Last week, even as the Senate was debating whether to end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal war in Yemen, Donald Trump was meeting in the White House with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, engaging in one of his favorite activities – bragging about the U.S. jobs generated by foreign arms deals.
As he sang the praises of tens of billions of Saudi purchases of U.S. weaponry, Trump brandished a map of the United States with the legend “KSA Arms Deals Pending” above a red oval that said “40,000 U.S. jobs.” Outside the boundaries of the map were four examples of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia: C-130 Hercules transport planes, P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine warfare planes, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile systems. Lest one think they were the result of Trump’s superior dealmaking, three of the four deals cited on his chart were made during the Obama administration, as long ago as 2012.
To drive home the real point of the exercise, Trump’s handy little map marked in red the U.S. states most likely to benefit from the arms deals with Saudi Arabia. Not surprisingly, they included Midwestern states that gave Trump his margin of victory in the 2016 election; Florida, a key swing state; and the large, electoral-vote-rich states of Texas and California.
If Trump’s presentation at the White House sparks a debate about the role of jobs considerations in U.S arms sales policy, it may actually do some good. The bottom line is that creating U.S. jobs should play no role in deciding which countries to lavish with U.S. weaponry, for several reasons.
Potential arms deals should be driven by basic foreign policy questions, not pork-barrel politics. Security and human rights should be the main criteria used by the executive branch and the Congress in deciding which nations should be eligible to receive U.S. weapons, which Trump has described as “the finest military equipment anywhere in the world.”
Respecting human rights has value in its own right, but it is also good security policy. Nations that systematically abuse human rights are not only less stable, but their repressive activities too often generate internal conflict, and can even create an environment in which terrorist groups are more likely to thrive.
The Yemen war is a case in point. Not only has Saudi Arabia used weapons supplied by the United States and the United Kingdom to carry out an indiscriminate bombing campaign, but it has destroyed vital civilian infrastructure and imposed a blockade on the import of basic supplies. The result has been a humanitarian catastrophe of the highest order, including the largest cholera outbreak in history, the internal displacement of millions of people, and situation where 8 million Yemenis are at risk of famine.
In addition to being a moral outrage, the Saudi-led war in Yemen has serious security consequences. As Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., has noted, the majority of Yemenis know where Saudi Arabia gets its weapons, and view the United States as being responsible for the devastation in their country. As Murphy further indicated, over time uncritical U.S. support for the Saudi war effort could create fertile ground for anti-U.S. terrorism. And even if it doesn’t, the war between the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels has opened up space for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to expand its role in Yemen.
A secondary reason not to use the “jobs card” as a reason to sell U.S. weapons abroad is that the claims of jobs linked to foreign arms sales are greatly exaggerated. As a study from the University of Massachusetts has documented, weapons spending is virtually the least effective way to create jobs. Almost any other U.S. export could create more domestic employment.
In addition, most major U.S. sales now involve offsets or licensed production – processes in which recipients of U.S. arms and technology produce all or part of U.S.-supplied weapons in their own countries.
The above-mentioned arrangements diminish the U.S. job benefits of major foreign arms deals. And as research by my colleagues at the Security Assistance Monitor has revealed, licenses to produce U.S. weapons overseas have been a regular practice during Donald Trump’s time in office. One of the more embarrassing examples of this phenomenon was when President Trump bragged about the jobs impact of F-35 sales during last year’s trip to Japan, apparently unaware that F-35s sold to Japan and other regional players would be produced at a U.S.-licensed facility in Japan.
Downplaying human rights and security in favor of narrowly focused economic concerns poses high risks while offering fewer benefits than advertised. Perhaps someone needs to supply President Trump with a map of the world highlighting U.S. sales that enable human rights abuses and sustain conflicts, and then explain to him why these results are too high a price to pay for the chance to boast about the limited jobs benefits these deals supply to the United States.