Clearly, this is a subject that many do not feel comfortable speaking about, even in the capacity of a student assignment.

In her well thought-out research on the role of economic reliance in defense contracting, University of Washington Assistant Professor, Rebecca U. Thorpe, explains that she did not even use interviews in her research and it was still a very arduous process. The majority of her research came from the Federal Procurement Data System and the annual contracting data for the top U.S. defense industries. She mused at how difficult it will be to acquire reliable contracting data within war zones and recommended I file a FOIA request to see if these data are classified. Perhaps this illustrates the hesitance to discuss the complicated topic at hand.

The discussion surrounding arms is certainly not as flashy as some topics we see daily. As an example, I Googled “ISIS threat to America” and returned 13,200,000 results in 0.55 seconds, ranging from “ISIS: The Threat to the United States” and “Yes, the ISIS threat to America is very real.” A very different picture is painted by media sources when one searches, “us defense spending middle east,” returning 2,570,000 results in 0.57 seconds.

The fear mongering warnings are nowhere to be found. In their stead, you can find the top result as, “Trends in US Military Spending” and “Military Spending and Arms Sales,” which discusses neither the ethical quality of reporting on arms sales, and instead launches into a comparison about how much more monetary opportunity Arabian countries present to the sale of arms compared to Iran.

In an interview with Dr. Kilinc, UNO’s Political Science Assistant Professor and Director of Islamic Studies Program, Kilinc prefaced that while he is not an expert on arms sales, he does have some thoughts regarding the general political climate that makes their sale possible. Kilinc asserts that the mutual relationship between the U.S. and Gulf Arab monarchies is one of security dependence. “These monarchies represent the status quo and the countries surrounding them (Iran, Iraq, Syria) all had revolutionary changes in the past,” says Kilinc.

This claim is certainly supported by the recent military involvement of Saudi Arabia in the Shiite Houthi rebellion of Yemen; since the threat has appeared, Saudi Arabia has bulked their military support. Kilinc also makes the point of how U.S. presence in the gulf countries actually enhances U.S. presence in the Middle East. Mutual dependence is a large factor concerning the U.S. sale of arms in the Middle East, as well as controlling the flow of oil from the Middle East to Europe and America.

At what cost?

The clear financial benefit of U.S. arms sales in the Middle East and other developing nations is unquestionable—it provides much-needed financial stimulation for the U.S. economy and it benefits the militaries and goals of the purchasing countries. Selling weapons to a country like Saudi Arabia, for instance, who beheads people found guilty of drug use, begs the moral question of how interested we are in preserving security in the face of extremely oppressive regimes who’s laws directly contradict the spirit of the U.S. Constitution and even the Geneva Code, as well as unofficial standards for basic human rights.

We are selling weapons to a country who beheads its citizens to defeat a rebel group who beheads its captives. There are ways to support Middle Eastern countries’ modernization initiatives that do not include embroiling the United States in decades’ long conflicts, furthering endangering our own citizenry with increased terror threats. Business can be regulated ethically without restricting the positive impacts of sales and commerce.


  1. Wow, Mariel, I just want to commend you on writing such a fantastic editorial! I greatly appreciate your diligence, your ability to capture both sides of the issue, and your inspiring courage for stepping forward to shine a light on this moral quandary we find ourselves in now with the military-industrial complex. We must ask ourselves, “Do we favor profit over people?” and “Does this really enhance or threaten the United States’ national security?”

    After all, President Eisenhower tried to warn us in his Farewell Address in 1961:
    “A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction…

    This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.”


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