The revolving door between public officials and defense contractors has long distorted U.S. foreign policy to serve war profiteers at the expense of the public interest and basic humanitarian norms. From U.S. weaponry ending up in the hands of ISIS, to supplying arms fueling civil conflict and therefore contributing to the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, the lack of oversight on arms deals has enabled human rights atrocities.
The global arms trade is experiencing its greatest boom since the Cold War, fueled by horrific wars in the Middle East and revitalized power rivalries among China, Russia and the United States. In their most recent report, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute revealed a 44 percent increase in arms sales from 2002 to 2017. The United States is the world’s biggest arms exporter by far, holding 34 percent of total market share — a 58 percent lead on Russia, its closest competitor. From 2017 to 2018, U.S. arms sales to foreign governments increased 33 percent, in part due to the Trump administration’s diminished legal restraints on supplying foreign militias.
“[T]he people that are making these deals for the government, they should never be allowed to go to work for these companies,” President Trump said during an interview with “Fox News Sunday” in December 2016. “You, know, they make a deal like that and then a year later, or two years later, or three years later you see them working for these big companies that made the deal.”
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Before entering the White House, Trump asserted his belief in a “lifetime restriction” on top defense officials working for private defense contractors after their public service. Two years later, the Project on Government Oversight released a detailed analysis of the defense sector, revealing 645 instances of federal employees working for the 20 largest Pentagon contractors in fiscal year 2016, the latest year with complete data. Of the 645 instances of former public servants transitioning to work for private defense corporations, 90 percent were hired to work as lobbyists, where they seek to influence public policy to benefit their private employers.
Trump Cabinet Conflicts
After the resignation of Gen. James Mattis, Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan filled the post as interim head of the Defense Department. Before joining the Trump administration, Shanahan spent three decades working for Boeing — a blatant conflict of interest for the person responsible for overseeing federal contracts with private defense contractors. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, called Shanahan “a living, breathing product of the military-industrial complex,” and asserted that “this revolving door keeps the national security elite very small, and very wealthy, and increasing its wealth as it goes up the chain.”
One egregious example of that revolving door is Heather Wilson, who has been secretary of the Air Force since 2017. In 2015, Lockheed Martin paid a $4.7 million settlement to the Department of Justice after the revelation it had used taxpayer funds to hire lobbyists for a $2.4 billion contract. One of the lobbyists was former New Mexico Representative Wilson, ranked as one of the “most corrupt members of Congress” by the nonprofit government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Wilson was later confirmed as Air Force secretary in the Senate by a 76-22 vote.
Mark T. Esper, the secretary of the Army, worked as vice president of government relations for Raytheon before joining the Trump administration in 2017. The Hill recognized Esper as one of Washington’s most powerful corporate lobbyists in 2015 and 2016, where he fought to influence acquisition policy and other areas of defense bills. Esper’s undersecretary, Ryan McCarthy, is a former Lockheed executive.
Armament Industry’s Influence on Foreign Policy
The Trump administration’s commitment to advancing arms sales is not only apparent in the legion of officials with severe conflicts of interests occupying the cabinet, but also through directives in official arms export policy. The State Department’s updated Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) Policy Implementation Plan was released in November 2018 and detailed loosened restrictions on the sale of drones and other weapons, new financing options for countries who can’t afford U.S. weaponry, and aims to put pressure on diplomats to put arms deals at the forefront of their mission. Rachel Stohl, an arms trade expert with the Stimson Center, described the updated policy, saying, “If you read between the lines, it could be a green light for the U.S. to sell more with less restraint.”
A glaring example of the arms industry’s influence on State Department policy is demonstrated by a September 20, 2018, report from The Wall Street Journal. According to the report, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was convinced to continue support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen for the sake of a $2 billion arms deal with U.S.-based defense contractor Raytheon. The State Department’s legislative affairs staff, who influenced Pompeo’s decision, is led by Assistant Secretary of State Charles Faulkner, a former Raytheon lobbyist.
Recent developments by the Trump administration have clarified the nature of the relationship between defense contractors and the federal government, but it would be erroneous to place the majority of the blame on him for the greater trend in global arms sales. Under President Barack Obama, arms exports doubled compared to President George W. Bush, reaching more than $200 billion in total approved deals (approved deals don’t represent actualized contracts, as deals can take years to be ordered and completed). The rapid increase in exports was part of a broader strategy to replace U.S. soldiers with surrogates in allied countries, as well as to placate allies in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — countries incensed by the administration’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Despite brokering more arms deals than any administration since World War II, President Obama did enforce holds on arms exports to some countries deemed guilty of human rights abuses, including Bahrain, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. All of these holds were lifted shortly after the Trump administration took power.
The Trump administration’s priorities on arms sales were further demonstrated after the CIA confirmed Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in ordering the savage execution of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. President Trump resisted calls to punish the Saudi prince on the grounds that punitive action would jeopardize lucrative arms deals with the kingdom. President Trump’s claims vastly overstated the amount of jobs and money to be lost if the U.S. withdrew support for Saudi military adventurism.
Realigning US Priorities
Research from Brown University shows domestic investment in education and health care creates more than twice as many jobs as military spending. Trump’s argument that we have to provide Saudi Arabia or the UAE with bombs that land on school buses, hospitals and weddings in order to preserve jobs is unconscionable and demonstrates a warped sense of priorities. We don’t have to contribute to what a United Nations Children’s Fund official has labeled a “war on children” to maintain what accumulates to a total of less than 0.5 percent of U.S. jobs. We can invest in productive sectors of the economy like renewable energy and create jobs that truly serve our society.
A real debate on the arms trade is nearly absent from public conversation because the industry can only thrive in secrecy and duplicity. Consider former House Speaker Paul Ryan’s final move as a public official, in which he snuck a provision to curtail debate on Saudi support in Yemen into the U.S. farm bill in December.
Fortunately, Ryan’s manipulative tactics would fail to prevent the House from finally passing a resolution to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen on February 13. Trump has indicated the Yemen resolution will be his first veto, as it represents a major check to executive power and a direct rebuke to his arms export-based style of diplomacy.
After Trump pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, defense companies enjoyed an immediate boost to their stock. This is because demand in the arms trade surges alongside geopolitical instability. Heightened volatility encourages higher arms sales, and the dissemination of weapons to despotic regimes increases volatility, creating a vicious cycle further entrenched by a revolving door of defense contractors who influence public policy to benefit private weapons manufacturers.
In his famous farewell speech, President Dwight Eisenhower warned the U.S. public of this exact predicament, what he called the “military-industrial complex.” President Eisenhower’s warning remains prescient nearly 60 years later, as the failure to regulate the defense sector has led the U.S. to arm its enemies, enable humanitarian crises and desecrate its values. While the historic House resolution to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen is proof we can take concrete action to confront the military industrial complex, greater public awareness is needed to transform U.S. foreign policy in a profound manner. Just as President Eisenhower suggested, it is time for an alert and knowledgeable citizenry to challenge the reasoning behind the U.S.’s endless wars and fight for a more peaceful future.