Donald Trump, Gun-Runner for Hire

By William D. Hartung, the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex. Originally published at TomDispatch

American weapons makers have dominated the global arms trade for decades. In any given year, they’ve accounted for somewhere between one-third and more than one-half the value of all international weapons sales. It’s hard to imagine things getting much worse — or better, if you happen to be an arms trader — but they could, and soon, if a new Trump rule on firearms exports goes through.

But let’s hold off a moment on that and assess just how bad it’s gotten before even worse hits the fan. Until recently, the Trump administration had focused its arms sales policies on the promotion of big-ticket items like fighter planes, tanks, and missile defense systems around the world. Trump himself has loudly touted U.S. weapons systems just about every time he’s had the chance, whether amid insults to allies at the recent NATO summit or at a chummy White House meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose brutal war in Yemen is fueled by U.S.-supplied arms.

A recent presidential export policy directive, in fact, specifically instructs American diplomats to put special effort into promoting arms sales, effectively turning them into agents for the country’s largest weapons makers. As an analysis by the Security Assistance Monitor at the Center for International Policy has noted, human rights and even national security concerns have taken a back seat to creating domestic jobs via such arms sales. Evidence of this can be found in, for example, the ending of Obama administration arms sales suspensions to Nigeria, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. The first of those had been imposed because of the way the Nigerian government repressed its own citizens; the second for Bahrain’s brutal crackdown on the democracy movement there; and the last for Saudi Arabia’s commission of acts that one member of Congress has said “look like war crimes” in its Yemeni intervention.

Fueling death and destruction, however, turns out not to be a particularly effective job creator. Such military spending actually generates significantly fewer jobs per dollar than almost any other kind of investment. In addition, many of those jobs will actually be located overseas, thanks to production-sharing deals with weapons-purchasing countries like Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and other U.S. allies. To cite an example, one of the goals of Saudi Arabia’s economic reform plan — unveiled in 2017 — is to ensure that, by 2030, half the value of the kingdom’s arms purchases will be produced in Saudi Arabia. U.S. firms have scrambled to comply, setting up affiliates in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and in the case of Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky unit, agreeing to begin assembling military helicopters there. McClatchy news service summed up the situation in this headline: “Trump’s Historic Arms Deal Is a Likely Jobs Creator — In Saudi Arabia.”

For most Americans, there should be serious questions about the economic benefits of overseas arms sales, but if you’re a weapons maker looking to pump up sales and profits, the Trump approach has already been a smashing success. According to the head of the Pentagon’s arms sales division, known euphemistically as the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the Department of Defense has brokered agreements for sales of major systems worth $46 billion in the first six months of 2018, more than the $41 billion in deals made during all of 2017.

And that, it seems, is just the beginning.

Slow Motion Weapons of Mass Destruction

Yes, those massive sales of tanks, helicopters, and fighter aircraft are indeed a grim wonder of the modern world and never receive the attention they truly deserve. However, a potentially deadlier aspect of the U.S. weapons trade receives even less attention than the sale of big-ticket items: the export of firearms, ammunition, and related equipment. Global arms control advocates have termed such small arms and light weaponry — rifles, automatic and semi-automatic weapons, and handguns — “slow motion weapons of mass destruction” because they’re the weapons of choice in the majority of the 40 armed conflicts now underway around the world. They and they alone have been responsible for nearly half of the roughly 200,000 violent deaths by weapon that have been occurring annually both in and outside of official war zones.

And the Trump administration is now moving to make it far easier for U.S. gun makers to push such wares around the world. Consider it an irony, if you will, but in doing so, the president who has staked his reputation on rejecting everything that seems to him tainted by Barack Obama is elaborating on a proposal originally developed in the Obama years.

The crucial element in the new plan: to move key decisions on whether or not to export guns and ammunition abroad from the State Department’s jurisdiction, where they would be vetted on both human rights and national security grounds, to the Commerce Department, whose primary mission is promoting national exports.

The Violence Policy Center, a research and advocacy organization that seeks to limit gun deaths, has indicated that such a move would ease the way for more exports of a long list of firearms. Those would include sniper rifles and AR-15s, the now-classic weapon in U.S. mass killings like the school shootings in Parkland, Florida, and Newtown, Connecticut. Under the new plan, the careful tracking of whose hands such gun exports could end up in will be yesterday’s news and, as a result, U.S. weapons are likely to become far more accessible to armed gangs, drug cartels, and terrorist operatives.

President Trump’s plan would even eliminate the requirement that Congress be notified in advance of major firearms deals, which would undoubtedly prove to be the arms loophole of all time. According to statistics gathered by the Security Assistance Monitor, which gathers comprehensive information on U.S. military and police aid programs, the State Department approved $662 million worth of firearms exports to 15 countries in 2017. The elimination of Congressional notifications and the other proposed changes will mean that countries like Mexico, the Philippines, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as various Central American nations, will have far easier access to a far wider range of U.S. firearms with far less Congressional oversight. And that, in turn, means that U.S.-supplied weapons will play even more crucial roles in vicious civil wars like the one in Yemen and are far more likely to make their way into the hands of local thugs, death squads, and drug cartels.

And mind you, it isn’t as if U.S. gun export policies were enlightened before the Trump era. They were already wreaking havoc in neighboring countries. According to a report from the Center for American Progress, an astonishing 50,000 U.S. guns were recovered in criminal investigations in 15 Western Hemisphere nations between 2014 and 2016. That report goes on to note that 70% of the guns recovered from crimes in Mexico are of U.S. origin. The comparable figures for Central America are 49% for El Salvador, 46% for Honduras, and 29% for Guatemala.

While Donald Trump rails — falsely — against a flood of criminals washing across the U.S.-Mexico border, he conveniently ignores this country’s export of violence in the other direction thanks to both legal and illegal transfers of guns to Mexico and Central America. The U.S. has, in short, already effectively weaponized both criminal networks and repressive security forces in those countries. In other words, it’s played a key role in the killing of significant numbers of innocent civilians there, ratcheting up the pressure on individuals, families, and tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors who have then headed for the United States looking for a safer, better life. Trump’s new proposal would potentially make this situation far worse and his “big, fat, beautiful wall” would have to grow larger still.

In the past, congressional awareness of foreign firearm deals has made a difference. In September 2017, under pressure from Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), the Trump administration reversed itself and blocked a sale of 1,600 semiautomatic pistols to Turkey because of abuses by the personal security forces of that country’s president, Recep Erdogan. (Those included what the New York Times described as “brutal attacks” on U.S. citizens during Erdogan’s May 2017 trip to Washington, D.C.) Similarly, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) persuaded the Obama administration to halt a deal that would have sent 26,000 assault rifles to the Philippines, where security forces and private death squads, egged on by President Rodrigo Duterte, were gunning down thousands of people suspected of (but not charged with or convicted of) drug trafficking. As Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin has noted, under the new Trump rules, it will be nearly impossible for members of Congress to intervene in such a fashion to stop similar deals in the future.

On the implications of the deregulation of firearms exports, Cardin has spoken out strongly. “The United States,” he said, “should never make it easier for foreign despots to slaughter their civilians or for American-made assault weapons to be readily available to paramilitary or terrorist groups… The administration’s proposal makes those scenarios even more possible. The United States is, and should be, better than this.”

The Trump plan is, however, good news for hire-a-gun successors to Blackwater, the defunct private contractor whose personnel killed 17 civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in a notorious 2007 incident. Such firms would be able to train foreign military forces in the use of firearms without seeking licenses from the State Department, allowing them to operate in places like Libya that might otherwise have been off-limits.

Embracing the Gun Lobby

Not surprisingly, Trump’s proposal to make it easier for global gun-runners to operate from U.S. soil has been greeted with jubilation by the National Rifle Association and U.S.-based firearms manufacturers. The NRA has been a staunch opponent of efforts to place any kind of controls on the global trade in guns since at least the mid-1990s. That was when the United Nations first addressed the impact of the global trade in small arms and light weapons, which ultimately led to the passage of an international Arms Trade Treaty in 2014. Though the Obama administration signed it, the Senate refused to ratify it, in large part thanks to an NRA lobbying campaign.

Now, the NRA has an enthusiastic ally in the president. And that organization, which vigorously backed him in the 2016 election campaign, spending over $30 million on ads praising him or trashing Hillary Clinton, is backing his efforts to deregulate gun exports to the hilt. In a June 2018 letter from its Institute for Legislative Affairs, the NRA urged its supporters to weigh in favorably during the public-comment period on the new rules, describing them as “among the most important pro-gun initiatives by the Trump administration to date.” That’s no small claim, given the president’s enthusiastic embrace of virtually every element of the NRA’s anti-gun-control agenda.

The National Sports Shooting Federation (NSSF), the misleadingly named trade association for U.S. gun manufacturers, is also backing Trump’s efforts to boost firearms exports. The federation’s president, Lawrence Keane, has asserted that the administration proposal will be “a significant positive development for the industry that will allow members to reduce costs and compete in the global marketplace more effectively, all while not in any way hindering national security.”

Among the biggest threats posed by Trump’s approach to guns is his administration’s decision to settle a case with Defense Distributed, a Texas-based firm run by gun advocate Cody Wilson, and so usher in “the age of the downloadable gun.” Though a Seattle-based judge intervened to stop him for the time being, the government had green-lighted Wilson’s posting of designs on the Internet that could be used to produce plastic guns on 3-D printers. If it does happen, it will undoubtedly prove to be a global bonanza for anyone in need of a weapon and capable of purchasing such a printer anywhere in the world.

Arms control and human rights groups have joined domestic gun control organizations like the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Everytown for Gun Safety, and the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in trying to block the change, which will dramatically undermine efforts to limit the proliferation of guns at home and abroad. If they fail, it will suddenly become much easier to produce untraceable plastic firearms — from handguns to AR-15s. The administration even agreed to pay Cody Wilson’s legal fees in the dispute, a move former congressman Steve Israel (D-NY) has described as “a particularly galling example of Mr. Trump’s obsequiousness to the most extreme fringe of the gun lobby.”

Congress could seek to blunt the most egregious aspects of the Trump administration’s deregulation of firearms exports by, for instance, ensuring that oversight of the most dangerous guns — like sniper rifles and AR-15 semiautomatic weapons — not be shifted away from the State Department. It could also continue to force the administration to notify Congress of any major firearms deals before they happen and pass legislation making it illegal to post instructions for producing untraceable guns via 3-D printing technology.

In a political climate dominated by an erratic president in the pocket of the NRA and a Congress with large numbers of members under the sway of the gun lobby, however, only a strong, persistent public outcry might make a difference.

In the meantime, welcome to the world of American gun-running and start thinking of Donald Trump as our very own gun-runner-in-chief.

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  1. JBird

    How evil can our nation get? We overthrow governments, often democratically elected,start wars,often civil, invade and obliterate countries, and then we sell weapons, often to all sides.

    This ain’t about national security, realpolitik, corruption or the even the 2nd Amendment. Oh no.

    This is a very large part of our country being a monstrously evil gang no better than the Zetas and worst than the Mafia; they are making money by using their fellow Americans to fight, die, be wounded, even made insane as they destroy the lives of millions of innocent men, women, and children. Then make more money by selling the ability to kill more innocent people to usually evil people.

    We can’t rid of these hyenas soon enough.

    Yeah, I am repeating myself and restating what Yves wrote but God seeing this written out like this is hurts.

    1. teri

      Yves posted this article, but did not write it. It was written by William D. Hartung. Look back up there at the bolded line under the title. (I’m not trying to be an ass, I’m just giving credit where it’s due.)

  2. albrt

    The United States is extremely evil, but it can probably get more evil since both legacy political parties are in favor of evil and there is no one except Russian trolls opposing them.

  3. makedoanmend

    “…The crucial element in the new plan: to move key decisions on whether or not to export guns and ammunition abroad from the State Department’s jurisdiction, where they would be vetted on both human rights and national security grounds, to the Commerce Department, whose primary mission is promoting national exports…”

    I know very little about how the USA legislative process works, and much less how the wheels are greased these days.

    I do know that the legislative process in the US Congress tends to be very slow, but still couldn’t Congress simply create legislation that states that any and every US government agency must vet all gun sales on human and national security grounds. It seems President Trump’s administration is running rough shod over accepted norms of governance and finding “loopholes” everywhere to advance his policies simply by by-passing the legislative process. Technical governance seems to have take precedence over some legislation processes across many Western neo-liberal democracies. (Are we moving back, in incremental degrees, to governance by decree?)

    I doubt very much that the bill would be passed given the current crop of Congress people but it would highlight how individual Congressional representative’s voted and allow citizens opposed to unregulated gun sales to put pressure on their representatives or replace them through the ballot box.

    Or maybe I’m just being too naive. Or living in the past.

    1. Tomonthebeach

      I’m not sure that any current federal agency would give a ratzass what the effect of selling arms to despots would be. We cannot even keep guns out of the hands of children.

    2. JBird

      I do know that the legislative process in the US Congress tends to be very slow, but still couldn’t Congress simply create legislation that states that any and every US government agency must vet all gun sales on human and national security grounds. It seems President Trump’s administration is running rough shod over accepted norms of governance and finding “loopholes” everywhere to advance his policies simply by by-passing the legislative process. Technical governance seems to have take precedence over some legislation processes across many Western neo-liberal democracies. (Are we moving back, in incremental degrees, to governance by decree?)

      Many are not aware at just how nonfunctional, even nonexistent, the Federal government has become. Congress is no longer the active deliberative managing body it is supposed to be, and actually was up into the 80s. Since then then there has been a somewhat deliberate effort to destroy all that; the agencies that directly supported it are mostly gone, the staffing for the congresscriters has been strongly reduced, the work has been switched to mostly fund raising (bribe taking) and political gaming (advertising opportunities), and maybe worst of all, the members no longer, indeed are sometimes discouraged, from socializing together. Often the real work would be done during the parties, meals, get togethers, drunken bar sessions where they would see their opposites as friends, and not the enemy, and people are often listen to their friends even if they think they’re nuts.

      So the ability, ways, and even habits of doing its job has been taken away from it. Just look at all the wars we are in, that Congress has never declared like it used to do, but no longer does.

      Between regulatory capture, decreased funding, and the skeletonizing of the staff a similar explanation can be given for the both the courts and the regulatory agencies. The only fully(over)staffed people are the military and the various police and security agencies including the private, but effectively governmental, contractors doing much of the now expanded, and often unconstitutional but still sanctioned, intelligence, military, and policing/security functions the government itself used to do.

      So the President and his minions sometimes have to effective govern by decree because everyone else are often not doing their jobs. But the President is far away, so thoses orders are sometimes…diverted.

  4. The Rev Kev

    I suppose that as Trump is a businessman he sees little use for all those Embassies scattered around the word when they could all be turned into sales centers instead and American diplomats be made to be salespeople (we don’ need no stinkin’ diplomacy!). The money is certainly there as about $1.7 trillion is being spent yearly on weapons and that is just by the world’s militaries. That is serious money and the US under Trump has decided to go full bore on more weapons sales. And they do not want any competition either. At the last NATO summit, there was a demand that their member nations get rid of their Russian-made weapons ( for US-built weapons instead as that is a big sales opportunity right there. The US is also leaning very heavily on other countries to stop buying Russian weapons and buy US weapons instead – or else. Turkey is under pressure, partially because they are buying the Russian S400 weapons system to secure their skies as the US has nothing like that for sale.
    This article discusses mostly guns but they are part of a whole ecology of weapons that cannot be ignored. It should be mentioned too that with weapons there is an element of control for the country selling weapons. If your buyer starts to go off the reservation, then you can throttle back selling the munitions needed for these weapons to give them a message. Guns don’t work so well without bullets except as clubs. With higher end weapons it takes on a new dimension. When I read of a sale of say, tanks to a country I think about the fact that there is also a contract being added to service those weapons. The higher up the scale you go of weapon technology, the more contracts are needed to make that weapon system work. Of course this can be throttled back as well and we had an example of this in Iraq recently. The US was unhappy that Hezbollah had managed to snag themselves a few US-built vehicles and so demanded that the Iraqis go get them, They then stop the servicing of US supplied Abrams tanks so that soon half were out of order and unavailable for the battlefield.
    I don’t think that all this was what President Franklin D. Roosevelt had in mind when he declared America to be the “Arsenal of Democracy” back in 1940.

  5. Alex V

    I’m wondering why the author seems to think the State Department somehow cares more about human rights than the Commerce Department… History shows that they approve weapons exports to whoever is politically favored at the moment, and not based on any kind of moral code.The focus on Trump as some kind of new extreme is also interesting – as an example, Hillary Clinton herself supervised and promoted numerous weapons sales when she was SoS.

    In any case, export controls are rarely about protecting human rights – their primary purposes are to protect domestic industry, preserve technological edges, and to punish or reward political enemies or friends.

    This statement is also somewhat disingenuous:

    “The crucial element in the new plan: to move key decisions on whether or not to export guns and ammunition abroad from the State Department’s jurisdiction, where they would be vetted on both human rights and national security grounds, to the Commerce Department, whose primary mission is promoting national exports.”

    The EAR does not preclude controls based on human rights issues – any country or entity can be banned from receiving designated products, at the whims of the President.

    I’d also add that 3D printed “guns” at their current level of development are essentially useless and are more likely to injure the user than the target and were included in this piece for easy political points. The effort and cost involved in producing them is also far greater that it is worth, compared to what one could achieve in a reasonably equipped machine shop in an afternoon. Search “Khyber Pass guns” for examples.

    Given all of this, I still hate guns, and believe they are vastly under regulated – I just disagree with the tack taken by the author.

  6. David

    Each year, the ATF produces a report, Firearms Commerce in the United States.

    Highlights from the 2018 edition. In 2016,

    – The U.S. manufactured 11.5 M firearms, the most since 1985 (when the data begins).
    – U.S. manufacturers exported 377,000 firearms. The peak was 431.000 in 1993.
    – The U.S. imported 4.5M firearms in 2017. The peak was 5.1M in 2016.
    – There were 6,853 applications to import firearms in 2017. This is down from 7,188 applications in 2016. The peak was 21,483 applications in 1991.
    – Austria was the largest source of imports with 1.2 M firearms imported in 2017 (almost all handguns).

    The ATF also produces trace reports for firearms recovered in other countries. These reports are designed to track sales. possession, and sources of firearms. As the disclaimer says, “Not all firearms used in crime are traced and not all firearms traced are used in crime.” Also, “The firearms selected do not constitute a random sample and should no be considered representative of the larger universe of all firearms used by criminals, or any subset of that universe.”

    Having said that, in 2016, the percent of firearms recovered in country that could be traced to U.S. sources were:

    Guatemala, – 28.6%
    Honduras – 46.2%
    El Salvador – 48.9%
    Panama – 38.9%
    Mexico – 68.7%
    (source) (source)

  7. Norb

    Just one more step in the direction towards oblivion.

    Since hardly anyone keeps a physical diary these days, future historians are going to have a hard time probing the inner workings of the contemporary mind. Digital records are easily lost or corrupted. Future generations will have to make their own conclusions about the legacy remains of plastic, pollution concentrations, and military hardware.

    When America is viewed as a Barbarian Horde, these policies make more sense. This doesn’t imply that there are not other forces of evil throughout the world, it only should put to rest the notion that Americans are trying to spread civilization or somehow improve the lot of humanity.

    This slow motion decay, evident daily, points to a lost future. By now, any sane person should be considering how to get out of the existing political orbit and pull of the reigning powers. Resistance does seem futile. The mantra is join us or die- all the while using the power and efficiency of productive capacity to place arms into the hands of fanatics.

    Face it, peaceful citizens are in the belly of the beast- but refuse to fully appreciate the consequences.

    Advertising and marketing work 24/7/360 to convince otherwise by putting a smiling face on the horror and make everything more palatable. The campaign continues to be wildly successful, and new young talent is drawn into system.

    I keep coming back to George Carlin’s insight into the Big Club. The citizens of America are daily becoming outsiders in their own country, but tenaciously hold onto the fiction that they are insiders. The majority have lost control over their lives and can’t figure out how to meaningfully get that control back.

    Expanding corporate power is the driving force and military contractors are the tip of that iceberg. Purveyors of direct violence on top of indirect violence.

    Finding sanctuary in some direct, concrete way seems the only way out- or in if you prefer. Altering the path of the existing leadership seems like wasted energy. Their worldview is just too different for logic and reason to matter.

  8. Scott1

    Write or call right away that you want the Pompeo State Department to continue to regulate Arms Sales, And not see that US national regulation transferred to Wilbur Ross at the Department of Commerce.

    It is best practices to have the Department of State delegate the distribution of force because the State has a monopoly on the use of force nationally and internationally due to national security and the demands of Defense.

    The main front of the Drug War is in Mexico along the border. The reports I’ve read say that 10 thousand a year are killed in that war. It is an astounding number to many observers who say you do not see that many deaths from the exclusive use of rifles and pistols anywhere else.

    Usually to kill that many people you have to use artillery.

    In the US itself the Drug War has led to what is called mass incarceration and the rise of for profit prisons.

    The Drug War has been a dependable long term source of profits for American weapons producers and for profit prisons employing those working at the production plants and then their lobbyists.

    To change weapons policies, or any policies your organizations have to have possession of territory in DC from which to maintain a presence and work from to lobby effectively for anti war, and anti Drug war policies. However many think tanks the holistically oriented pushing a totality of civilized policies there may be in DC they are obviously not enough or effective.

    I am reflecting something here in that I am not even saying that the power of change towards advancing civilization rests in the representatives that become elected. I am implying that Think Tanks and Institutes represent power and policies.

    A true nation has a monopoly on the use of force. Your Local & State government enforces the assumed monopoly on the use of force. Life lived in places where the monopoly on the use of force is enforced is more civilized than lives lived where the Government does not enforce its monopoly on the use of force.

    The charm of the US was the Western anarchy of laws unenforced. The US does act like a nation of barbarians. Weapons merchants have to them delegated force distribution. It was proper for Congress to have a nay or yes say over force distribution.

    We readers here then have to lobby our representatives by phone and if possible contribute to or found our own DC Institutes. Progressives have to take territory in DC where there is a lot of competition for space power.

    Call and say Don’t Transfer Regulation of Arms Sales to Wilbur Ross.
    That is the shortest thing I can leave us with.

  9. Marc Erickson

    “…he conveniently ignores this country’s export of violence in the other direction thanks to both legal and illegal transfers of guns to Mexico and Central America…” And Canada. it’s a big problem. Gangbangers are getting their guns from you adn we don’t want your bloody guns here!

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