The Arms Trade: 'You Don’t Get the Full Picture of What a Devastating Trade This Is'

12 August 2016 — FAIR

Janine Jackson interviewed William Hartung about US arms sales for the August 5, 2016, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

William Hartung: “It’s a $70 billion industry, and the US dominates it year after year.”

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Janine Jackson: American media love the rich. Besides constant, assiduous attention to the things they buy and eat and wear, we see lists of the richest people alongside numbers indicating what we straightforwardly refer to as their worth. Of less interest is how the rich got and stay that way.

And the same holds true for corporations, which, of course, are a big part of how rich people got and stay that way. Success is success after all, and for all the tales of a muckraking media, our guest’s experience suggests that when it comes to one of the most stupendously successful US industries, the press corps don’t seem all that eager to look behind the curtain.

William Hartung is director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, and a senior advisor to the Security Assistance Monitor. He’s a regular contributor at, for which his most recent piece is called “There’s No Business Like the Arms Business: Weapons R Us (But You’d Never Know It).” He joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, William Hartung.

William Hartung: Thanks for having me.

JJ: Some listeners may have seen this Lisa Rein piece in the Washington Post recently. It was about how costs for some Defense Department program to maintain vehicles for Afghanistan’s military have doubled to hundreds of millions of dollars, because of some Keystone Kops kind of failures in oversight, and these are costs of course that taxpayers will bear. We hear these kinds of stories sometimes. Some listeners might remember the $640 toilet seat that the Pentagon bought. And we should hear these stories.

But those kinds of stories might leave the impression, not only that things usually go right, but that things going right is cause for celebration. And so it’s very interesting that the focus of your latest piece is on how news media approach the arms industry on a regular day, if you will, and whether that coverage is really commensurate with the power of the industry. What is your sense of that?

WH: Well, it’s a $70 billion industry, and the US dominates it year after year. And a lot of these things, of course, are being used in places like Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, where a lot of groups think they’ve committed war crimes. So you would think this would be a subject ripe for regular coverage. But what usually happens is, the government puts out some statistics every year about who ranks where in the global arms trade. The Times, Washington Post, maybe AP do a story, and other than episodic little mentions in other stories, that’s usually it—which is quite extraordinary, given the impact that the trade has, not just economically but on people’s lives.

JJ: Well, maybe there’s the rub. I mean, in some sense it seems that it is drawing a direct connection between the impact on people’s lives and the industry that maybe journalists on some level don’t want to do. In a way, there’s a tremendous pretense, that you talk about in the piece, that you sort of act as though it doesn’t affect your ideas about policy, the fact that the country and particular corporations make so much money from selling bombs. How can we not connect that to how hard we fight for diplomatic measures? Those ties are crucial, it would seem, to make.

WH: Yeah, and there’s a whole ideology about the arms trade, when it is discussed at all, which is that somehow we’re helping people. You know, we’re creating stability, and the arms are less likely to be used, and countries like Iran will do less nefarious things if we arm the Saudis.

And it’s been quite the opposite. I mean, Saudi Arabia has been killing civilians, using cluster bombs, fighting one of the most egregious wars in Yemen that we’ve seen in a long, long time. So it’s far from stability. But what it is, is a steady source of income for companies like Lockheed-Martin and Boeing. And they’re part of the push for making these things happen, usually hand in glove with the government.

JJ: I remember your saying years ago that part of what sustains the status quo—despite the occasional calls that we do hear to cut military spending, or to cut back on weapons programs that seem to be duds—but part of the issue is the way the benefits are so distributed, not to put too fine a point on it, throughout congressional districts. So that it’s not so simple as to simply say, we should stop making this certain kind of fighter plane, because the making of it is so widely distributed throughout the country.

WH: Well, that sort of political engineering is done on purpose. And it’s done to kind of weave these programs into the economy in such a way that a lot of people will be affected, a lot of members’ districts and so forth. For arms sales, tank sales to Saudi Arabia are helping to keep plants in Ohio and Michigan running. A new sale to Kuwait will help Boeing keep a plant going in Missouri. So these are important states, some of them are swing states, and you wouldn’t likely see a president hold back on this kind of thing in an election year. Although Obama has been a little slow on the sale to Kuwait, so I don’t know if common sense has interceded, or if it’s a bureaucratic issue.

JJ: But it does make those ties hard to trace, I think, for sort of the layperson to try to figure out why is it not so simple to say, let’s just stop making this certain fighter plane that it seems like we’re never going to use again. Well, the tendrils of it reach quite far.

WH: Yeah, we’d have to break through the current Congress and actually invest in some things that the country needs in order to create alternative jobs. And with Congress not willing to make public investments, then it’s much harder to get around that dependency on arms exports and military spending.

JJ: Well, let me ask you about Obama’s particular legacy on this. It’s something you also talk about in the piece. Where does he fit in terms of arms sales globally for the US?

WH: Well, the Obama administration has brokered more big arms sales than any administration since World War II. It’s sort of neck and neck with Richard Nixon during the OPEC oil crisis, when they were trying to recycle petrodollars by selling as much as they could to the Middle East. So it’s partly they’re pushing exports in general, it’s partly that he wants to keep fewer boots on the ground than Bush did, and therefore he’s using arms and training and Special Forces as an alternative way to intervene.

So he’s got a couple rationales, and, you know, you’ll see it periodical
ly. When the Iran nuclear deal happened, he had a meeting at Camp David to try to get the Gulf Cooperation Council on board, and he said the US would reassure them, and that reassurance came in the form of all kinds of arms sales. So it’s used as a diplomatic tool as well.

JJ: You note also in the piece that it’s not just a matter of amount, but that certain restrictions and processes of scrutiny that were in place have been loosened, have they not, under Obama?

WH: Yes. This was a long-standing goal of industry, and they couldn’t get it through for probably a couple decades. But what they’ve done is, for one thing, they’ve taken things that were on what’s called the munitions list, obviously weapons, that have to be licensed by the State Department, and they’ve moved a bunch of those to the Commerce Department’s jurisdiction. Commerce is mostly involved in pushing exports, not keeping track of things like, are they going to human rights abusers? So that alone, I think, we’ll see the impacts going forward to the future that it will be easier for dictators or human rights abusers or countries that are on the terrorist list by the United States to find roundabout ways to get their hands on US arms components and US weapons.

JJ: Finally, media sort of whistled past what could have been a usefully uncomfortable moment when the head of CBS, Les Moonves, said Donald Trump was bad for the country but good for CBS. It seems like dealing with the fact that companies can profit from things that we might consider to be, or do consider to be, social ills—don’t you think that journalists simply have to dig into that? It seems as though it’s kind of underestimating your audience to think that they can’t handle the truth of the various motivations that governments and corporations use when they make choices.

WH: Absolutely. And you don’t see a lot of discussion of the consequences and the connection to the arms that are coming from the United States. Unless you read around in many different sources, you don’t get the full picture of what a devastating trade this is, and responsibility of our government and our corporations for keeping it running. You know, you’ll see in a book by a mainstream journalist, they’ll get into some of it, but it rarely makes it into the newspaper. So then you have to go to the independent press or some of the specialized publications, and the average citizen doesn’t have the time to do that. So it’s just not on the public agenda the way it should be, and regular press coverage would help make that happen.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with William Hartung of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. His most recent book is Profits of War: Lockheed-Martin and the Making of the Military Industrial Complex. The article “There’s No Business Like the Arms Business: Weapons R Us (But You’d Never Know It)” can be found on William Hartung, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

WH: Yes. Thanks for having me again.

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