U.S. Leads the World in Sale of Military Goods

As insecurity mounts from Najaf to New Orleans, more weapons and high-tech military equipment are flowing into some of the globe’s most vulnerable and war-torn regions.

The Congressional Research Service recently found that global arms sales rose to $37 billion in 2004 — the highest level since 2000.

U.S. companies such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing rang up $12.4 billion in weapons contracts — more than one-third of the total and more than twice what Russia — the second largest exporter — sold.

The Departments of State, Commerce and Defense are all involved in different aspects of approving licenses, managing logistics and (in many cases) loaning or granting funds to nations as they seek weapons from U.S. corporations.

The findings, published in the annual “Conventional Weapons Transfers to Developing Nations” report, were released against the backdrop of the global war on terror in which many countries are increasing military spending as insecurity rises.

They also came in the wake of rampant and irresponsible use of guns in the hurricane-ravaged Southeast that hindered aid delivery, increased tension and led to more misery and suffering. The U.S. policy of arming friends and allies is alarming

The U.S. has a long-standing (and accelerating) policy of arming, training and aiding some of the world’s most repressive regimes.

Close anti-terrorism allies include the authoritarian Uzbekistan and the thinly veiled military dictatorship of Gen. Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan.

In the Philippines, Colombia and elsewhere, U.S. weapons and military training have been turned against civilians. From Indonesia to the Sudan, U.S. geopolitical interests and access to resources are trumping concerns about human rights, ongoing conflict and the pressing need for development.

The U.S. transfers more weapons and military services than any other country in the world. In the last decade, the U.S. sold $177.5 billion in arms to foreign nations. In 2003, the last year for which full data is available, the Pentagon and State Department delivered or licensed the delivery of $5.7 billion in weaponry to countries which can ill afford advanced weaponry — nations in the developing world saddled with debt and struggling with poverty.

Despite having some of the world’s strongest laws regulating the arms trade, almost half of these weapons went to countries plagued with ongoing conflict and governed by undemocratic regimes with poor human rights records. In 2003, $2.7 billion in weaponry went to governments deemed undemocratic by the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Report, in the sense that citizens of those nations “did not have a meaningful right to change their government” in a peaceful manner.

Another $97.4 million in weapons went to governments deemed by the State Department to have “poor” human rights records.

The U.S. transferred weaponry to 18 of the 25 countries involved in active conflicts in 2003, the last year for which full Pentagon data is available. From Chad to Ethiopia, from Algeria to India, transfers to conflict nations through the two largest arms sales programs totaled more than $1 billion.

When poor human rights records, serious patterns of abuse and histories of conflict are all factored in, 20 of the top 25 U.S. arms clients in the developing world in 2003 — a full 80 percent — were either undemocratic regimes or governments with records of major human rights abuses.

That’s unacceptable. It’s time that President Bush begin to honor his pledge to “end tyranny in our world” as part of the war on terrorism by overhauling U.S. weapons transfer policy. Greater global security will follow.

Frida Berrigan is a Foreign Policy In Focus scholar and a senior research associate with the Arms Trade Resource Center, a project of the World Policy Institute.