A Short and (In)Glorious History of U.S. Military Aid and Arms Sales

by Derek Davison

With all due respect to Tom Cotton and his efforts to pick a fight with somebody, anybody, in the Iranian government, it’s rare to see the leader of a foreign country engaged in a public spat with a U.S. senator. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) are embroiled in just such a feud, revolving around U.S. military aid. On February 17, Leahy and 10 Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry asking whether U.S. military assistance to Israel and Egypt had violated the so-called “Leahy Law,” which Leahy wrote in 1997. The Leahy Law prohibits the United States from sending aid, including military aid, to any foreign military unit “if the Secretary of State has credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.”

Leahy’s letter asked Kerry to investigate the involvement of Egyptian units receiving American assistance in the 2013 Rabaa Massacre, in which over 800 protesters were killed, as well as in a series of alleged extrajudicial killings and disappearances since then. With respect to Israel, Leahy called on Kerry to look into allegations of the “extrajudicial killings by the Israeli military and police” of at least four Palestinians since last September, as well as charges that Israeli security forces tortured two Palestinians in their custody.

Netanyahu’s reaction to Leahy’s letter, according to Politico, was immediate and angry:

Netanyahu issued a sharp response, defending his security forces, whom he said protect the innocent from “bloodthirsty terrorists who come to murder them.”

“This letter should have been addressed instead to those who incite youngsters to commit cruel acts of terrorism,” said Netanyahu in a statement released by his aides.

Leahy chided Netanyahu in a statement of his own, writing: “The prime minister of Israel knows — and it should go without saying” — that the U.S. has long supported Israel in its struggle against Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas, and that there are many U.S. laws prohibiting aid to such groups.

“The congressional letter cites allegations of possible serious abuses, identified by respected international human rights organizations, by the military and police forces of Egypt and Israel. Under the Leahy Law it is the responsibility of the State Department to evaluate the credibility of such allegations,” the senator wrote.

Arms Sales and Human Rights

Whatever may have happened to those four allegedly executed Palestinians, there’s no doubt that U.S. arms fueled Israel’s 2014 Gaza campaign, which very likely involved the commission of war crimes by the Israeli military. The use of American weaponry to facilitate such war crimes touches on one of the most popular topics of discussion among the DC foreign policy establishment: American military aid. Even the most ardent fan of direct U.S. military action has to concede that America can’t—both logistically and because the American public wouldn’t stand for it—involve itself in every conflict zone in the world. So, DC hawks often fall back on the idea that the U.S. should send weapons and equipment to preferred governments and non-governmental groups in places like Syria, Ukraine, and Iraqi Kurdistan. Retired general and former CIA Director David Petraeus has argued for arming “moderate members” of Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, to combat the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has directly criticized the Leahy Law for preventing U.S. aid to Nigerian forces trying to combat Boko Haram.

Despite these repeated calls to ship American arms and equipment into hotspots the world over, history does not offer a particularly kind assessment of such programs in the past. In fact, when provided or sold to foreign allies, American weapons frequently wind up being used to kill civilians and repress political opposition. Israel, the largest recipient of U.S. military aid, has used that assistance, in part, to kill upwards of 10,000 Palestinians since 2000. And, of course, the human rights abuses perpetrated by Egypt’s president/dictator/would-be pharaoh, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, were well-known long before Senator Leahy and his allies called attention to them.

Saudi Arabia, which doesn’t receive American military aid but has been the recipient of tens of billions of dollars in U.S. arms sales over the past several years, is currently using its stockpile of American weapons to engage in a destructive war in Yemen that has killed over 3,000 Yemeni civilians, has left countless more starving to death for lack of food and access to humanitarian assistance, and has actually empowered al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and (to a lesser extent) IS. The Obama administration decided last summer to resume weapons sales to Bahrain, despite that country’s ongoing and often brutal repression of its Shi‘a majority.

Arms Merry-Go-Round

Each of the above cases had one thing going for it: at least the American weaponry in question was actually being used by its intended recipient. You can’t say the same in Iraq, where American weapons provided to the post-Saddam Iraqi military were either lost due to mismanagement over the years or left behind as that military fled IS’s 2014 assault on Mosul. Those weapons are now a key element of the terror group’s military strength.

And Iraq isn’t the only example of military aid gone wrong

  • In Syria last fall, U.S. arms and equipment given to “vetted” Syrian rebels were quickly seized by, or simply handed over to, Jabhat al-Nusra
  • In Afghanistan, hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of small arms were found in 2014 to have simply vanished and could now be in the hands of Taliban militants or other paramilitary forces (past provisions of American weapons and military aid to groups in Afghanistan have worked out even worse than that).
  • In Somalia, weapons that the U.S. provided to Ugandan and Burundian forces fighting the terror group al-Shabaab eventually wound up in the hands of al-Shabaab fighters.
  • In Libya, a U.S.-approved plan for Qatar to provide weapons to anti-Qaddafi rebels likely resulted in weapons flowing to extremist groups, who may in turn have sent them to extremist groups in Syria and al-Qaeda affiliates in Mali.

One-Click Shopping

According to The New York Times, all it takes for extremist groups to shop for the latest in lost or seized top-of-the-line American weaponry these days is an Internet connection and a Facebook account:

A terrorist hoping to buy an antiaircraft weapon in recent years needed to look no further than Facebook, which has been hosting sprawling online arms bazaars, offering weapons ranging from handguns and grenades to heavy machine guns and guided missiles.

The Facebook posts suggest evidence of large-scale efforts to sell military weapons coveted by terrorists and militants. The weapons include many distributed by the United States to security forces and their proxies in the Middle East. These online bazaars, which violate Facebook’s recent ban on the private sales of weapons, have been appearing in regions where the Islamic State has its strongest presence.

Potential terrorists can shop for missiles, machine guns, grenade launchers, and even anti-aircraft weapons in between rounds of Candy Crush Saga. There’s now ample evidence to support the conclusion that the United States is unable to control how its weapons are used or even to account for their whereabouts once they’ve left U.S. custody. So, maybe it’s time to rethink the idea of selling and/or giving away those weapons in the first place.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.