Hey, aren’t we the most exceptional nation in history? George Bush and his pals thought so — and they were in a great American tradition of exceptionalism. Of course, they were imagining us as the most exceptional empire in history (or maybe at the end of it), the ultimate New Rome. Anyway, explain this to me: Among all the exceptional things we claim to do, how come we never take credit for what may be the most exceptional of all, our success of successes, the thing that makes us uniquely ourselves on this war-ridden planet — peddling more arms to Earthlings than anyone else in the neighborhood? Why do we hide this rare talent under a bushel? In the interest of shining a proud light on an under-rated national skill, I asked Frida Berrigan to return the United States to its rightful place in the Pantheon of arms-dealing nations. ~ Tom
We’re # 1!: A Nation of Firsts Arms the World
By Frida Berrigan
They don’t call us the sole superpower for nothing. Paul Wolfowitz might be looking for a new job right now, but the term he used to describe the pervasiveness of U.S. might back when he was a mere deputy secretary of defense — hyperpower — still fits the bill.
Face it, the United States is a proud nation of firsts. Among them:
First in Oil Consumption:
The United States burns up 20.7 million barrels per day, the equivalent of the oil consumption of China, Japan, Germany, Russia, and India combined.
First in Carbon Dioxide Emissions:
Each year, world polluters pump 24,126,416,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the environment. The United States and its territories are responsible for 5.8 billion metric tons of this, more than China (3.3 billion), Russia (1.4 billion) and India (1.2 billion) combined.
First in External Debt:
The United States owes $10.040 trillion, nearly a quarter of the global debt total of $44 trillion.
First in Military Expenditures:
The White House has requested $481 billion for the Department of Defense for 2008, but this huge figure does not come close to representing total U.S. military expenditures projected for the coming year. To get a sense of the resources allocated to the military, the costs of the global war on terrorism, of the building, refurbishing, or maintaining of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and other expenses also need to be factored in. Military analyst Winslow Wheeler did the math recently: “Add $142 billion to cover the anticipated costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; add $17 billion requested for nuclear weapons costs in the Department of Energy; add another $5 billion for miscellaneous defense costs in other agencies…. and you get a grand total of $647 billion for 2008.”
Taking another approach to the use of U.S. resources, Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard Business School lecturer Linda Bilmes, added to known costs of the war in Iraq invisible costs like its impact on global oil prices as well as the long-term cost of health care for wounded veterans and came up with a price tag of between 1 trillion and $2.2 trillion.
If we turned what the United States will spend on the military in 2008 into small bills, we could give each one of the world’s more than 1 billion teenagers and young adults an Xbox 360 with wireless controller (power supply in remote rural areas not included) and two video games to play: maybe Gears of War and Command and Conquer would be appropriate. But if we’re committed to fighting obesity, maybe Dance Dance Revolution would be a better bet. The United States alone spends what the rest of the world combined devotes to military expenditures.
First in Weapons Sales:
Since 2001, U.S. global military sales have normally totaled between $10 and $13 billion. That’s a lot of weapons, but in fiscal year 2006, the Pentagon broke its own recent record, inking arms sales agreements worth $21 billion. It almost goes without saying that this is significantly more than any other nation in the world.
In this gold-medal tally of firsts, there can be no question that things that go bang in the night are our proudest products. No one makes more of them or sells them more effectively than we do. When it comes to the sorts of firsts that once went with a classic civilian manufacturing base, however, gold medals are in short supply. To take an example:
Not First in Automobiles:
Once, Chrysler, General Motors, and Ford ruled the domestic and global roost, setting the standard for the automotive industry. Not any more. In 2006, the U.S. imported almost $150 billion more in vehicles and auto parts than it sent abroad. Automotive analyst Joe Barker told the Boston Globe, “it’s a very tough environment” for the so-called Detroit Three. “In times of softening demand, consumers typically will look to brands that they trust and rely on. Consumers trust and rely on Japanese brands.”
Not Even First in Bulk Goods:
The Department of Commerce recently announced total March exports of $126.2 billion and total imports of $190.1 billion, resulting in a goods and services deficit of $63.9 billion. This is a $6 billion increase over February.
But why be gloomy? Stick with arms sales and it’s dawn in America every day of the year. Sometimes, the weapons industry pretends that it’s like any other trade — especially when it’s pushing our congressional representatives (as it always does) for fewer restrictions and regulations. But don’t be fooled. Arms aren’t automobiles or refrigerators. They’re sui generis; they are the way the USA can always be number one — and everyone wants them. The odds that, in your lifetime, there will ever be a $128 billion trade deficit in weapons are essentially nil.
Arms are our real gold-medal event.
First in Sales of Surface-to-Air Missiles:
Between 2001 and 2005, the United States delivered 2,099 surface-to-air missiles like the “Sparrow” and the “AMRAAM” to nations in the developing world, 20% more than Russia, the next largest supplier.
First in Sales of Military Ships:
During that same period, the U.S. sent 10 “major surface combatants” like aircraft carriers and destroyers to developing nations. Collectively, the four major European weapons producers shipped thirteen. (And we were first in the anti-ship missiles that go along with such ships, with nearly double (338) the exports of the next largest supplier Russia (180).
First in Military Training:
A thoughtful empire knows that it is not enough to send weapons; you have to teach people how to use them. The Pentagon plans on training the militaries of 138 nations in 2008 at a cost of nearly $90 million. No other nation comes close.
First in Private Military Personnel:
According to bestselling author Jeremy Scahill, there are at least 126,000 private military personnel deployed alongside uniformed military personnel in Iraq alone. Of the more than sixty major companies that supply such personnel worldwide, more than 40 are U.S.-based.
Rest assured, governments around the world, often at each others’ throats, will want U.S. weapons long after their people have turned up their noses at a range of once dominant American consumer goods.
Just a few days ago, for instance, the “trade” publication Defense News reported that Turkey and the United States signed a $1.78 billion deal for Lockheed Martin’s F-16 fighter planes. As it happens, these planes are already ubiquitous — Israel flies them, so does the United Arab Emirates, Poland, South Korea, Venezuela, Oman and Portugal, not to speak about most other modern air forces. In many ways, F-16 is not just a high-tech fighter jet, it’s also a symbol of U.S. backing and friendship. Buying our weaponry is one of the few ways you can actually join the American imperial project!
In order to remain number one in the competitive jet field, Lockheed Martin, for example, does far more than just sell airplanes. TAI — Turkey’s aerospace corporation — will receive a boost with this sale, because Lockheed Martin is handing over responsibility for parts of production, assembly, and testing to Turkish workers. The Turkish Air Force already has 215 F-16 fighter planes and plans to buy 100 of Lockheed Martin’s new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as well, in a deal estimated at $10.7 billion over the next 15 years.
$10.7 billion on fighter planes for a country that ranks 94th on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, below Lebanon, Colombia, and Grenada, and far below all the European nations that Ankara is courting as it seeks to join the European Union — now that’s a real American sales job for you!
Here’s the strange thing, though: This genuine, gold-medal manufacturing-and-sales job on weapons simply never gets the attention it deserves. As a result, most Americans have no idea how proud they should be of our weapons manufacturers and the Pentagon — essentially our global sales force — that makes sure our weapons travel the planet and regularly demonstrates their value in small wars from Latin America to Central Asia.
Of course, there’s tons of data on the weapons trade, but who knows about any of it? I’m typical here. I help produce one of a dozen or so sober annual (or semi-annual) reports quantifying the business of war-making. In my case: the Arms Trade Resource Center report, U.S. Weapons at War: Fueling Conflict or Promoting Freedom? These reports get desultory, obligatory press attention — but only once in a blue moon do they get the sort of full-court-press treatment that befits our number-one product line.
Dense collections of facts, percentages, and comparisons don’t seem to fit particularly well into the usual patchwork of front-page stories. And yet the mainstream press is a glory ride, compared to the TV News, which hardly acknowledges most of the time that the weapons business even exists.
In any case, that inside-the-fold, fact-heavy, wonky news story on the arms trade, however useful, can’t possibly convey the gold-medal feel of a business that has always preferred the shadows to the sun. No reader checking out such a piece is going to feel much — except maybe overwhelmed by facts. The connection between the factory that makes a weapons system and the community where that weapon “does its duty” is invariably missing-in-action, as are the relationships among the companies making the weapons and the generals (on-duty and retired) and politicians making the deals, or raking in their own cut of the profits for themselves and/or their constituencies. In other words, our most successful (and most deadly) export remains our most invisible one.
Maybe the only way to break through this paralysis of analysis would be to stop talking about weapons exports as a trade at all. Maybe we shouldn’t be using economic language to describe it. Yes, the weapons industry has associations, lobby groups, and trade shows. They have the same tri-fold exhibits, scale models, and picked-over buffets as any other industry; still, maybe we have to stop thinking about the export of fighter planes and precision-guided missiles as if they were so many widgets and start thinking about them in another language entirely — the language of drugs.
After all, what does a drug dealer do? He creates a need and then fills it. He encourages an appetite or (even more lucratively) an addiction and then feeds it.
Arms dealers do the same thing. They suggest to foreign officials that their military just might need a slight upgrade. After all, they’ll point out, haven’t you noticed that your neighbor just upgraded in jets, submarines, and tanks? And didn’t you guys fight a war a few years back? Doesn’t that make you feel insecure? And why feel insecure for another moment when, for just a few billion bucks, we’ll get you suited up with the latest model military… even better than what we sold them — or you the last time around.
Why does Turkey, which already has 215 fighter planes, need 100 extras in an even higher-tech version? It doesn’t… but Lockheed Martin, working the Pentagon, made them think they did.
We don’t need stronger arms control laws, we need a global sobriety coach — and some kind of 12-step program for the dealer-nation as well.
Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel, The End of Victory Culture, and most recently, Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews. His new blog is The Notion. Frida Berrigan is a Senior Research Associate at the World Policy Institute’s Arms Trade Resource Center.