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.