Donald Trump, Gunrunner for Hire
The administration is fulfilling the National Rifle Association’s wildest dreams.
YESTERDAY 12:04 PM
Then–Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the National Rifle Association in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 20, 2016. (Reuters / John Sommers II)
merican weapons makers have dominated the global arms trade for decades. In any given year, they’ve accounted for somewhere between one-third and more than one-half the value of all international weapons sales. It’s hard to imagine things getting much worse—or better, if you happen to be an arms trader—but they could, and soon, if a new Trump rule on firearms exports goes through.
But let’s hold off a moment on that and assess just how bad it’s gotten before even worse hits the fan. Until recently, the Trump administration had focused its arms-sales policies on the promotion of big-ticket items like fighter planes, tanks, and missile-defense systems around the world. Trump himself has loudly touted US weapons systems just about every time he’s had the chance, whether amid insults to allies at the recent NATO summit or at a chummy White House meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose brutal war in Yemen is fueled by US-supplied arms.
A recent presidential export policy directive, in fact, specifically instructs American diplomats to put special effort into promoting arms sales, effectively turning them into agents for the country’s largest weapons makers. As an analysis by the Security Assistance Monitor at the Center for International Policy has noted, human rights, and even national-security concerns have taken a back seat to creating domestic jobs via such arms sales. Evidence of this can be found in, for example, the ending of Obama administration arms sales suspensions to Nigeria, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. The first of those had been imposed because of the way the Nigerian government repressed its own citizens; the second for Bahrain’s brutal crackdown on the democracy movement there; and the last for Saudi Arabia’s commission of acts that one member of Congress has said “look like war crimes” in its Yemeni intervention.
Fueling death and destruction, however, turns out not to be a particularly effective job creator. Such military spending actually generates significantly fewer jobs per dollar than almost any other kind of investment. In addition, many of those jobs will actually be located overseas, thanks to production-sharing deals with weapons-purchasing countries like Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and other US allies. To cite an example, one of the goals of Saudi Arabia’s economic reform plan—unveiled in 2017—is to ensure that, by 2030, half the value of the kingdom’s arms purchases will be produced in Saudi Arabia. US firms have scrambled to comply, setting up affiliates in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and in the case of Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky unit, agreeing to begin assembling military helicopters there. McClatchy news service summed up the situation in this headline: “Trump’s Historic Arms Deal Is a Likely Jobs Creator—In Saudi Arabia.”
For most Americans, there should be serious questions about the economic benefits of overseas arms sales, but if you’re a weapons maker looking to pump up sales and profits, the Trump approach has already been a smashing success. According to the head of the Pentagon’s arms sales division, known euphemistically as the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the Department of Defense has brokered agreements for sales of major systems worth $46 billion in the first six months of 2018, more than the $41 billion in deals made during all of 2017.
And that, it seems, is just the beginning.
SLOW MOTION WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION
Yes, those massive sales of tanks, helicopters, and fighter aircraft are indeed a grim wonder of the modern world and never receive the attention they truly deserve. However, a potentially deadlier aspect of the US weapons trade receives even less attention than the sale of big-ticket items: the export of firearms, ammunition, and related equipment. Global arms control advocates have termed such small arms and light weaponry—rifles, automatic and semi-automatic weapons, and handguns—“slow motion weapons of mass destruction” because they’re the weapons of choice in the majority of the 40 armed conflicts now underway around the world. They and they alone have been responsible for nearly half of the roughly 200,000 violent deaths by weapon that have been occurring annually both in and outside of official war zones.
And the Trump administration is now moving to make it far easier for US gun makers to push such wares around the world. Consider it an irony, if you will, but in doing so, the president who has staked his reputation on rejecting everything that seems to him tainted by Barack Obama is elaborating on a proposal originally developed in the Obama years.
The crucial element in the new plan: to move key decisions on whether or not to export guns and ammunition abroad from the State Department’s jurisdiction, where they would be vetted on both human rights and national security grounds, to the Commerce Department, whose primary mission is promoting national exports.
The Violence Policy Center, a research and advocacy organization that seeks to limit gun deaths, has indicated that such a move would ease the way for more exports of a long list of firearms. Those would include sniper rifles and AR-15s, the now-classic weapon in US mass killings like the school shootings in Parkland, Florida, and Newtown, Connecticut. Under the new plan, the careful tracking of whose hands such gun exports could end up in will be yesterday’s news and, as a result, US weapons are likely to become far more accessible to armed gangs, drug cartels, and terrorist operatives.
President Trump’s plan would even eliminate the requirement that Congress be notified in advance of major firearms deals, which would undoubtedly prove to be the arms loophole of all time. According to statistics gathered by the Security Assistance Monitor, which gathers comprehensive information on US military and police aid programs, the State Department approved $662 million worth of firearms exports to 15 countries in 2017. The elimination of Congressional notifications and the other proposed changes will mean that countries like Mexico, the Philippines, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as various Central American nations, will have far easier access to a far wider range of US firearms with far less Congressional oversight. And that, in turn, means that US-supplied weapons will play even more crucial roles in vicious civil wars like the one in Yemen and are far more likely to make their way into the hands of local thugs, death squads, and drug cartels.