The Impact of Arms Sales to Other Countries

(This is an archived extract from the book Patterns of Power: Edition 2)

Governments can use arms sales as a tool of foreign policy: 

·      They can strengthen friendly governments by supplying arms. For example, a $29.4 billion sale of aircraft to Saudi Arabia was described as part of “the U.S. commitment to a strong Saudi defense capability as a key component to regional security”.[1]

·      Some sales of arms are made with the specific purpose of weakening an enemy; Iran sent arms to the Hamas terrorists in Gaza,[2] for example, as part of its campaign against Israel; it has also armed the Taliban in Afghanistan, to inflict damage upon Britain and America.[3]

One obvious disadvantage of the arms trade, though, is that it can pour fuel on the flames of conflict.  It is possible to counteract this by applying international sanctions against the sales of arms to countries which present a security risk to their neighbours, though it is hard to police such sanctions effectively – as was illustrated by the ‘Iran-Contra’ affair (7.4.4).

Another disadvantage of the trade is the risk of unintended consequences.  In the 1980s America had supplied Saddam Hussein with anthrax and other materials for his biological weapons of mass-destruction (WMD)[4] but, as noted in the next chapter (8.4.1), the Bush Administration later cited fear of the resulting threat as a reason for the 2003 invasion to topple his regime.

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014                                                 

[1] A Special Joint Press Briefing On U.S. Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia, on 29 December 2011, was published by the Department of State and was available in May 2014 at http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2011/12/179777.htm.

[2] Israel's interception of a ship which it says "was carrying arms for militant groups in the Gaza Strip" was widely reported on 15 March 2011; the BBC report at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12746333 was available in May 2014.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quoted as saying "The source of the weapons was Iran which is trying to arm the Strip."

[3] The BBC reported a British Foreign Office Minister's anger in June 2011 at Iran's flouting of UN sanctions by supplying arms to the Taliban; this report was available in May 2014 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-13545621.

[4] Sir Teddy Taylor quoted Kenneth Timmerman’s book, The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq, during a Parliamentary debate on 18 March 2003.  He listed several poisonous materials, including anthrax, whose sale to Iraq had been approved by “the US Department of Commerce”.  The official Hansard transcript of this debate was available in May 2014 at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200203/cmhansrd/vo030318/debtext/30318-32.htm (column 853).

There are numerous other Internet and media references to the American sale of anthrax to Iraq, including a Washington Post article entitled Iraq's Drive for a Biological Arsenal which was published on 21 November 1997 and which was available in May 2014 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/longterm/iraq/stories/112197.htm.