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Seeing (Pentagon) Stars


Oh, the stars! We’re riveted by their clothes, their suntans, what they do (and don’t) eat for breakfast. We’re titillated when they appear too fat, disheveled, or lumpy. We’re envious when they’re expectably sleek, well muscled, and well coiffed. Christie Brinkley’s heartbreak is front page news. Britney’s baby gaffes are carefully dissected. The trials and tribulations of Jessica and Nick and Jennifer and Brad provided the tabloids and entertainment mags with months of fodder.

 

America exported $10.48 billion worth of film and television in 2004. The world’s favorite TV show is the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful. Every day, in almost every corner of the globe, people stream to movies made in the United States. They watch Halle Berry conjure up a storm with her eyes, Johnny Depp swashbuckle his way through the Caribbean, and Keanu Reeves swoon and mope in the company of Sandra Bullock. (Sorry about that last one, world!). But, in Uzbekistan, those same movie fans are denied the rights of free speech and assembly, while President Islam Karimov tightens his grip on power with an array of arms made in the USA. In the Philippines, they watch the country’s debt skyrocket as President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo gobbles up American weaponry at startling prices and an alarming rate.

 

Like American entertainment, American arms are a multibillion-dollar industry that leans heavily on foreign sales. In fact, the United States exported $18.55 billion in fighter planes, attack helicopters, tanks, battleships, and other weaponry in 2005. All signs point to 2006 being another banner export year. Just as in the movie, TV, and music businesses, we dwarf the competition. Russia is the next largest arms exporter with a measly $4 billion in yearly sales. In fact, U.S. arms exports accounted for more than half of total global arms deliveries — $34.8 billion — in 2004, and we export more of them ourselves than the next six largest exporters combined.

 

Given the huge payoffs and even larger payloads delivered, isn’t it strange how little attention the American arms industry gets? Maybe, in some small part, that’s because the industry’s magazines all have the word “Defense,” or some equivalent, prominently displayed on the cover — Defense Week, Defense News — instead of Glamour or Allure. Maybe it’s because of the Pentagon’s predilection for less than magnetic PowerPoint presentations, unbearably unexpressive acronyms, and slightly paunchy, very pasty, older white men in business suits. Maybe the arms trade just doesn’t seek the plush of the red carpet or the jittery pulse of flashing paparazzi cameras. Or maybe, it’s a business that just loves to revel in profitable anonymity.

 

But don’t be fooled. Like Hollywood, the arms industry has sex to spare. After all, the weapons themselves are all gleaming golden curves and massive thrusting spikes; they move at breath-robbing speed, make ear-splitting noise, and are capable of performing with awesome lethality. Just ask the Bush administration if you can’t fall in love with weapons this sexy and the military that wields them. And then there are the glittery galas and trade shows like the Paris Air Show — at Le Bourget airport north of the French capital — where generals and corporate bigwigs with power, prestige, and incomparable sums of money rub against each other amid the scandalous whispers of corporate breakups and new mergers.

 

A! Today in the Arms Trade”

 

It’s common to say that “you are what you eat”; but, at the level of nation-states, “you are what you export” may be no less true. We think of ourselves as trendsetters and style arbiters because of our best-known export — mass culture. But weapons are our most deadly and potent export; they help determine who controls key regions of the world and shape how those regions are governed; they create jobs, extinguish lives, and sometimes obliterate whole neighborhoods.

 

In the mountains of Turkey, Kurdish kids may not have a chance to drink Coke, listen to American rap, or play Street Fighter, but they do know two words of English, “Cobra” and “Black Hawk,” the names of the U.S.-made attack helicopters the Turks have used to strafe their villages. We should at least know as much about the weapons our country sells as they do, and more about the arms industry as whole than we do about Lindsay Lohan’s brush with anorexia and addiction.

 

What if we did? What if American girls grew up reading Jane’s Defence Weekly instead of (or in addition to) JANE? What if Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell labored on their craft in virtual obscurity, while Cameron Diaz and Scarlett Johansson did their own laundry after a hard shift on the film set? What if the attention these stars now get went to the arms trade? Then, Jeffrey Kohler and Robert Joseph would be household names, their every move tracked by a voracious media.

 

Perhaps then we would watch A! (as in “A! Today in the Arms Trade”) instead of E! Of course, I wouldn’t even have to write this next sentence, because everyone would already know that Jeffery Kohler is the Director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) within the Defense Department and Robert Joseph is Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security — and that the arms business wouldn’t be its sexy self without them.

 

Under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, these are the men who help promote U.S. weapons and military technology — as well as the companies that make them — to the world, assemble financing packages, and facilitate weapons buys. Their decisions help to determine who our friends and foes are (and will be) and what kind of weapons they will have.

 

A! might start with early morning chatter about Jeff’s tie choice and what that signals for future fighter-plane sales to Chile. Later, a panel would cheerily consider the excitement of Rob’s recent trip to Taiwan, and how Beijing views our new technology-sharing agreements with Taipei. Any announcement from the DSCA about a major arms transfer would be headline news and the particulars of an arms deal would be the froth of early-morning talk shows, happy-talk chatter on the news channels, not to speak of the wit of late night comedy and Dave’s or Jay’s monologue.

 

The Power Treatment

 

Even though we know that A! will never replace E!, nor will a magazine named Power replace People in those supermarket racks, there’s still plenty to talk about. It’s just that you have to read Aviation Week or SeaPower (or the Business pages of major newspapers) to know about it.

 

Take but one relatively modest example: In March 2003, the United States and Poland inked a Pentagon-brokered agreement worth $3.5 billion with U.S. arms companies. The emerging power and new member of the European Union bought a whole new military in a box: including 48 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter planes, Raytheon Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles, Sidewinder Short- Range Air-to-Air Missiles and Maverick Air-to-Ground Missiles.

 

Putting aside what Poland actually needed all this firepower for, how about a Power magazine in-depth investigation on how the big U.S. arms makers tempted Poland with $6.3 billion in investments. As one of Lockheed Martin’s directors explained, the deal wasn’t really about selling weapons to Poland. Nope, they were interested in “enhancing Poland competitively in the global economy, creating jobs and enhancing local labor market skills.” Kinda sweet, right?

 

So, to put this in a simple way, in order to sell Warsaw $3.5 billion in military hardware, we gave them $6.3 billion in goodies. Think about that for a moment. Isn’t it just a little too much of a good thing — like the $100,000 gift-bags movie stars get at parties after their $100 million movie premieres? Poland gets a GM plant (wait, didn’t one just close in Muncie, Indiana?) and a Motorola communications system in addition to a Lockheed Martin factory and billions more in U.S. investment. As the American ambassador to Poland said, “It’s the deal of the century.” For Poland yes, for American workers — like the ones who don’t make Pontiacs and Caddies in Detroit and Muncie anymore — maybe not.

 

Saudi Bling and Pentagon Rhetoric

 

In South Asia, the situation is different, but no less gossip-worthy for some future Power cover story. There, the desire to sell weapons has cast President George W. Bush in the role of a man trying to woo a new lover and placate his wife at the same time.

 

When the United States announced the sale of as many as 36 F-16 fighters to Pakistan, the Indian government was outraged. Though Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told President Bush that he was “greatly disappointed,” apoplectic might better describe the strength of the reaction; and you can see Singh’s point. India views itself as a stalwart and democratic ally, one with a growing economy and a growing appetite for U.S. goods.

 

So, when the Bush administration inked that arms deal with arch-rival Pakistan and agreed to send Islamabad F-16 fighter planes whose only likely use would be against India, you can hardly blame the Indians for being heartbroken. Pakistan — which would get the fighter planes with all the fixins for about $3 billion — is more the love-’em-and-leave-’em type anyway, an impetuous, impulsive dictatorship that has, in the past, harbored al-Qaeda elements and whose intelligence services helped create (and probably still supports) the Taliban; a country which, in the past, let its nuclear “secrets” slip off to states that our President loathes like Iran and North Korea, and that refuses to crackdown on Islamic fundamentalist schools and fundamentalist training camps within its borders. India and Pakistan are, of course, the bitterest of rivals, having fought three wars and suffered countless smaller flare-ups; both have tested nuclear weapons and continue to menace each other with them.

 

So, given India’s indignation, what did Bush do? He offered New Delhi similar fighter planes to those being given to Islamabad (twice the profits for American weapons makers, twice the power on each side to fight the next war). He then re-pledged his fidelity to India and guaranteed that country’s nuclear fuel supply, while opening talks about what fighter planes would be most suitable for India’s special needs. The U.S. offered the possibility of purchasing 126 of either Lockheed Martin’s F-16 or Boeing’s F-18 Hornet. And all of a sudden, everybody was remarkably satisfied — except perhaps the people of India and Pakistan who might have wondered where in the world their countries were going to get the dough for these advanced weapons systems, while so many of them stand on line at the village pump, or walk three miles to the closest school, or labor long hours bent over crops, or answer requests at customer-service call centers.

 

If, for a while, India played the spurned spouse, Saudi Arabia has taken on the role of a diva of hip-hop proportions. When it comes to weapons systems, the oil-rich oligarchy demands the best and always pays in cash — which is why the arms industry is just delighted with its brand new $6 billion deal with Riyadh (pending the normal Congressional rubber-stamp). Included will be a mélange of lethal toys: 24 UH-60L Black Hawk helicopters, armored vehicles, and other military equipment. Among the companies involved are Sikorsky, General Electric, General Dynamics, and Raytheon.

 

The DSCA claims this weapons package will help strengthen Saudi Arabia’s military and its ability to help the United States fight global terrorism, not to speak of giving that country’s armed forces the means to defend “stability” in a destabilizing region without perhaps having to call on an overstressed American military in a pinch. But beneath Riyadh’s bling and the Pentagon’s hopeful rhetoric lies another reality, worthy of one of those supermarket tabloids — the rulers of Saudi Arabia are fickle and not at all sure whether they want to cozy up to the West or to those who have the urge to bring the West down. Most of the 9/11 hijackers, of course, were Saudis; the royal family continues to support terrorist organizations and right-wing religious schools; and the kingdom rests on a sea of oil without access to which the global economy might sink in a nanosecond.

 

Weapons-maker to a Grim World

 

While foreign arms sales are regularly edged in scandal, here in the United States weapons deals are evidently worth going to prison over! You want sex, lies, and videotape? Okay, maybe not the sex part — and it was email, not video-tape that provided the incriminating evidence — but there were plenty of lies in a 2003 domestic arms scandal that bilked taxpayers of millions. Boeing — the bomber behemoth — tried to sucker the Air Force into leasing one hundred KC-135 tanker planes for in-air refueling at a cost of perhaps $6 billion dollars, more than it would have cost the government to buy the (unnecessary) planes outright.

 

The scheme landed Darleen Druyun, a former Air Force weapons buyer, in a Florida prison after she pled guilty to giving Boeing special treatment on a $23.5 billion government contract in exchange for a post as Senior Vice President at the company and perks for her family members. Talk about a cheap date! As a Boeing veep, Druyun pulled in a mere $250,000 a year, while the company would have taken in billions in revenue.

 

Of course, to the extent that the U.S. arms industry wants attention at all, it would prefer that we focus on the good news — all those benefits to be derived from arms sales abroad, which make for humming assembly lines at home. According to the DSCA, the United States sells weapons abroad mainly to foster relationships that promote specified U.S. interests, while building allied and friendly nation capabilities for self-defense and coalition operations. They may also mention what we get in return, especially secure access to military facilities around the world, but these alleged benefits can come at a high price.

 

Any PR flak could warn you about how a reputation for late-night carousing can sully a star’s squeaky-clean on-screen reputation. You can’t act like Paris Hilton at night and land roles for Mandy Moore the next morning. The same goes for arms sales. But the U.S. keeps trying. While boasting about democracy, security, and peace, we sell weapons to dictators, human rights abusers, and countries at war or at the edge of war (sometimes with each other).

 

In fact, twenty of our top twenty-five arms clients in the developing world in 2003 — a full 80% of them — were undemocratic regimes and/or governments with records as major human-rights abusers. All too often, U.S. arms transfers only fuel conflict, weaponize human-rights abusers, or fall into the hands of our adversaries. Far from serving as a force for security and stability, these sales frequently serve to empower unstable, undemocratic regimes to the detriment of global security.

 

The ways and means of America’s arms trade are not going to be spoon-fed to us the way model Naomi Campbell’s run-ins with the law are. Unfortunately, it takes work on our part to discover how our arms trade functions. But knowing where our weapons are going and what sort of havoc they are wreaking in our name seems worth the minor effort and inconvenience — even if it doesn’t offer the promise of the perfect tan or six-pack abs!

 

 

Frida Berrigan ([email protected]) is a Senior Research Associate at the World Policy Institute’s Arms Trade Resource Center. Her primary research areas with the project include nuclear-weapons policy, war profiteering and corporate crimes, weapons sales to areas of conflict, and military-training programs. She is the author of a number of Institute reports, most recently Weapons at War 2005: Promoting Freedom or Fueling Conflict.

 

[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, and of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing.]

 

 

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