America -- the world’s arms pusher

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THEY DON’T CALL US the sole superpower for nothing. Paul Wolfowitz might be looking for a new job right now, but the term he used to describe the pervasiveness of U.S. power back when he was a mere deputy secretary of Defense — hyperpower — still fits the bill. Consider some of the areas in which the United States is still No. 1:

Arms sales: A May 21 article on U.S. weapons sales referred to Sparrow and AMRAAM missiles as surface-to-air missiles. They are air-to-air missiles. Also the article stated that “the U.S. sent 10 ‘major surface combatants,’ such as aircraft carriers and destroyers, to developing nations.” Although aircraft carriers belong in that classification, the sales were of destroyers and frigates. —

• First in weapons sales: Since 2001, U.S. global military sales have totaled $10 billion to $13 billion. That’s a lot of weapons, but in fiscal 2006, the Pentagon broke its own recent record, inking arms sales agreements worth $21 billion.

• First in sales of surface-to-air missiles: From 2001 to 2005, the U.S. delivered 2,099 surface-to-air missiles like the Sparrow and AMRAAM to nations in the developing world, 20% more than Russia, the next largest supplier.

• First in sales of military ships: During that same period, the U.S. sent 10 “major surface combatants,” such as aircraft carriers and destroyers, to developing nations. Collectively, the four major European weapons producers shipped 13.


• First in military training: A thoughtful empire knows that it’s not enough to send weapons; you have to teach people how to use them. The Pentagon plans on training the militaries of 138 nations in 2008 at a cost of nearly $90 million. No other nation comes close.

Rest assured, governments around the world, often at each others’ throats, will want U.S. weapons long after their people have turned up their noses at a range of once dominant American consumer goods. The “trade” publication Defense News, for instance, recently reported that Turkey and the U.S. signed a $1.78-billion deal for Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter planes. As it happens, these planes are already ubiquitous — Israel flies them; so does the United Arab Emirates, Poland, South Korea, Venezuela, Oman and Portugal, among others. Buying our weaponry is one of the few ways you can actually join the American imperial project!

In order to remain on top in the competitive jet field, Lockheed Martin, for example, does far more than just sell airplanes. TAI — Turkey’s aerospace corporation — will receive a boost with this sale because Lockheed Martin is handing over responsibility for portions of production, assembly and testing to Turkish workers.


The Turkish air force already has 215 F-16 fighter planes and plans to buy 100 of Lockheed Martin’s new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as well, in a deal estimated at $10.7 billion over the next 15 years. That’s $10.7 billion on fighter planes for a country that ranks 94th on the United Nations’ human development index, below Lebanon, Colombia and Grenada and far below all the European nations that Ankara is courting as it seeks to join the European Union. Now that’s a real American sales job for you!

HERE’S THE strange thing, though: This genuine, gold-medal manufacturing-and-sales job on weapons simply never gets the attention it deserves. As a result, most Americans have no idea how proud they should be of our weapons manufacturers and the Pentagon — essentially our global sales force. They make sure our weapons travel the planet and regularly demonstrate their value in small wars from Latin America to Central Asia.

There’s tons of data on the weapons trade, but who knows about any of it? I help produce one of a dozen or so sober annual (or semiannual) reports quantifying the business of war-making, so I know that these reports get desultory, obligatory media attention. Only once in a blue moon do they get the sort of full-court-press treatment that befits our No. 1 product line.


Even when there is coverage, the inside-the-fold, fact-heavy, wonky news stories on the arms trade, however useful, can’t possibly convey the feel of a business that has always preferred the shadows to the sun. The connection between the factory that makes a weapons system and the community where that weapon “does its duty” is invariably missing in action, as are the relationships among the companies making the weapons and the generals (on-duty and retired) and politicians making the deals, or raking in their own cuts of the profits for themselves and/or their constituencies. In other words, our most successful (and most deadly) export remains our most invisible one.

Maybe the only way to break through this paralysis of analysis would be to stop talking about weapons sales as a trade and the export of precision-guided missiles as if they were so many widgets. Maybe we need to start thinking about them in another language entirely — the language of drugs.

After all, what does a drug dealer do? He creates a need and then fills it. He encourages an appetite or (even more lucratively) an addiction and then feeds it.

Arms dealers do the same thing. They suggest to foreign officials that their military just might need a slight upgrade. After all, they’ll point out, haven’t you noticed that your neighbor just upgraded in jets, submarines and tanks? And didn’t you guys fight a war a few years back? Doesn’t that make you feel insecure? And why feel insecure for another moment when, for just a few billion bucks, we’ll get you suited up with the latest model military, even better than what we sold them — or you the last time around.

Why do officials in Turkey, which already has 215 fighter planes, need 100 extras in an even higher-tech version? They don’t, but Lockheed Martin, working with the Pentagon, made them think they did.

We don’t need stronger arms control laws, we need a global sobriety coach and some kind of 12-step program for the dealer-nation as well.


FRIDA BERRIGAN is a senior research associate at the World Policy Institute’s Arms Trade Resource Center. A longer version of this article appears on