President Obama’s Legacy: Arms Exporter in Chief

January 20, 2017 | Mackenzie Weinger
Photo: AP

As President Barack Obama heads out of office, he leaves behind an unexpected legacy: as arms exporter-in-chief.

“The Obama administration has made more major arms sales, by value, than any other administration in the history of the United States,” William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, said.

With billions of dollars in sales, and a foreign policy approach that emphasized partnerships and increased military support through weapons and training to compensate for minimal U.S. force presence, the Obama years were marked by a striking level of arms sales.

As Rachel Stohl, a senior associate with Stimson's Managing Across Boundaries Initiative and an expert on the international arms trade, said, “in terms of new arms deals made, this president has certainly been a friend to U.S. defense manufacturers. And I think that will surprise people. It surprised me.”

This administration has racked up unprecedented numbers, according to statistics prepared by the Center for International Policy comparing major arms sales offers during the Obama years with prior two-term presidents in the post-World War II period.

Under Obama, from 2009 to 2015, total sales were $245 billion ($256.8 billion in 2016 dollars, adjusted for inflation). With President George W. Bush, from 2001 through 2008, total sales were $126.8 billion ($144.3 billion adjusted for inflation).

For President Bill Clinton, from 1993 through 2000, sales were $99.4 billion ($153.6 billion adjusted for inflation), and under President Ronald Reagan, from 1981 through 1988, total sales were $77.3 billion ($179.5 billion adjusted for inflation).

2016 figures are not available yet, so with Obama’s last year in office added, his margin will be even larger compared to other two-term, postwar presidents, Hartung said.

These numbers are for agreements under the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales program, which covers all large arms deals and offers the best measure of the total value of arms sales for a given year, according to Hartung. FMS sales are government-to-government transfers, while Direct Commercial Sales are negotiated directly between the contractor and foreign customer.

Under DCS, the other avenue U.S. defense companies have to sell on the international market, authorizations for 2009 to 2015 come in at over $340 billion. That totals over $590 billion worth of new arms-sale agreements and authorizations from 2009 to 2015, Stohl said.

That does not mean they were all delivered, she said, but “$590 billion worth of new agreements — that’s still a lot.”

Numbers related to the international arms trade are tricky, given that there are a few different ways to look at it, according to Colby Goodman, director of the Security Assistance Monitor at the Center for International Policy. Authorizations do not equal deliveries, as deals can fall apart, and tracking government-to-government authorizations is not the same as monitoring direct commercial agreements, or company sales to foreign governments.

Although more information will emerge in later years and some numbers may shift, there is no doubt that arms sales have been a “huge emphasis” of the administration, and the biggest focus has been on the Persian Gulf, Hartung said.

“I think it’s kind of infused throughout the whole administration, this idea of promoting arms sales,” he said.

The biggest recipient is Saudi Arabia, according to Stohl. According to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency’s major arms sales notifications, and the country accounts for about 45 percent of all agreements in the Middle East — the region with the most arms sale agreements overall — during Obama’s presidency, she said.

The Iran nuclear deal “is certainly playing a role in the increase in arms sales authorizations to the Middle East, particularly the Persian Gulf,” Goodman said. To help draw support from Gulf leaders on the nuclear agreement, the Obama administration sought to provide assurances in the form of military training and additional arms sales.

“A lot of people think that their unwillingness to stop arming the Saudis in the war in Yemen is partly because of the fact that the Saudis screamed bloody murder at the time of the Iran deal because they thought the United States was tilting away from them towards Iran,” Hartung said.

In December, the U.S. halted some future precision-guided munitions sales to the Saudis due to civilian casualties in the Yemen conflict, Reuters reported, but observers said this was a minor, mostly symbolic, move.

According to Aude Fleurant, director of Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s arms and military expenditure program, SIPRI’s analysis has found that the arms exports to the coalition countries involved in Yemen is related to U.S. strategic thinking about allies and partners, not about “the economic need to support the industry.”

“This is why, I think, part of the transfers of weapons to the coalition in Yemen has been so problematic,” she said.

Trailing the United States as the largest supplier of weapons on the international stage is Russia, although it depends on a small number of countries to make up the vast majority of its sales.

“So if India, for instance, decides it doesn’t want to buy any more Russian stuff, they’re in trouble,” Fleurant said. “The U.S. is not in that position.”

The reason the U.S. is in such a position goes beyond this administration, she said, and is mainly due to structural factors — its domestic defense industry and the size of the market both at home and abroad — that solidify the U.S. as the largest supplier of weapons on the international stage.

Unlike some other experts, Fleurant said the policy of an individual administration plays much less of a factor than structural and circumstantial elements do on increased arms sales. Major drivers that would lead a supplier country like the United States to increase or decrease its international arms sales overlapped with Obama’s presidency, namely wars and impressive growth in a buying country’s GDP, she said.

“Some countries had very old inventories, old weapons, and they were looking to buy new weapons,” Fleurant said. “And since they actually had the resources to implement large, major procurement programs — well, they actually did it. That coincided with Obama’s presidency. He had nothing to do with it.”

According to SIPRI, “it’s been mostly business as usual during the Obama administration,” Fleurant said.

“We haven’t seen a very big change in the way the country approached major arms sales to allies or to partners, not really. The political agenda in that instance, the presidential agenda, was not very different than the one that we have seen from other presidents either Republican or Democrat in the past,” she said.

Other experts, however, chalked up the increase in sales to the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy. The way war has been waged under the outgoing president — pulling back “boots on the ground,” using drone strikes, providing military training and increasing partnerships with foreign security forces — is mirrored in his use of arms sales as a way to bolster allies and fight terrorism.

“I think coming out of the recession certainly helped countries be more willing to buy these expensive weapons, but I think the political push from the Obama administration was as or more important,” Hartung said. “They view this as an important part of their foreign and economic policy. So you had more buyers, but the Obama administration was pushing hard to make sure they were buying U.S. equipment.”

“I would put politics and foreign policy vision as a primary reason they’re selling so much. And then the value of the exports and the economic effects are kind of icing on the cake,” he added.

Goodman said the administration’s philosophy of “we’re going to pull back U.S. forces in the field and boots on the ground but we’re going to increase our support, military support, through arms and training to try and compensate for that” can be seen as the key driving factor for the massive jump in authorizations.

One positive aspect of Obama’s legacy in this area came in 2014, when he updated the U.S. conventional arms transfer policy, replacing a classified directive from 1995.

“Having a conventional arms transfer policy [where] at least part of it is public, that we can hold the government accountable to and we understand what the priorities are — that’s huge. I do appreciate that,” Stohl said.

But, overall, observers say that eight years on, Obama’s global arms trade legacy is a far cry from what many may have expected at the start. Some thought the Democrat would come into office cautious about entering into new arms agreements with countries — or that he would even end some agreements. Instead, authorizations and agreements have skyrocketed, and human rights concerns have been overlooked, some say.

Another piece of the Obama administration’s legacy in terms of arms sales is the reform of arms export control regulations — something industry had wanted for decades — under his watch. Under the new system, tens of thousands of items moved from the State Department’s Munitions List to the Commerce Department’s Control List, which demands much less rigorous vetting for sales.

“Basically, the department whose job is to promote trade, now has jurisdiction over fairly sensitive weapons components,” Hartung said.

This shift was driven in part to help boost manufacturing in the midst of the recession, and the Obama administration saw supporting exports, and particularly defense industry exports, as one way to do that, Goodman said. The administration also increased the number of diplomats working with foreign counterparts to promote U.S. arms sales, he said, and that “resulted in a real increase in the amount of arms sales, authorizations, and deliveries.”

In a statement at the time, the White House said that “these changes are being made to address the increasing challenges posed by an outmoded export control system created during the Cold War,” but some experts say the impact on human rights has been much more significant. And looking at the legacy of the Obama administration’s arms sales overall, “there is a track record of human rights abuses being overlooked and arms sales to undemocratic [nations] have been allowed with impunity, really,” Stohl said.

From the weapons deals struck to the shifts in policy, the Obama administration will leave a long-lasting legacy on the U.S. and global arms trade, according to observers.

“Obama has opened the door to the permanently higher level of U.S. arms exports for years to come,” Hartung said.

Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @mweinger.

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