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Iran Drives Spike in US Arms Sales

The New York Times’ Thom Shanker cites a new Congressional Research Service report to make the startling claim that “weapons sales by the United States tripled in 2011 to a record high” of $66.3 billion, an “extraordinary increase” from 2010’s total of $21.4 billion and one that represents “three-quarters of the global arms market.” The full report, by Richard Grimmett and Paul Kerr, is available here. While the dollar figures that Shanker cites are accurate, the context he provides is not.

First, the CRS report is based on calendar year data, whereas most U.S. figures are based on the Federal Year. The difference this makes in calculating percentage changes is astonishing, because the data are dominated by a few large sales, especially a $29 billion deal with the Saudis. Thus, if measured from FY 2010 to FY 2011, the increase is about nine percent, not three hundred percent.

Second, the CRS report includes only data from the government-to-government Foreign Military Sales (FMS) system, administered by the Defense Department. It does not include Direct Commercial Sales (DCS), administered by State. In FY 2011, DCS authorizations–which do not necessarily result in sales–totaled $44.3 billion. Again, the percentage increase in U.S. arms exports from 2010 to 2011 would be a lot less dramatic if it included all authorizations.

Third, Shanker leaves the impression that the U.S. is unleashing a tidal wave of armaments into the developing world. But Grimmett and Kerr note that the U.S. total for 2011 “was especially high … the international arms market is not likely growing overall. The U.S. global total for arms agreements in 2012 seems a clear outlier figure.” And while the figure of $66.3 billion will grab the headlines, those are agreements for future deliveries, not actual deliveries to the developing world in 2011, which, via FMS, totaled $10.5 billion for the U.S., about a third (not three-quarters) of combined U.S., Russian, Chinese, and European exports.

If the media are going to take an interest in this subject, I hope they’ll report a few other nuggets from CRS’s excellent work. Much of the demand for the U.N.’s Arms Trade Treaty is driven by the wars of Africa. So from 2008-2011, who actually delivered more arms to Africa, the U.S. or Italy?  The answer (Table 17), the Italians, by a factor of three ($105 million for the U.S., $300 million for Italy).  Over that same period, who delivered more arms to Latin America, the U.S. or minor European suppliers? The Europeans, by $2.4 billion to $1.4 billion.

It’s no surprise that the U.S. is competitive in the arms business. The only reason the U.S. doesn’t do better is because we rightly refuse to sell to a lot of the world’s grubbiest regimes. And it’s equally no surprise that sales to our allies in the Gulf are spiking: they have a dangerous neighbor. That’s the irony of the Administration’s decision to disengage from Iraq, while at the same time nattering on about the need to control the conventional arms trade: U.S. disengagement makes our allies nervous and increases their desire to buy our arms. And while arms sales are an indispensable part of foreign policy, selling arms is no substitute for U.S. leadership around the world.



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