Three F-35A Lightning IIs assigned to the 4th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron taxi after landing at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, April 15, 2019.

Three F-35A Lightning IIs assigned to the 4th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron taxi after landing at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, April 15, 2019. U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. Chris Thornbury

Pushing Billions in Arms Sales Is Not an ‘Accomplishment’

It matters to whom the weapons are flowing and how they will be used.

Earlier this month, the Pentagon and the State Department did their annual briefing on U.S. arms sales. The gist of the event was that the administration was proud of its efforts to promote U.S. weapons exports during 2020, which they asserted had increased by 2.8 percent from the prior year. This flood of new arms sales was described as an “accomplishment.”

But pushing weapons worth tens of billions of dollars out the door and overseas is by no means an accomplishment. It matters who the arms are sold to, and how they are being used. By this measure, U.S. arms sales have been a dismal failure.

A case in point is a $23 billion arms package for the United Arab Emirates that narrowly escaped a vote of disapproval in the Senate on Dec. 9. The deal includes 50 F-35 combat aircraft18 armed MQ-9 drones, and more than 15,000 bombs

The UAE should not be receiving U.S. weapons at this time. A primary reason for stopping arms flows to the regime is its central role in the war in Yemen, a conflict that has spawned what the United Nations has described as the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. Over 112,000 people have died in the war, including thousands of civilians. For the bulk of the conflict, the Emirati military and the militias it has armed, trained, and financed were the primary ground force for the Saudi/UAE-led coalition that invaded Yemen in 2015. And although the UAE withdrew the bulk of its ground forces in February, it continues to be a key player through its support for 90,000 militia members involved in the fighting.

According to reports by the Associated Press, Human Rights Watch, and the Yemeni organization Mwatana for Human Rights, the UAE and its allies have engaged in widespread torture in Yemen. And U.S. weapons supplied to the UAE have ended up in the hands of extremist militias with ties to the terrorist group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as well as the Houthi rebels.

The UAE has also been heavily involved in the civil war in Libya, backing the forces of Gen. Khalifa Haftar in his drive to overthrow the internationally recognized government there. The UAE has provided a wide array of weapons to Haftar’s forces, as well as launching drone strikes that have killed civilians and prolonged the war. All of the UAE’s activities in Libya are in blatant violation of a United Nations arms embargo.

Not only have the UAE’s actions in Yemen and Libya generated massive humanitarian suffering, but they have also made it easier for extremist and terrorist groups to operate in those countries, to the detriment of long-term U.S. interests in the Middle East and North Africa. As the International Crisis Group has noted with respect to the role of the UAE and other outside actors in Libya in stoking the war there: “prolonged conflict almost certainly will strengthen armed groups, including those linked to radical Islamist organizations such as al-Qaeda and ISIS.”

Given all of the above, the Biden administration should reverse the deals to sell fighter planes, drones, and bombs to the UAE as one of its first actions when it takes office in January.

The UAE is not the only U.S. arms recipient that should get a second look in light of its human rights record. Egypt, which receives $1.3 billion in annual military aid from the United States, has locked up thousands of political prisoners, subjecting many of them to severe torture; waged a scorched earth counter-terror campaign in the Sinai that has driven thousands of people from their homes and resulted in the killing of large numbers of civilians; and played a negative role in the region, by, for example, facilitating the UAE’s role in Libya. The United States should reduce its military aid to the Sisi regime and condition future assistance on major improvements in its human rights record.

In the Philippines, the Duterte regime has gunned down thousands of civilians and arrested thousands more without trial under the guise of its war on drugs. These actions should disqualify the Philippines from receiving weapons of any sort from the United States. Yet the United States has supplied small arms and has a deal in the works to provide attack helicopters. 

And in Nigeria, the Trump administration reversed a ban on sales of Super Tucano light aircraft to one of the most repressive regimes in the world, whose military has engaged in such widespread human rights abuses with such impunity that it has sparked investigations by the International Criminal Court.

The above-mentioned cases are just a few examples of where U.S. arms supplies have done far more harm than good. The Biden administration can and should revise U.S. arms export policies to prioritize human rights and long-term security over short-term profits and questionable military alliances. That would be an accomplishment worth bragging about.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy.