Big Dollars at Stake In Western Arms Sales to Autocrats

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By TIME contributor Mark Benjamin

Short of nuclear weapons technology, international arms sales don’t tend to attract too much public scrutiny. One exception is when it becomes painfully clear that those sales are helping to prop up brutal autocrats who suppress their citizens and when those weapons are allegedly put to use by autocrats to kill citizens who seek democracy.

The United States is now reviewing billions in military assistance and weapons sales to countries caught up in the whirlwind of protests and revolts in the Middle East, according to the Wall Street Journal. A law called the Leahy Amendment requires the United States to review arms sales to security forces committing human rights violations.

There are big dollars at stake. The Journal says Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and Jordan are expected to spend $70 billion on defense this year. The Obama administration has pushed hard for those arms sales in an effort to isolate Iran, a strategy that looks increasingly like choosing one autocrat over another. The paper says military officials think Washington could always cut off the spigot by refusing to send spare parts for those weapons should an unfriendly regime take control. The same article, however, notes that Iran still flies U.S. fighters provided to the Shah, who fell from power in 1979.

The United States’ arms deals aren’t the only ones looking short-sighted in light of the protests in the Middle East. A Feb. 17 report from the British arms control group Campaign Against Arms Trade says that in 2010, the U.K. approved arms exports to Bahrain of “tear gas and crowd control ammunition, equipment for the use of aircraft cannons, assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles and sub-machine guns.” The group says the British government also approved millions in exports to Libya of “wall and door breaching projectile launchers, crowd control ammunition, small arms ammunition, tear gas/irritant ammunition, training tear gas/irritant ammunition.”

Al Jazeera reported Tuesday that the U.K. had canceled some sales “after a warning from a legal adviser to the UN Commission on Human Rights who suggested that Britain may be found guilty of ‘complicity’ for the killings of protesters by Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.”