Arms Around the World
MoJo Wire / Mother Jones, August 1999
It was the early 1990s and then-presidential candidate Bill
Clinton was on the campaign trail making promises: "I expect
to review our arms sales policy and to take it up with the other
major arms sellers of the world as a part of a long-term effort
to reduce the proliferation of weapons."
Ah, campaign promises. But the economy was in the doldrums,
and the prospect of cutting arms sales -- sugar daddy to one of
the nation's largest industries -- didn't thrill either labor
or corporate America. What's more, the Gulf War had just ended
the previous year, and it was the best extended commercial an
arms salesman could ask for. (Indeed, some arms manufacturers
incorporated bombing videos into their promotional materials.)
Countries were clamoring for the high-tech weapons that made for
such good TV.
So, once elected, Bill Clinton did what he does best: He took
advantage of the opportunity. Rather than insert human-rights
concerns into the arms-sales equation, as did his Democratic predecessor
President Carter, Clinton decided to aggressively continue the
sales policies of President Bush, himself no slouch when it came
to selling U.S. arms.
Early on, Clinton required our diplomats to shill for arms
merchants to their host countries. The results were immediate:
During Clinton's first year in office, U.S. arms sales more than
doubled. From 1993 to 1997, the U.S. government sold, approved,
or gave away $190 billion in weapons to virtually every nation
The arms industry, meanwhile, has greased the wheels. It filled
the Democratic Party coffers to the tune of nearly $2 million
in the 1998 election cycle.
... while the U.S. obviously sells weapons to NATO countries
and relatively democratic allies like Japan and South Korea, it
also has a nasty habit of arming both sides in a conflict, as
well as countries with blighted democracy or human-rights records,
like Indonesia, Colombia, and Saudi Arabia.
All of this might be justified as a way to maintain a strong
manufacturing job-base in the U.S., but some of these sales actually
result in jobs being shipped abroad -- while arms manufacturers
get tax breaks for merging, resulting in further layoffs here
Shipping Jobs Overseas
According to the Pentagon, the defense industry laid off 795,000
American workers between 1992 and 1997. At the same time, many
of these corporations were sweetening their arms deals to other
countries by offering "offsets" -- incentives provided
to foreign countries in exchange for the purchase of military
goods and services. The programs often include agreements to manufacture
some or all of the products in the purchasing country.
Turkey, for example, agreed to buy 160 F-16s from General
Dynamics in 1987 (for delivery through 1994) for an estimated
$4 billion -- on the condition that most of the planes be built
in Turkey. The offset resulted in 1,500 jobs going to Turkey.
In 1992, General Dynamics entered into a similar F-16 offset deal
with South Korea and brought 400 Koreans to its Fort Worth, Texas,
plant for training, after having laid off 10,000 workers in the
previous two years.
Lockheed Martin has continued the trend since it bought General
Dynamics' F-16 program in 1993: In vying for a contract to supply
fighters to Poland, it is offering to build an assembly plant
there for all future F-16 sales to Central Europe -- so the planes
won't be made in the U.S. at all. Makes you feel patriotic, doesn't
Under a Defense Department policy initiated in 1993, U.S.
taxpayers wind up covering a big chunk of the cost of defense-corporation
mergers. The tally so far has reached $856.2 million in perfectly
legal write-offs, including $405 million for the Lockheed/Martin
Marietta merger, to name one example. Because of the policy, Lockheed
was able to bill the Pentagon up front for $2.4 million of CEO
Norman Augustine's salary.
In 1996, Congress created the Defense Export Loan Guarantee
program to finance U.S. weapons sales to foreign countries. Its
first beneficiary? A United Industrial sale of pilotless aircraft
and training systems to cash-strapped Romania. If Romania defaults
on its payments (not a bad bet for a country in economic turmoil),
U.S. taxpayers will be left holding the bag: $16.7 million. But
United Industrial gets paid either way.
Arming Both Sides
The Clinton administration has not been shy about arming potential
foes in regional conflicts. For example, two of America's biggest
arms customers are Greece and Turkey, which have been threatening
to go to war with each other for decades over the tiny Mediterranean
island of Cyprus.
Both countries stake a claim to the island, more than a third
of which has been occupied by Turkish forces since 1974, and the
two have clashed hundreds of times in the 25 years since.
Though barred by Congress from selling offensive weapons to
Cyprus itself, in 1997 the U.S. sold (or allowed American corporations
to sell) more than $270 million worth of weapons to Greece and
nearly $750 million worth to Turkey. Now if there's a war, the
two NATO allies can blast away at one another with far greater
efficiency, thanks to the U.S. defense industry and its cheerleader,