The business of doing arms

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Most media reported it rather matter-of-factly. Washington over the next decade will supply its regional allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and several other Gulf States with $63 billion worth of advanced weaponry in addition to what these countries normally spend on military equipment. According to Condoleezza Rice, this extra weaponry is needed to counter the growing threat of Iran and Syria.

“We have a lot of interests in common: the fight against terrorism and extremism; protecting the gains of peace processes of the past and in extending those gains to peace processes of the future,” stated Rice. Selling arms to bring peace is the ultimate Orwellian double-speak, which by its very nature should raise suspicions that perhaps more is at play.

Let us have a closer look at the alleged threat by comparing some figures: With a 2005 defense budget of $4.9 billion, Iran ranked 32nd among the world’s spenders on military hardware, according to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, while Syria had a budget of some $2 billion. That same list was topped by the US with a 2005 defense budget of $450 billion — 43% of the world’s total expenditure — which in 2008 is set to increase to $643 billion. The Americans were followed at some distance by China (6%), Russia (6%), UK (5%), Japan (4%) and France (4%). Saudi Arabia ranked 9th with a budget of $20 billion (2%).

The US plus NATO represent 75% of the global budget. Add to that America’s regional allies and their arsenals and you got a lot of firepower, more than a hundred times than that Iran and Syria combined. Now, even if Iran and Syria represent a serious and potentially nuclear threat, these numbers simply do not add up. Other motives must be at play. It may just be that war with Iran is on the horizon, but it could just be business.

There are over 1,000 arms manufacturers worldwide. According to Defense News, the 2006 market leaders were Lockheed Martin with defense revenues of some $36 billion, followed by Boeing ($30.8 billion), British BAE Systems ($25 billion), Northrop Grumman ($23 billion) and Raytheon ($19 billion). Of the world’s 100 biggest producers, more than half are American.

Their influence on domestic and foreign policy has a proud legacy. In his farewell speech on January 17, 1961, US President Eisenhower warned: “We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. We annually spend more on military security than the net income of all US corporations. We recognize the need for this development. Yet, 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.”

The market has no morals, so the world’s free market gurus claim, and America’s military industry is an industry as any other, one that seeks to promote its interests, sell its products and increase profits. Thus, to gain influence, weapons manufacturers contribute to the election campaigns of Republicans and Democrats, and individual politicians. They also hire PR and advertisement firms to promote their products and recently convinced US senators to replace the entire F15 fleet with F22 fighter jets, with a price tag of $135 million each.

Take the following fragment, which would suit any neo-con speech, yet stems from a Lockheed Martin promotional video: “Civilized society is under siege. The world is populated by renegade nations and extremist factions willing to use any method available to spread their beliefs. These potential enemies continue to modernize and upgrade their military capabilities.” Conclusion: civilized society must arm itself.

So, here you have an arms dealer mingling in political theory, while in pursue of its commercial interests, which are not necessarily in tune with the well-being of the US or other nations. According to the US Congressional Report “Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations,” the US sold 36% of all conventional weapons to the world’s developing nations, while the five Security Council members plus Germany exported 75% of all arms destined for the developing world.

When the Cold War came to an end in 1989, many thought the arms race would end. Global trade declined from $1 trillion to $800 billion in the mid-1990s, yet today it is well beyond Cold War heights. Interestingly, the increase started way before 9/11 in 1998, when Bill Clinton lifted a ban on arms transfers to Latin America. Why?

“Chile doesn’t need F-16s,” Jimmy Carter explained. “But if Chile spent a large portion of its free budget funds on F-16s, it’s almost inevitable that Argentina would have to buy F-16s just for some future contingency. This would then spread to Brazil. And the first thing you know, South America will be covered with F-16s and other advanced weaponry, electronics, defense techniques to defend yourself against F-16s.” And as soon as everyone has F16s, we need F22s!

Peter Speetjens

Peter Speetjens is a Dutch journalist & analyst based in Brazil.