Friday, March 07, 2008

Travels With Bob

Travels With Bob:

Can it be only seven months since the U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense danced through the Middle East dispensing largess from Uncle Sam’s military marketplace to friends and allies all around the region. Israel, as usual, walked away with the largest piece of the pie – $30 billion with no strings attached. Among the Arab countries, Saudi Arabia and the other countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council netted $20 billion to spend on U.S.- made weapons while Egypt has an additional $13 billion for weapons acquisition.

The very openness of the Bush administration to entertain – let alone initiate – such costly weapons transfers is a travesty given the shortfalls in funding for sustained developmental needs in the region and around the globe. Such transfers are second only to the massive increases in U.S. military spending in recent years as a significant contributing factor in the upward spiral in global military spending that has again exceeded $1,000,000,000,000 annually. Equally disturbing about last summer’s announcement is the fact that none of the countries eligible for the new equipment had been in a shooting war since January-February 1991, the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein.

(Israelis will insist they are at war with Hamas and other extremists in the Gaza Strip, but the weapons development and procurement of interest to Tel Aviv are not what is useful in the low-technology skirmishes, raids, and ambushes – small arms and short-range rockets – that are the trademark of Hamas militants.)

Following the 1990-1991 Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, the White House was prepared to sell Gulf Cooperation States $20 billion worth of new weaponry. Congressional objections to some items, plus Saudi budget deficits associated with absorbing most of the $60 billion cost of the war with Iraq, reduced the value of the arms deal to $10 billion. Until George Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, nothing further had transpired in the region that posed a new or rising threat to U.S. allies. As for adversaries, a U.S. arms embargo dating back to the Iranian revolution in 1979 had been effective enough to minimize modernizing efforts by Tehran. The collapse of the Soviet state in 1991 similarly limited any major modernizing by Syria.

The second month of 2008 saw the unfolding of the second part of “Travels with BOBl.”
This time the focus was South Asia and the Pacific. And once again, as in the Gulf region, Gates pitched the “Made in the USA” label as a visible commitment by the U.S. to strengthen military relationships with countries in the region.

India, which just finished hosting a major military weapons exposition, is the main target for this latest weapons pitch. New Delhi is in the market for 126 fighter jets and is willing to pay $10.2 billion to remake its air force. The timing of Gates’ two-day visit, with appointments to see both government and opposition party leaders, is no accident as the Indian government is slated to look at the offers from aerospace companies on March 3. Press reports tip Lockheed-Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to win the competition, in part because it secured a one billion dollar contract earlier in the month for six C-130J transports.

But according to military trade and business periodicals, the fighter plane purchase represents only about 10 percent of what India plans to spend on its military in the next five years. Included in the mix of weapons platforms are submarines and at least one air craft carrier. Gates also agreed to “study” the possibility of jointly developing a ballistic missile defense system, something that is sure to set off a reaction in Pakistan and raise eyebrows in Beijing and Moscow. (Moscow is already displeased with the prospect of U.S. missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic.)

Without question, Gates’ second stop – Indonesia – was the most controversial of all. Jakarta has been for many years under restrictions imposed by Congress on military cooperation because of human rights violations in East Timor in 1992. Like Turkey, which was also on Gates’ itinerary, Indonesia is predominately Islamic, secular, and increasingly democratic except for its special operations troops and its militarized special police that are believed to operate on separate command lines. Some in the Bush administration undoubtedly see Indonesia as the Asian Turkey, a country that the White House can point to as a close ally when adversaries accuse Washington of being anti-Islamic.

In the wake of Gates’ visit, military relationships may move briskly. The rapid response of the U.S. to the December 2005 tsunami re-established a degree of trust on which the Pentagon hopes to build. For its part, Indonesia’s military will be anxious to modernize or replace its U.S. made equipment, particularly its air assets as these are indispensible for a country consisting of 17,000-plus islands. Although there is no publicly available “wish list” from the Indonesian Ministry of Defense as yet, some in Congress – notably Senator Leahy (VT) – are expected to carefully scrutinize any request from the Pentagon for Indonesia and closely question administration officials as to their plan for vetting the human rights records of units receiving the equipment, as mandated by the “Leahy amendment” (Section 563 PL 106-429.

On his way home, Secretary Gates stopped in Ankara, Turkey to urge the end of the air-ground incursion of Turkish forces into northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish rebels. Shortly there afterwards, the 10,000 Turkish ground forces participating in the operation began to withdraw, but some soldiers reportedly remain inside Iraq.

To conclude, about the only piece of new U.S military hardware that doesn’t have a “for sale” sign tucked somewhere – yet – is the F-22 Raptor air superiority fighter. Both Australia and Japan made “non-enquiries” as to the possibility of acquiring the aircraft, but in each case Gates’ was non-committal beyond a promise to look into the possibilities. And in Japan’s case, the outcome may be to sell; Tokyo plans to choose a new fighter in 2008 to replace its fleet of 90 F-4s.

With the Middle East and Asia “sold,” can Latin America be far behind?


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