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The Arms Deal with Saudi Arabia Is Reminiscent of an Arms Race Past

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Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Feb. 17, 2010.

CREDIT: Flickr / thejointstaff

On Monday, the Obama administration quietly announced its plan to sell $60 billion worth of sophisticated military equipment to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and to provide an additional $100 billion worth of new weapons systems in the next few years. This will be the largest ever arms deal between the between the two countries. Though a formal notification has not been sent to Congress yet, the legislature’s expressed approval is not required for the deal to go through.

The package includes 84 new fighter jets, 178 helicopters, and a host of precision guided missiles. The administration is also planning an overhaul of Saudi Arabia’s naval forces.

Cue flashbacks to John Ashcroft shaking hands with Saddam Hussein as the Regan administration armed Iraq with advanced military technology, including chemical weapons that were later deployed against Iraq’s Kurds, to contain Iran after its revolution. Throughout the 1970s, the United States sold Iran unprecedented volumes of military hardware to contain the Soviets. It was referred to at the time as, "the most rapid buildup of military power under peacetime conditions of any nation in the history of the world.”

The goal today is to counterbalance Iran’s ambitions in the Persian Gulf. By arming Arab states along the Persian Gulf with superior weaponry, the Obama administration hopes to ramp up the pressure on Iran while limiting its ability to disrupt the international oil supply in response to any potential military action. Twenty percent of the oil traded worldwide passes through the 21 mile-wide Strait of Hormuz along Iran’s southern coast.

Although this geopolitical rational remains important, the domestic economic argument is perhaps more relevant. Earlier this week, Congress was informed that U.S. arms sales around the world almost halved from 2008 to 2009 — from $38.1 billion to $22.6 billion. The Saudi deal would be a boon to Boeing, United Technologies Corp, Lockheed Martin Corp., Raytheon, and many other military contractors at a time when both international demand has decreased and Defense Secretary Robert Gates is attempting to rein in the defense budget.

Boeing alone would reportedly create 75,000 jobs across 44 states as a result of the deal. Since many members of Congress are from districts where the deal could help create jobs, it has seen widespread support.

An old-fashioned arms race is good for business, it seems. "We're not thrilled by the Saudi deal," an Israeli government official told Time magazine, "but we can live with it because there's a clear commitment to maintain Israel's QME [qualitative military edge].” Israel is already slated to buy $2.5 billion worth of new warplanes from Lockheed Martin Corp.

The United States controls about 40 percent of international arms trade, according to a Congressional Research Service study cited in Time Magazine. Most of these sales, around 80 percent, are to developing nations. Often, as is certainly the case with Saudi Arabia, these state-of-the-art weapons systems are provided to the most authoritarian and exploitative dictatorships in the world.

U.S.taxpayers provide about $3 billion per year in military aid to Israel while U.S. drivers pay out an average of $2 billion per month for oil imports from Saudi Arabia. Essentially we are paying foreign governments to pay the arms industry to employ Americans.

Kayvan Farchadi is a staff writer for Campus Progress.

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