Most Americans want the United States to maintain strong alliances overseas, but not through foreign arms sales, a key tactic used by the Obama and Trump administrations..
Those findings from a recent Chicago Council survey arrive as the White House has worked to loosen export restrictions on military drones and circumvented Congress to sell weapons to allies in the Middle East.
“Americans don’t like selling weapons to other countries,” said Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and former U.S. ambassador to NATO under President Obama. They are more supportive to allied countries with one exception, he said. “Bipartisan majorities think that selling arms to Taiwan is a bad idea,” and the poll similarly found low support (38 percent) for using U.S. troops “if China invaded Taiwan.”
Seventy percent of those polled said “selling weapons to other countries” makes the United States less safe. Only 9 percent said it makes the United States more safe.
“There’s just a very strong negative bipartisan view that selling weapons is — it doesn’t make Americans safer, it’s not a good thing to do,” Daalder said, in Washington on Monday. “That said, if you would — I’m sure that if we change the way the questions get phrased, which is “Do you believe the United States should provide, sell military equipment to our allies so we can fight better together?” I’m pretty sure that we’ll get very high numbers saying yeah, it makes sense for our allies who are flying F-18s when we’re flying F-18s. But as an issue, the president in particular has raised weapons sales as sort of the be all and end all of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. The american people aren’t buying that one.”
In addition, “just 36 percent of Americans would include weapons sales as active engagement, with 30 percent of Democrats, 38 percent of Independents, and 43 percent of Republicans saying it fits their definition of an active role,” the report states.
The survey of 2,059 adults was conducted from June 7 to 20.
The U.S. government authorized more than $180 billion in foreign arms sales in fiscal year 2018, according to the Government Accountability Office. The GAO also found that the arms-transfer policies of the Obama and Trump administrations are “broadly similar in content.”
President Trump has often cited jobs as a major reason to export arms. The Pentagon, in its arms export notifications to Congress, regularly includes a line that the proposed sale would ensure “political stability and economic progress.”
Earlier this year, the Trump administration invoked a rarely used provision in the Arms Export Control Act to sell $8.1 billion in precision-guided munitions, drones, anti-tank missiles and other weapons and equipment to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Jordan. Congress tried to block the sale because Saudi and UAE forces have reportedly used these types of weapons in bombing campaigns which are blamed for thousands of civilian deaths in Yemen.
“Americans have long been skeptical of the purposes and impact of foreign arms sales, but for many years the issue did not rise to the level of public discussion or debate,” said Bill Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.
“This may be changing, now that Congress has taken consistent action aimed at ending sales of U.S. weapons to Saudi Arabia for use in its brutal war in Yemen,” Hartung said. “The lack of public support for arms sales suggests that Congress can and should go further in restricting U.S. sales that may be used to harm civilians or escalate conflicts, in Saudi Arabia and beyond.”
Kevin Baron contributed to this report.