Arms Deals Are Bad Deals

By Tom H. Hastings

When the US gives arms to other nations, that is touted as diplomacy. If so, diplomacy needs a major makeover. 

In 1978, against all predictions of success, Jimmy Carter sought to bring peace to the Middle East/North Africa (MENA). Others had presumed to try and had miserably failed, with all manner of wars featuring Egypt and others attacking Israel or Israel attacking them. 

From 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, those nations seemed to jump into the buzzsaw of war more than once every 10 years. 

Carter sought, and got, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to join him at Camp David to see if they could manage to prevent the next war, at least between Egypt and Israel. Sadat hated Begin. Begin loathed Sadat. What could go wrong?

Begin had a history as a terrorist. True. Against British officers, but also against random civilians in the area. He led the bombing plot that succeeded in killing many of them in the King David Hotel in 1946. If anything, that seemed to make him more attractive to Israelis, who saw that as part of their war of liberation, not a campaign of terror. 

Begin was a master of setting low expectations and promising little, while working hard to deliver more. He said he saw Carter’s talks as just preliminary discussions toward when to have more detailed negotiations.

Sadat was a more cosmopolitan, relaxed, fashionable leader, prepared to go big if it worked to the advantage of Egypt. 

Carter patiently worked with their teams for 13 days, staying there, not leaving in the sort of Attention Deficit Disorder that plagued other American would-be deal brokers in the past and would again in the future. In the end, they succeeded and the peace between Israel and Egypt has held ever since. Sounds like a win-win, right?

Not so much. There are long-range negative consequences to elements of the side deals that continue to this day and have cost many lives. It all relates to arms transfers–the sale or giving of weapons and munitions as diplomatic carrots. In the case of the vaunted Nobel Peace Prize-winning Camp David Accords, the malevolent aspect was the weapons aid Carter promised to both Israel and Egypt, aid the US has kept up ever since, arming both countries and assuring that many innocent lives would be lost. 

With its advanced weapons from the US, Israel inflicts mass civilian damage on Palestine from time to time. For example, during Operation Cast Lead it killed more than 1400 Palestinians, many of them children and other noncombatants, while Israel suffered only 13 mortalities, a 100:1 ratio that has been typical of such armed conflicts. That is structural violence at its worst. This is only possible because of the “peace” deal brokered by Jimmy Carter.

Egypt had made the rights of Palestinians a trumpeted centerpiece of its deal at Camp David. I would assert that the results did not benefit Palestinians whatsoever. 

And Sadat may have been a bit liberal compared to Egyptian leaders before and since, but all the weaponry that Carter offered him to induce the success of the Camp David talks has also been used to oppress people–especially Egyptians themselves–and to empower increasingly dictatorial Egyptian leaders. That oppression led to Arab Spring but Arab Spring was unraveled by the well-armed (by the US) Egyptian military and now it is a military dictatorship.

Perhaps Carter could not have foreseen those terrible outcomes of his efforts to bring peace to the region. But after this sort of thing plays out in the MENA, in Central Asia, in Colombia, and elsewhere, diplomats and other international negotiators should know better.

We’ve been here again and again. Arms to Saudi Arabia to make them happy. Then they decimated Yemen, turning a poor country into the worst humanitarian crisis on earth, thanks to weapons and munitions marked Made In America. Meanwhile, US humanitarian aid to Yemen, while helpful, is a snowball thrown into a hell created in part by US arms sent to the region.

Why does all this happen? Is it misplaced altruism?

Oh HTTFN (Hell To The F___ No). This is the arms industry, controlling State, controlling Congress, controlling it all the way to the US presidency.

The biggest obscenely profitable war profiteering corporations benefit enormously whether the US sells weapons or gives them. It all means cost-plus, no-bid contracts for them. The enormity of the grift and the bloodshed is staggering. It’s bipartisan. Trump bragged about his arms deals with Saudi Arabia and Biden is quieter but doing the very same.

Who pays for it?

We do. US taxpayers pay for every nickel in arms aid to Ukraine and many other countries, and it just means the war profiteers are rolling in profits that are reminiscent of what former Office of Management and Budget David Stockman meant when he told a reporter, “The hogs are really feeding now.”

They are feeding off your elder health care. 

They are feeding off your student loans. 

They are feeding off your sketchy infrastructure. 

They take what is withheld from your income at paycheck time and they divert it to war profiteers.

And they are the ones most responsible for the ballooning federal debt and deficit. Congress can fuss all day long over inane culture war issues that are less than a rounding error in the federal budget, but the real theft from all of us who work for a living is from the war profiteer corporations. Congress can pretend that Social Security and Medicare are making us impoverished but it is the contractor corporations who take more than anyone from our paychecks, quite literally. 

Only the American people can correct this. It will not be done by those we’ve elected so far, with some noteworthy exceptions. Change it up. Bring in those who are actually committed to fixing this. 

This is not naive. This is the new realpolitik.

When American diplomats are dealing with trying to bring peace, they have much more than US weaponry to offer. Much much more. They can offer humanitarian aid. They can offer increased refugee numbers accepted into our country. They can offer many opportunities to foreign students to study here or support for decent universities in the warring nations once they make peace. They can offer better trade terms. There are many carrots, many inducements. 

The sticks should be economic and reputational. For example, the US might tell a belligerent nation to stick with the agreement you signed and you will gain, or if you don’t you will be punished economically by the majority of countries and your reputation will suffer.

In short, coercion is not limited to violence and arms never need to be any sort inducement. This should be a law. Congress? Come in, Congress…

Seriously, if it were a law we wouldn’t waste our immense resources approving the $60 billion in military aid to Ukraine (so far). We would instead busy ourselves with finding those who can devise a solution through honest peace talks. 

This is how peace came to places like Liberia and to the Philippines. Other gains besides weaponry can bring the parties to agreement. 

The US is the number one supplier of weapons and munitions in the world. We are not helping by doing this. We are producing more death, more repression, more war. This can, and should, change.

Dr. Tom H. Hastings is Coördinator of Conflict Resolution BA/BS degree programs and certificates at Portland State University, PeaceVoice Senior Editor, and on occasion an expert witness for the defense of civil resisters in court. 

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