Home > Iran, Military & Defense, U.S. Foreign Policy > Arms Sales and American Purpose

Arms Sales and American Purpose

Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports often draw attention to major issues in US policy. Just recently a GAO report reached some very disconcerting conclusions about the recent influx of arms sales to the Middle East, particularly the Persian Gulf. As the report stated, “[The] State [Department] and DOD [Department of Defense] did not consistently document how arms transfers to Gulf countries advanced U.S. foreign policy and national security goals for GAO selected cases.” According to the GAO, US policy in the Gulf is fuzzy and weapons won’t necessarily make it any clearer. One can presume what US policy might be but neither the Bush or Obama administrations have felt compelled to articulate it. Real goals, approved means, and ultimate ends are absent by the GAO’s measure.

The report’s conclusions are surprising because the US has historically prioritized the Gulf more so than many other regions. US presidents have appropriated exceptional—even existential—value to the Persian Gulf because of its prized oil reserves: Eisenhower viewed it as a communist-capitalist chessboard; Carter claimed it was a strategic asset the US wouldn’t let foreigners threaten; and Reagan reserved the right to intervene if local enemies challenged the status quo. Apparently Bush and Obama—whose presidencies were/are consumed by Gulf concerns such as Iran’s nuclear program—never armed governments agencies with a policy that could rationalize massive arms sales. The paradox is obvious: the US certainly has a de facto Persian Gulf policy dedicated to curbing Iranian influence. But, by the GAO’s account, this very real policy remains intangible in Foggy Bottom and Arlington.

It’s time to correct this failure of articulation and officially state America’s strategic vision. The United States should do so as soon as December 2010, when the seventh annual Manama Dialogue is held in Bahrain.* The annual Gulf security conference, which is attended by major delegations along with the highest ranks of intelligence and military officialdom, offers the perfect audience for broadcasting American intent. And in keeping with previous presidents, the Obama administration should prepare Secretary of State Clinton’s statements in such a way that they reflect continuity and resolve.

Secretary Clinton should: confirm the Persian Gulf will remain an existential priority after the US withdraws from Iraq; recognize new tools and skills that certain partners will enjoy in the coming years—all of which are provided by the United States; stress that new measures are “reactionary defensive measures” that allow these states to provide for their own security; and coordinate with friendly delegations to create a common vocabulary. Also, any strategic vision would be incomplete if it didn’t account for security, stable markets, and unthreatened seas. What matters most is framing the Gulf as a key asset and promoting weapons sales as empowerment measures which offset Iran’s dubious intent. Not only would this address the concerns voiced by the GAO report, it would encourage allies whose confidence is weakened by America’s expected withdrawals.

The GAO report can’t derail future arms deals but it exposes a key failure in America’s approach to the Persian Gulf: there is no official logic, only a de facto policy. At very little cost the Obama administration could articulate its unstated policy and prove to the region specifically, and the Middle East generally, that America’s presence will not evaporate after Iraq. The US maintains significant interests there which it is prepared to defend in the face of any and all threats, especially Iran.

See the PDF: Download GAO Report 10-918.

* The following countries are sending delegations to the Manama Dialogue in December: Australia, Bahrain, China, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Iraq, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Turkey, UAE, UK, Yemen, and the United States. Iran agreed to attend in September and will send Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.

  1. clay a.
    December 7, 2010 at 2:09 am

    You can blame Robert for asking his friend to comment in support of these blogs, and keep in mind that it is reassuring that there are young Americans that are at least discussing these topics and I commend you for it. With that said…What are you talking about? I don’t think anyone is under the impression that American presence will evaporate in Iraq and anyone that needs Obama to say it is a little naive. Furthermore, could you please explain what you mean when you you say “coordinate with friendly delegations to create a common vocabulary?” Huh? I don’t mean to create personal frustration and I concede that there could very well be an intelligence gap b/w writer and reader but urge you to be more specific or concise about arms sales and its relationship to American presence and American relationship with other nations.

    • December 7, 2010 at 11:33 am

      Clay, thanks for your thoughtful response. The American presence in Iraq is evaporating as we speak and will most likely be terminated by the end of 2011, according to the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement. The US will not maintain permanent bases in the country and even ongoing and serious diplomatic ties are in jeopardy now that congress has cut $500 million from the budget. The problem for the US right now—in the Gulf and elsewhere—is that a decade of war has produced questions about its ability to achieve what it wants. At the same time, conventional wisdom now posits Iran as the ascendant leader of the anti-American camp. I believe that this combination of lingering questions and open challenges is reason enough for the US to restate its case in the Persian Gulf.

      As for “common vocabulary,” this is tricky and I apologize if the logic wasn’t clearer: the US can’t line up Gulf Arab states and gain their explicit support. Authoritarian regimes do care to some extent what their publics believe, and for those in the Gulf, it’s difficult to outright challenge Iran because it is popular on the “Arab street.” What I’m arguing for is a subtler track: a “common vocabulary” would rhetorically isolate Iran by implying that Iran was outside the norm of what Gulf leaders want—which is a nuclear weapons-free zone, unmolested waterways, etc.

      This post ultimately matured into an article on the Washington Note which you might find more complete: http://www.thewashingtonnote.com/archives/2010/12/a_vision_in_man/

      Thanks again Clay. I don’t expect you to agree but I hope it makes more sense now.

  2. clay a.
    December 7, 2010 at 8:48 pm

    I still think that a presence in Iraq will never really evaporate, it will more than likely go unnoticed by the American Public but will always be there. I also believe that a continued presence in Iraq and the middle east is more important to Washington (as a whole) than they are letting on. A presence will continue and will hold value for a long time…I think.

  3. December 7, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    The 2008 SOFA is a binding agreement which dictates US forces must leave by December 31, 2011. Unless that agreement is renegotiated or something replaces it then the US will not have any kind of permanent base beyond training missions, which are not combat-oriented. Yes, the US will remain in the Mid East because so many strategic concerns intersect there, I agree. I’m simply arguing that the US should state its intent since it is faced with new challenges and questions about American primacy. America’s profile will decline by default after the Iraq war—we simply won’t need tens of thousands of soldiers deployed. Because our profile will be smaller, we need to make it clear that withdrawals don’t reflect on our commitment.

  1. November 16, 2010 at 2:23 pm

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