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October 27, 2015

President Obama's Record-Breaking Arms Sales Are Enabling Human Rights Abuses

During his address to Congress last month, Pope Francis took aim at the arms trade, and the “shameful and culpable silence” that surrounds it. This wasn’t the first time that the Pope had sounded this theme, but the venue gave it special poignancy: the U.S. government is the world’s biggest arms dealer, and President Obama has already sold more weapons to foreign governments than any other U.S. president since World War II.

In his first five years in office alone, President Obama has sold more than $169 billion worth in arms through the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales program. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $30 billion more than U.S. arms sales under President George W. Bush.

The president came into office promising to end wars and bring American troops home. He has, to some degree, accomplished these goals, yet in the place of conventional warfare President Obama has greatly expanded a legally shaky targeted killing program and covert operations. He is also relying more heavily on the country’s allies to fight terrorism and help the United States pursue its other strategic interests. These countries need weapons; the U.S. government and American arms manufacturers are happy to provide them.

But President Obama’s virtual “arms bazaar” is fueling human rights abuses. Under President Obama, the majority of American weapons—60 percent—have gone to Middle Eastern governments with poor records on human rights. It would be a different matter if the arms came with conditions, but nearly without exception they don’t. The biggest benefactor of U.S. arms deals, Saudi Arabia, has used American weapons—including cluster munitions—to kill civilians in Yemen, crack down on the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain, and cement an oppressive regime at home. 

And the official total doesn’t include covert operations, like the CIA’s shipments of antitank missiles to armed groups in Syria. While the intended recipients have been vetted, Al Qaeda and other extremists have gotten their hands some of these weapons.

Promoting human rights is stated goal of the Obama Administration. The President has often said that safeguarding human rights overseas in the national security interests of the United States. Speaking at Clinton’s Global Initiative last September, he said:

“Countries that respect human rights—including freedom of association—happen to be our closest partners. That is not an accident. Conversely, when these rights are suppressed, it fuels grievances and a sense of injustice that over time can fuel instability or extremism.  So I believe America’s support for civil society is a matter of national security.”

Arming dictators and governments that disregard the laws of war is fundamentally at odds with this position. When the United States supports abusive regimes, it fuels anti-Americanism, undermines the efforts of local human rights activists, and weakens U.S. national security.

Next week I'll take a closer look at the regimes benefitting from Obama's Weapons-Mart foreign policy.