Three months into the Trump administration and President Trump has used arms sales to support security priorities and demonstrate a commitment to industry. Yet it remains unclear how and to what extent arms sales will be used as a tool of Trump’s foreign and defense policies.
Recent actions, however, appear to suggest that human rights will no longer be a priority for advancing or withholding U.S. arms sales and thereby supporting larger U.S. foreign policy interests. Indeed, since taking office, the Trump administration has pushed forward (but Congress has yet to fully review) arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Nigeria that were previously put on hold by the Obama administration due to human rights concerns. The rationale behind these decisions to provide U.S. weapons to consistent human rights violators is largely based on counterterrorism priorities and the view that these arms transfers will significantly support campaigns against terrorist groups. But there is scant evidence that allowing these arms sales will contribute to U.S. strategic goals and objectives and will not result in further human rights abuses and civilian suffering. For example, the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen has resulted in devastating impacts on the Yemeni civilian population. The campaign, undertaken with U.S. supplied weapons, has consistently struck civilian targets and could help fuel anti-American sentiment and play into terrorist groups’ narrative, ultimately working against larger interests in working to stabilize the country and end the conflict.
The Trump administration is also trying to change the bureaucratic process surrounding arms sales to foreign governments. Reportedly, the Trump administration is considering replacing foreign military financing (FMF) grants with loans. The Trump administration seems to believe that having governments pay back their weapons purchases will save the United States money in the long run. However, such thinking fundamentally misunderstands the intent of the FMF program. FMF enables foreign governments to use U.S. government grants to purchase U.S. weapons primarily through the Foreign Military Sales program. The program is often used to support foreign militaries that would otherwise be unable to purchase U.S. systems and is often cited as a crucial means to promote national security interests. Indeed, FMF allows foreign partners and allies to acquire U.S. equipment – which is often more expensive than systems from other countries – and thus augment their own military capabilities while fostering stronger security relations with the United States.
Additionally, because FMF funds are almost exclusively reserved for the procurement of U.S. weapons and equipment, the program supports U.S. industry. As Andrew Shapiro, former Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs under the Obama administration, aptly noted in commentary for Defense News, the FMF program “helps maintain the U.S. defense-industrial base, it helps lower the cost for the U.S. to buy systems if there is a broader base of sales, and that impacts jobs and communities.” Should the administration follow through with converting grants to loans, it could harm U.S. industry and lead business into other markets that offer less expensive alternatives, such as those maintained by Russia and China. In its budget blueprint, the administration stated that the shift to loans would “potentially [allow] recipients to purchase more American-made weaponry with U.S. assistance, but on a repayable basis.” But why would buyers pay for systems they used to get for free, and in fact pay more than if they were to seek military equipment from other suppliers?
The Trump administration’s initial arms sales efforts may work to weaken long-standing U.S. policy priorities regarding conventional arms transfers. In the short term, Trump’s policy decisions are minimizing the extent to which human rights concerns are taken into consideration. In the long-term, these arms sales may result in continued sales to a wider scope of actors with poor records of good governance. Additionally, in seeking changes to grant programs, Trump’s policies may undercut U.S. industry. Such decisions could ultimately backfire on U.S. interests, both economically and politically, and leave an arms trade legacy that risks negative consequences for years to come.
This article originally appeared in Forum on the Arms Trade on April 25, 2017.