Calvin Coolidge once famously remarked that “the business of America is business.” Now that statement has become a tautology. But it needs to be updated: today, the business of America is war. Today’s NY Times published an article portraying the escalating arms race in the Middle East that’s been fueled by the Yemen civil war. Numerous Gulf States (largely Sunni), Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and their arsenals have been deployed against Shiite forces there. Though the Houthis in Yemen do not receive massive amounts of arms or funding from Iran, given the exploding armory of weapons being wielded in fighting there, that could change momentarily:
To wage war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is using F-15 fighter jets bought from Boeing. Pilots from the United Arab Emirates are flying Lockheed Martin’s F-16 to bomb both Yemen and Syria. Soon, the Emirates are expected to complete a deal with General Atomics for a fleet of Predator drones to run spying missions in their neighborhood.
As the Middle East descends into proxy wars, sectarian conflicts and battles against terrorist networks, countries in the region that have stockpiled American military hardware are now actually using it and wanting more. The result is a boom for American defense contractors looking for foreign business in an era of shrinking Pentagon budgets — but also the prospect of a dangerous new arms race in a region where the map of alliances has been sharply redrawn.
We’re selling not billions, but tens, if not hundreds of billions in armaments to these states:
Saudi Arabia spent more than $80 billion on weaponry last year — the most ever, and more than either France or Britain — and has become the world’s fourth-largest defense market, according to figures released last week by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks global military spending. The Emirates spent nearly $23 billion last year, more than three times what they spent in 2006.
Qatar, another gulf country with bulging coffers and a desire to assert its influence around the Middle East, is on a shopping spree. Last year, Qatar signed an $11 billion deal with the Pentagon to purchase Apache attack helicopters and Patriot and Javelin air-defense systems. Now the tiny nation is hoping to make a large purchase of Boeing F-15 fighters to replace its aging fleet of French Mirage jets.
It’s a veritable fire sale. To reframe the slogan of Field of Dreams: “if you bring it, they will buy.” And this is no dream. Rather it’s a nightmare for the civilians caught up in the massive devastation caused by this arms race.
To understand the sordid history of proxy wars and foreign military intervention, we should go back to the Spanish civil war. Then, the Republicans were supported by the Soviet Union and sympathetic leftists in America and Europe, who came to fight in the International Brigades. The fascists were supported by Nazi Germany, then at the height of its military build-up before World War II. Hitler saw the conflict in Spain as an excellent opportunity to test both his military strategic concepts and new weapons systems. Thus, the Luftwaffe took to the skies to devastating effect, especially in places like Guernica, memorialized in Picasso’s painting.
The United States during World War II confined the arming of its allies to Great Britain. Proliferation didn’t become a major issue until the Cold War, when we stationed tens of thousands of our troops in West Germany and began placing our nuclear missiles in Europe to deter possible Russian attack. This turned the continent into a proxy battlefield between the two great ideological powers of the day. Luckily, European civilians weren’t made actual victims of this conflict since the Russians and Americans managed to constrain their rivalry.
After World War II, our occupation of Japan made it into a protectorate of sorts. Our military alliance there has remained strong with tens of thousands of troops still stationed in Okinawa. Following the Korean War, a similar American engagement has alternately acted as both a stabilizing force and irritant to both our hosts and those we oppose (mainly China). Additionally, Taiwan became another protectorate to whom we offered our weapons to protect them from Chinese encroachment.
But in no region has American military intervention served a more damaging role than in the Middle East. After Britain, France and Israel attacked Nasser in 1956, he turned away from the west to the Soviet Union for military support. That, in turn, led the U.S. to lend its support to Israel. The fruition of this policy didn’t become fully apparent until the 1973 War, when Israel, in the midst of its counter-attack against Egyptian forces which had crossed the Suez Canal, nearly ran out of ammunition. A massive U.S. airlift followed which single-handedly allowed Israel to successfully drive the Egyptians back across the Canal and led eventually to a ceasefire.
Since then, the U.S. has provided its most advanced weaponry to Israel. We’ve also collaborated with Israel on building new weapons systems like Iron Dome. Whenever Israel decides to go to war it knows America has its back. We supply the F-16s, the Apache helicopters, the cluster munitions. Hell, without knowing it, American even provided the uranium to make Israel’s first nuclear weapons. Israel has used our weapons in wars with virtually all the frontline states: Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and now Gaza.
Because Americans, until recently, have seen Israel as an ally existentially threatened by its Arab enemies, only lonely dissenters have ever questioned the use of U.S. munitions to pummel largely civilian targets in places like Lebanon and Gaza. A small number of NGOs have called for the end of military aid to Israel. But that is beginning to change.
Our weapons tore up other countries in the region as well. In the 1970s, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the mujahadeen became out poster children. It was there we turned Osama bin Laden into the monster he later became. Our rockets shot down Russian MiGs. But after the Russians left, the Afghans turned our weapons on each other and the country became a wasteland.
When we returned in 2001 to topple Bin Laden’s Taliban friends, many of those same mujahadeen who resisted Russian occupation turned against our invasion. For centuries, going all the way back to Alexander, they’d fought against foreign invaders. They continue to fight us to this very day, though our troops are no longer there in such force.
Our 2003 invasion of Iraq which toppled Sadaam Hussein followed a similar trajectory. Just as the mujahadeen had been our allies against our common Russian enemy, Sadaam had been our ally in his fight against Iran. We hated the ayatollahs because of the humiliation they subjected us to in the 1979 hostage crisis. Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld eagerly showered the Iraqis with weapons used to slaughter 1-million Iranian boys and men. But when we came back to Iraq, Saddam wasn’t our friend. He was our enemy. So after we overthrew him we dismantled his Baath Party, the only political force able to hold the raging ethnic factions together.
As a result, we were forced to sit back and watch Sunnis and Shiites, and to a lesser degree Kurds, take out their ancient grudges against each other as rivers of blood washed through neighborhoods and tens of thousands of corpses floated down rivers. It was all our doing. We came thinking we knew so much about how to instill Middle Eastern democracy. Instead, we set neighbor against neighbor and brought rival Muslim sects to each others’ throats.
Now, we propose to work the same “magic” in a new region of conflict, Yemen. Think of all those shiny new U.S.-made weapons in the hands of all those oil sheikhs like little boys with a new toy. They’re eager to see what that baby can do. What better place than that godforsaken strip of desert called Yemen. It has none of the wealth or power of the Gulf States. It’s still a largely tribal society with little of the appurtenances of foreign influence. Just as Gaza is Israel’s punching bag whenever an Israeli leader is in need of someone to beat up, so Yemen has become Saudi Arabia’s.
There are a few sane voices speaking out against this incipient military madness:
“A good number of the American arms that have been used in Yemen by the Saudis have been used against civilian populations,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, an assertion that Saudi Arabia denies.
Mr. Kimball said he viewed the increase in arms sales to the region “with a great deal of trepidation, as it is leading to an escalation in the type and number and sophistication in the weaponry in these countries.”
Returning to Iran, it isn’t sitting around waiting for all this new armament trove to find its way to Tehran. It’s spending $800-million on the Russian S-300 air defense system which can protect (to an extent) from F-16s that might attack from Israel or elsewhere. Nor are the Gulf States content with allowing Iran to get the latest toy from their Russian patrons. The Sunni sheikhs are lining up to buy the F-35, whose stealth capability may allow it to circumvent the S-300’s air-defense capability. You can see where this leads, can’t you?
Israel is delighted with the Sunni network fighting in Yemen. Any enemy of Iran is a friend of Israel. The latter doesn’t have many friends in the world. This is why it’s worked so diligently to build up tacit alliances with the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia and more explicit ones with Egypt. These states will join Israel in confronting Iran (or so it hopes). Not to mention, when Arabs are fighting each other they’re not fighting Israel. Besides, when Sunnis fight Shia they can’t put pressure on Israel to solve its conflict with the Palestinians (or Lebanon or Syria, for that matter). Yes, when the blood running in the streets is Arab, it’s a godsend.
Let’s raise another important consideration: today’s friend is tomorrow’s foe. Look at Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war, etc. Without doubt, one of these countries with whom we are now allied will turn against us in five or ten years. Or perhaps two countries now participating in this Sunni alliance will turn against each other. The same weapons we now sell them to fight Houthis may, and will, be turned against each other. It’s not a question of if this will happen, but when.
Not to mention that any one of these countries could turn, like Iran, into a new arch enemy of Israel. Then these same weapons could be turned on our ally.
Finally, American miltiary intervention is almost universally deadly in the Middle East. We’ve been responsible for the deaths of millions in the past decade. Why do we continue with policies which have failed so miserably? Do you remember Obama’s “famed” Cairo speech of 2008? We were going to bring a new form of engagement to the Arab world. One not based on military might or dictating our political views or values. We were going to treat the Arab states as partners.
Whatever happened to that Obama? How did he turn into the president whose sole policy seems to be sending drones to kill Islamists and many unarmed civilians? Now, he wants to become the president who presided over a U.S. weapons fire sale there. The leader who confirmed that America’s become “War Inc.”
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.