US lobby backed by arms industry could influence foreign policy


New group aiming to lobby presidential candidates on 'national security' issues comes as US pledges to step up arms sales to Gulf states

Under President Obama, the US has approved more arms sales than under any other administration since WWII (AFP)
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Friday 15 May 2015 22:54 UTC

A new US lobby group headed by defence ministry insiders has heightened concerns over the role of business interests in determining Washington’s foreign policy, as arms companies seek to boost foreign sales.

Americans for Peace Prosperity and Security (APPS) is a new pressure group founded by former FBI agent Mike Rogers, who says he is pursuing a career in talk radio after stepping down from Congress in January.

APPS was formed in the run-up to the presidential election of 2016 with the stated aim of helping to “elect a president who supports American engagement and a strong foreign policy”.

A promotional video for the group describes the “threat matrix” facing the US, among them Islamic State (IS) and “nuclear Iran”.

Rogers promises that APPS will lobby contenders for the presidency, as well as “inform and involve citizens” living in the states that are first to nominate candidates about national security issues.

The tagline for APPS is “keep America safe” – however, a look at its leadership board suggests that securing business interests could also be a driving factor behind the group.

Recent research by The Intercept shows that of seven members of APPS’s national advisory board, three have strong business links with defence companies, and stand to gain financially if the US pursues a more aggressive foreign policy line post-2016.

Several members of its board for New Hampshire, the first US state to select its presidential candidates, are either employees or founders of defence giants like BAE Systems and Insight Technology.

APPS did not respond to MEE's request for comment for this story.

Analysts say that APPS, while far from unique in the US as an industry-funded lobby group, could play a significant post-election role, as Washington’s current Democratic leaders pledge to scale up defence co-operation with allies in the Middle East.

President Barack Obama on Thursday night pledged that his security commitments to the Gulf states were “ironclad,” seeking to appease the key regional allies amid discontent over Washington’s impending nuclear deal with Iran.

The US promised to fast-track arms transfers to GCC states which, according to a White House statement on Thursday, are “contributing to regional security”. A team of legal experts will be dispatched to the region in the coming weeks to find ways to accelerate munitions transfers.

The agreement comes days before a five-day humanitarian ceasefire in Yemen is scheduled to end, with the Saudi-led coalition widely expected to resume its airstrikes targeting Houthi rebels.

While the US has publicly worked for peace in Yemen, brokering the ceasefire deal that came into place on Tuesday, its backstage role has been more complex. When Human Rights Watch accused Saudi Arabia of dropping US-made cluster bombs near residential areas in northern Yemen, Washington refused to join rights groups in condemning the use of the high-risk weaponry.

Instead, it argued that the high impact weapon could be “appropriate” for the Yemeni campaign, despite reports that many of the bombing targets are in civilian areas. Ninety-one states worldwide have long agreed to ban cluster bombs, which comprise sub-munitions liable to detonate long after they are dropped. But the US, Saudi Arabia and Yemen are not among the signatories.

US jets have also been refuelling US-made fighter planes (owned by the UAE and Saudi Arabia) that are involved in the bombing campaign in Yemen.

This semi-active role is the legacy of years of unprecedented US arms sales to the region, and especially to Saudi Arabia, which this year became the world’s biggest arms importer. The Obama administration, which came into power in 2009, has approved more arms sales than any other US administration since World War II. Sixty percent of these exports have gone to the Middle East and the Persian Gulf countries.

“Obama has been a great friend to the arms industry,” according to William Hartung, an analyst at the Centre for International Policy (CIP). Reforms to the export trade, which would see the responsibility for approving arms sales shifted from the State Department to the Commerce Department, were pushed by the industry for decades, Hartung says. Obama finally okayed the measure in 2012. “The message is that Obama is very much willing to take into account the interests of industry in his arms sales policy,” explains Hartung.

But the fiscal motives are far from the only driving factor behind this policy. Under Obama, Washington has used arms sales to up its leverage with regional allies and to exercise the kind of “soft power” the president promised on coming to office. “Obama assumes that, if he arms allies in the regions of most concern, it will create deterrence and allow them to do more in their own defence,” according to Hartung. In the case of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh’s purchase of record amounts of US weaponry could be a way to reward Washington for its promises of protection.

Now, with Obama 20 months from stepping down, defence companies may be concerned that their unbridled arms sales to the Middle East could be threatened by the accession of a more cautious president. Another consideration is cutbacks to domestic defence spending, which have capped Pentagon’s budget as part of a long-term deficit-reduction plan. In this environment, defence firms are focusing on foreign customers, by far the most lucrative portion of the market.

And with tensions in the Middle East looking unlikely to subside any time soon, arms manufactures are among the primary beneficiaries.

“The current conflict in Yemen and general tensions in the region will probably work to the benefit of arms companies,” says Hartung, who heads CIP’s Arms and Security Project. “The industry thrives on tensions.”

In this environment, attempts to lobby presidential candidates to adopt more hawkish positions on foreign policy are a key part of the industry’s strategy to maximise foreign sales going forward.

“Groups like these are really significant. There’s so much money flowing in that it’s hard to make your industry contributions substantial. But if you can pressure the candidates directly, you get leverage up front. It’s very valuable for the industry - it helps create the tensions that make conflict more likely.”