International arms sales represent an enduring and prominent feature of U.S. foreign policy. While proponents generally argue that sales are economically beneficial and necessary to buy the military access to staging grounds and potential partners for operations around the world, a good deal of public money underwrites these deals, and they often drive U.S. foreign policy in costly ways. Researchers at the Cato Institute noted in 2021 that “[o]ver the past 20 years, the White House has sold weapons worth more than $888 billion to 167 countries, including countries mired in conflict, countries whose governments routinely turn weapons on their own people, and countries in which corruption makes it impossible to know where American weapons will wind up being used, or by whom.”
William Hartung of the Quincy Institute found that in roughly two-thirds of armed conflicts between 2017 and 2021—34 out of 46—the United States was arming one or both sides. In some cases, U.S. arms sales to combatants are modest, while in others they play a major role in fueling and sustaining the conflict. In the case of U.S. arms supplied to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the weapons directly enabled the war that started in 2015 and eventually led a majority in Congress to conclude that through U.S. refueling, intelligence sharing, and resupply of munitions and spare parts, the United States had become an active party in the war without explicit congressional authorization.
Despite the failure to cut off the weapons flow in 2019, the effort by Congress to assert control over the Trump Administration in this realm of U.S. foreign policy was refreshing. It was preceded by four decades in which Congress voted on only a handful of arms sales, and it harkened back to an earlier era of a more sentient and assertive Congress, before most senators and representatives grew apathetic about the hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons sales to countries engaged in repression, aggression, or war; before they stopped even trying to block dangerous and ill-advised weapons deals.
Read the full piece in Democracy Journal
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