Saudi arms sales, Israel and the unstoppable economics of proliferation

My friend Doug Bloomfield, a syndicated columnist and former legislative director of AIPAC, just broke the story of how the Israeli government – and AIPAC – have signed off on a new and staggeringly big sale of U.S. F-15 fighters to Saudi Arabia.

A couple of decades ago, such a sale would have sent pro-Israel activists here to the barricades; now, with Israel having a sizable economic stake in the deal, with the ever-hopeful belief the Saudis will be an ally in the fight against Iran and with so many members of Congress from states and districts with a piece of the arms sale pie, there’s barely a whimper.

A lot of things stand out in this whole arms sale mishigas.

First, it’s become almost impossible to oppose any arms sale really pushed by administrations and – more importantly – the big defense contractors, which have spread subcontractors across hundreds of congressional districts so that cutting sales means cutting jobs.

Our economy remains in the doldrums, but the military hardware sector continues to thrive, giving arms sales virtually unstoppable momentum.

Okay, we won’t sell to Iran, Cuba or North Korea, but just about anybody else is fair game.

Speaking of Cuba: why do we lavish Saudi Arabia with the most sophisticated weapons in the world and treat its leaders like …well, royalty …while we continue a half-century-old boycott against Cuba that stopped making sense decades ago?

Let’s see: both countries have a big human rights problem; both have supported America’s enemies, although Cuba stopped doing that with any real energy back in the Reagan era. Saudi’s funding for the Wahhabi sect that wants to destroy us has been far greater in the past decade than Cuban support for musty old South American revolutionaries.

So why the different treatment? Oh yeah, oil versus cigars. I get it.

But I digress.

Another factor behind the lack of opposition to the new Saudi sale: Israel has become more tightly integrated into the U.S. arms industry, producing more and more components for U.S. weapons systems.  And that means it, too, is being pulled into potentially risky arms proliferation by purely economic forces. It helps the economy, it helps the politicians who support arms industry jobs, so who cares if these weapons make a dangerous region even more dangerous?

And then there’s the Iran bit.

Everybody knows Saudi Arabia may be the country with the most to fear from an Iran seeking regional hegemony.

But are there really good reasons to believe the Saudis will become better partners in the effort to stop Iran from going nuclear? Will they be cooperative if Israel chooses to take military action to accomplish that goal? I don’t know the answer to that one, but I have my doubts.

And isn’t Israel just a teensy bit worried that the Saudi royal family may eventually be toppled by more radical forces, putting those very same weapons in the hands of extremists bent on using them against the Jewish state?

President Dwight Eisenhower warned about the rise of the “military industrial complex,” and it’s starting to look like he understated matters.

Isn’t anybody alarmed that a faltering economy in this country has imparted even more momentum to foreign arms sales that are distributing the most sophisticated arms like Halloween candy to unstable, possibly even hostile regimes? Is this the America of the future – a rust-belt wreck, with our once-robust manufacturing sector now but a distant memory, producing less and less of what anybody wants except for F-15s, missiles and smart bombs?

The fact is, the economics of building today’s super-expensive weapons demand foreign sales to subsidize domestic consumption.

But doesn’t that growing dependence on the arms exports for the good of our economy work against another critical national interest – keeping advanced weapons out of the hands of countries and groups that don’t care if they blow the world to Kingdom Come?

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.