Mises Wire

US Arms Sales Are a Clear and Present Danger

The Biden administration’s recent decision to pause an arms sale to Israel elicited predictable reactions from advocates for both sides of the Gaza War represented in the United States, and while that decision did not stop other arms shipments to Israel, it underscores the political significance of arms sales as an instrument of US foreign policy and intervention in foreign conflicts. Joe Biden’s Department of State recommended the pause in arms sales over concerns that Israel may have breached international law in conducting the war without due care for noncombatant casualties. I am not going to weigh the evidence here; instead, I consider this decision as a reminder of the legal, political, and moral implications of US arms sales to foreign governments.

In February 2024, the White House issued National Security Memorandum 20 at the request of Congress members concerned over the level of violence in the Gaza War and its relation to US arms transfers to Israel. National Security Memorandum 20 requires the administration to pause or halt arms sales to belligerents that may be committing human rights abuses in violation of international law. The Leahy Law amendments to the US Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 prohibit security assistance to foreign militaries that have committed gross violations of human rights, though the law has often been conveniently ignored. The US has delayed or terminated arms sales to foreign governments before due to human rights abuses committed by the military forces of those governments, such as in Nigeria in 2021 (only to renew sales in 2022) and Cameroon in 2019 (only to renew them in 2021). Sometimes the US continues the arms sales after reports of abuses without even a pause, such as to Saudi Arabia in its war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Whether it halts arms sales or continues them, there is a legal basis in international law for ending such sales where a government arms purchaser targets noncombatants. The Fourth Geneva Convention, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1949 and ratified by the United States in 1955, prohibits states and nonstate belligerents from targeting noncombatants or failing to take due care to minimize noncombatant casualties in the conduct of war.

In spite of its endorsement of international human rights law, the US employs arms sales as a tool in its foreign policy, which may make the US an accomplice to human rights violations. Foreign military sales are approved by Congress and Departments of State and Defense, and they are a key component of US foreign policy. The US may use arms sales to develop political bonds with other countries, as it did throughout the Cold War in competition with the Soviet Union in the developing world. The US also uses arms sales to influence outcomes or fight proxy wars as it does today in the Middle East, Africa, and Ukraine. That there are also US special operations forces in at least some of these places deepens US involvement in foreign wars and threatens to escalate the US’s role to that of an active combatant in wars where the American interest is debatable and where, as in the case of US involvement in numerous countries in the Middle East and Africa, there is no real debate and little awareness of American voters to hold officials accountable.

But those officials are accountable to firms with a vested interest in war. American arms sales come in the form of foreign military sales, which are government-to-government transactions, private sales to foreign militaries, and US security assistance, which are transfers of weapons and equipment from the US to foreign militaries. Arms sales to foreign powers are big business, and US-based arms manufacturers sold a record $238 billion in 2023. Political action committees affiliated with arms manufacturers and exporters donated over $50 million to American politicians eager to keep the campaign money rolling in, including several hundred thousand dollars each to members of key congressional committees that influence the fortunes of arms dealers, and spent nearly $138 million in lobbying in 2023 alone. President Biden recently touted foreign arms sales as a way to stimulate demand in the US economy. Fueling war is a big business indeed for the US arms industry and its politicians.

The US cannot directly control the uses to which the weapons it sells are put, so the weapons it sells to foreign governments are sometimes used to commit human rights abuses that violate international law. There are good reasons for Americans to care about this. For one thing, the US aids and abets those crimes when its government permits arms sales to foreign governments, and it does so in the name of the American people. For another, foreign arms sales corrupt the political system by linking private profits with US foreign policy decisions. Finally, these sales involve the US in foreign wars, any of which could escalate to direct US involvement. World War III in 2024 is a real possibility. What President Dwight Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex is genuinely dangerous.

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