Monday, July 30, 2007

Guns Galore

The “headline-grabbing” announcement said the Bush administration was ready to notify Congress that the U.S. would sell Saudi Arabia $20 billion in new weaponry over 10 years.

But as usual, this was only part of the story of what was happening and – in midsummer of 2007 – why it was happening now.

In any other administration, or even this one a few years ago, I would have termed the announcement and its timing an audacious move by the White House. Not now.

Not when the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense are leaving for an old-fashion, arm-twisting, whistle-stop campaign to get regional “allies” in line behind U.S. policy.

Not when, having invaded another country, overturned the regime, “managed” the election of a nominally representative, fully sovereign government (even though the foreign military presence is 75 percent of the original invasion force), the U.S. public learns that the duly elected prime minister reportedly says he has no confidence in the top U.S. general and wants him replaced.

Not when U.S. troops (not to mention the indigenous security forces and civilians) are fighting and dying in a war that should never have been started in an effort to implement an ill-conceived, incomplete “strategy” for “winning.”

No. Today’s announcement is more a desperate bid to draw Arab neighbors of Iraq into Washington’s plan to build regional political support for Iraq and, simultaneously, block any effort by Iran to extend its influence in the Gulf area.

The desperation is also palpable when it comes to Saudi Arabia. Its relationship with Washington has been quite rocky since September 11, 2001.

- The Saudis opposed the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, although they did allow non-combat aircraft to fly from Saudi airbases in support of U.S. and British troops during the invasion.

- By the end of August 2003, all U.S. military personnel had left Saudi Arabia for other countries in the Gulf, whereas in 1990 Saudi Arabia was the staging ground for the coalition that drove Saddam’s army from Kuwait.

- In Fiscal Years 2005 and 2006, Congress prohibited any and all assistance to Saudi Arabia in the Foreign Operations appropriation for the State Department, but each year allowed the president to waive the ban upon certifying that the Saudi’s were cooperating in the war on terror – which Bush did.

Many in Congress objected to the waivers, citing Saudi support for Sunni militants fighting in Iraq (there are more Saudis than Syrians fighting U.S. troops), Saudi financial support for the Hamas-dominated Palestinian government elected in January 2006 (support subsequently removed after the split between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank), and the practice of making payments to families in which someone is killed by Israel troops. And the critics also point to the fact that the Saudis refuse to recognize Israel diplomatically

On the other hand, during the 1990s, nothing whatsoever stopped arms sales to Saudi Arabia, especially in the first years after the 1991 Gulf War when the Pentagon was willing to sell almost anything to the Saudis – with the stipulation, demanded by Tel Aviv, that Arab countries would not get equipment that technologically equaled the equipment provided Israel. Based on these orders, the U.S. actually delivered $22.9 billion in weaponry to the Saudis in the period 1997-2004.

This history helps explain why the headlines highlighted the $20 billion for Saudi Arabia rather than the real money which, for nine countries in the region, comes to at least $63 billion over the ten years.
Nearly half of the $63 billion – $30 billion – will go to Israel, again largely because of history.

As a “reward” for Israel and Egypt signing the 1979 peace treaty that followed the 1978 Camp David Accord, President Carter asked Congress for a special $4.8 billion aid package to be split between the two countries, with Israel getting $3 billion and Egypt $1.8 billion. These figures became an annual “entitlement” that lasted into the mid-1990s. Israel requested that its money, which was a combination of economic and military aid, be converted to all military assistance. Israel offered to cap its aid at $2.4 billion annually if at least half could be spent wherever Israel chose (normally, such aid must be spent in the U.S.).

Many in Congress were not pleased with the “no strings” aspect of the Israeli proposal, but they could not resist “recouping” $600 million at a time when the Clinton administration was looking for funds to help Jordan, which signed its own peace accord with Israel in 1994. Moreover, in keeping with the 3-to-2 informal ratio created by the 1979 Camp-David peace accord, An unacknowledged by-product of the cut in total aid to Israel was a $500 million cut in military financing for Egypt’s military. In 1997, Congress capped aid to the Middle East at $5.4 billion, of which $85 million went to the Palestinians, $193 to Jordon, and$12.5 million to Lebanon with when the Israelis pushed for and received three changes: convert all their aid to military, be allowed to spend half the total in countries other than the U.S., and drop their total from $3.0 billion to $2.4 billion.

The “concessions” proposed by the Israelis were finally agreed to by Congress, but the “restrictions” were soon repealed in subsequent Foreign Operations appropriations. Israel is still the only country allowed to spend its foreign military aid – now all of it – wherever it wants. As for the reduction from $3 billion to $2.4 billion in annual direct military aid, that will touch the original $3 billion mark of the post-Camp David accord under a new Bush proposal. The unknown factor here is whether Egypt’s military will also go back to receiving $1.8 billion – its “2” in the Camp avid treaty associated 3-to-2 ratio.

And although by comparison it isn’t much money, the Bush administration has sent at least eight military cargo planes loaded with guns, bullets, rockets, missiles, small arms ammunition, some trucks, night vision goggles, and spare parts to the Lebanese army. Approximate
military aid to Lebanon in 2007 is running at $40 million, about what it was in 2006. The Beirut government is asking Washington to increase that amount to $280 million in 2008 so it can buy more weapons to root out “al-Qaeda” factions that are entrenched in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli in the north and Ein Hilwa in the south. Among other equipment, the Lebanese say that the U.S. will deliver 289 HUMVEEs.

And Iraq? It’s spending $1.5 billion a year on new U.S. equipment, and that’s before it gets into the expensive things like tanks and aircraft.

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