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Tom Engelhardt
Tom Dispatch / Op-Ed
Published: Monday 14 January 2013
The Obama administration is reportedly going to call on Congress to pass a new ban on assault weapons, as well as one on high-capacity ammunition magazines, and to close the loopholes that allow certain gun purchasers to avoid background checks, but Biden has already conceded, at least implicitly, that facing a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a filibuster-prone Senate, the administration’s ability to make much of this happen—as on so many domestic issues—is limited.

The Pentagon as a Global NRA

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Given these last weeks, who doesn’t know what an AR-15 is?  Who hasn’t seen the mind-boggling stats on the way assault rifles have flooded this country, or tabulations of accumulating Newtown-style mass killings, or noted that there are barely more gas stations nationwide than federally licensed firearms dealers, or heard the renewed debates over the Second Amendment, or been struck by the rapid shifts in public opinion on gun control, or checked out the disputes over how effective an assault-rifle ban was the last time around?  Who doesn’t know about the NRA’s suggestion to weaponize schools, or about the price poor neighborhoods may be paying in gun deaths for the present expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment?  Who hasn’t seen the legions of stories about how, in the wake of the Newtown slaughter, sales of guns, especially AR-15 assault rifles, have soared, ammunition sales have surged, background checks for future gun purchases have risen sharply, and gun shows have been besieged with customers?

If you haven’t stumbled across figures on gun violence in America or on suicide-by-gun, you’ve been hiding under a rock.  If you haven’t heard about Chicago’s soaring and Washington D.C.'s plunging gun-death stats (and that both towns have relatively strict gun laws), where have you been?

Has there, in fact, been any aspect of the weaponization of the United States that, since the Newtown massacre, hasn’t been discussed?  Are you the only person in the country, for instance, who doesn’t know that Vice President Joe Biden has been assignedthe task of coming up with an administration gun-control agenda before Barack Obama is inaugurated for his second term?  And can you honestly tell me that you haven’t seen global comparisons of killing rates in countries that have tight gun laws and the U.S., or read at least one discussion about life in countries like Colombia or Guatemala, where armed guards are omnipresent?

After years of mass killings that resulted in next to no national dialogue about the role of guns and how to control them, the subject is back on the American agenda in a significant way and -- by all signs -- isn’t about to leave town anytime soon.  The discussion has been so expansive after years in a well-armed wilderness that it’s easy to miss what still isn’t being discussed, and in some sense just how narrow our focus remains.

Think of it this way: the Obama administration is reportedly going to call on Congress to pass a new ban on assault weapons, as well as one on high-capacity ammunition magazines, and to close the loopholes that allow certain gun purchasers to avoid background checks.  But Biden has already conceded, at least implicitly, that facing a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a filibuster-prone Senate, the administration’s ability to make much of this happen -- as on so many domestic issues -- is limited.

That will shock few Americans.  After all, the most essential fact about the Obama presidency is this: at home, the president is a hamstrung weakling; abroad, in terms of his ability to choose a course of action and -- from drones strikes and special ops raids to cyberwar and other matters -- simply act, he’s closer to Superman.  So here’s a question: while the administration is pledging to try to curb the wholesale spread of ever more powerful weaponry at home, what is it doing about the same issue abroad where it has so much more power to pursue the agenda it prefers?

Flooding the World With the Most Advanced Weaponry Money Can Buy

As a start, it’s worth noting that no one ever mentions the domestic gun control debate in the same breath with the dominant role the U.S. plays in what’s called the global arms trade.  And yet, the link between the two should be obvious enough.

In the U.S., the National Rifle Association (NRA), an ultra-powerful lobbying group closely allied with weapons-making companies, has a strong grip on Congress -- it gives 288 membersof that body its top “A-rating” -- and is in a combative relationship with the White House.  Abroad, it’s so much simpler and less contested.  Beyond U.S. borders, the reality is: the Pentagon, with the White House in tow, is the functional equivalent of the NRA, and like that organization, it has been working tirelessly in recent years in close alliance with major weapons-makers to ensure that there are ever less controls on the ever more powerful weaponry it wants to see sold abroad.

Between them, the White House and the Pentagon -- with a helping hand from the State Department -- ensure that the U.S. remains by far the leading purveyor of the “right to bear arms” globally.  Year in, year out, in countries around the world, they do their best to pave the way (as the NRA does domestically) for the almost unfettered sales of ever more lethal weapons.  In fact, the U.S. now has something remarkably close to a monopoly on what’s politely called the “transfer” of weaponry on a global scale.  In 1990, as the Cold War was ending, the U.S. had cornered an impressive 37% of the global weapons trade.  By 2011, the last year for which we have figures, that percentage had reached a near-monopolistic 78% ($66.3 billion in weapons sales), with the Russians coming in a distant second at 5.6% ($4.8 billion).

Admittedly, that figure was improbably inflated, thanks to the Saudis who decided to spend a pile of their oil money as if there were no tomorrow.  In doing so, they created a bonanza year abroad for the major weapons-makers.  They sealed deals on $33.4 billion in U.S. arms in 2011, including 84 of Boeing’s F-15 fighter jets and dozens of that company’s Apache attack helicopters as well as Sikorsky Blackhawk helicopters -- and those were just the highest-end items in a striking set of purchases.  But if 2011 was a year of break-the-bank arms-deals with the Saudis, 2012 doesn’t look bad either.  As it ended, the Pentagon announced that they hadn’t turned off the oil spigot.  They agreed to ante up another $4 billion to Boeing for upgrades on their armada of jet fighters and were planning to spend up to $6.7 billion for 20 Lockheed 25 C-130J transport and refueling planes.  Some of this weaponry could, of course, be used in any Saudi conflict with Iran (or any other Middle Eastern state), but some could simply ensure future Newtown-like carnage in restive areas of that autocratic, fundamentalist regime’s land or in policing actions in neighboring small states like Bahrain.

And don’t think the Saudis were alone in the region.  When it came to U.S. weapons-makers flooding the Middle East with firepower, they were in good company.  Among states purchasing (or simply getting) infusions of U.S. arms in recent years were Bahrain, Egypt, IraqJordan, Kuwait, Oman, Tunisia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Yemen.  As Nick Turse has written, “When it comes to the Middle East, the Pentagon acts not as a buyer, but as a broker and shill, clearing the way for its Middle Eastern partners to buy some of the world's most advanced weaponry.”

Typically, for instance, on Christmas Day in 2011, the U.S. signed a deal with the UAE in which, for $3.5 billion, it would receive Lockheed Martin’s Theater High Altitude Area Defense, an advanced antimissile interception system, part of what Reuters termed “an accelerating military buildup of its friends and allies near Iran.”  Of course, selling to Arab allies without offering Israel something even better would be out of the question, so in mid-2012 it was announced that Israel would purchase 20 of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, America’s most advanced jet (and weapons boondoggle), still in development, for $2.7 billion.

From tanks to littoral combat ships, it would be easy to go on, but you get the idea.  Of course, U.S. weapons-makers in Pentagon-brokered or facilitated deals sell their weaponry and military supplies to countries planet-wide, ranging from Brazilto Singapore to Australia.  But it generally seems that the biggest deals and the most advanced weaponry follow in the wake of Washington’s latest crises.  In the Middle East at the moment, that would be the ongoing U.S.-Israeli confrontation with Iran, for which Washington has long been building up a massive military presence in the Persian Gulf and on bases in allied countries around that land.

A Second Amendment World, Pentagon-Style

It’s a given that every American foreign policy crisis turns out to be yet another opportunity for the Pentagon to plug U.S. weapons systems into the “needs” of its allies, and for the weapons-makers to deliver.  So, from India to South Korea, Singapore to Japan, the Obama administration’s announced 2012 “pivot to” or “rebalancing in” Asia -- an essentially military program focused on containing China -- has proven the latest boon for U.S. weapons sales and weapons-makers.

As Jim Wolf of Reuters recently reported, the Aerospace Industries Association, a trade group that includes Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and other weapons companies, “said sales agreements with countries in the U.S. Pacific Command's area of activity rose to $13.7 billion in fiscal 2012, up 5.4% from a year before. Such pacts represent orders for future delivery.” As the vice president of that association put it, Washington’s Asian pivot “will result in growing opportunities for our industry to help equip our friends."  We’re talking advanced jet fighters, missile systems, and similar major weapons programs, including F-35s, F-16s, Patriot anti-missile batteries, and the like for countries ranging from South Korea to Taiwan and India.

All of this ensures the sharpening of divides between China and its neighbors in the Pacific amid what may become a regional arms race.  For the Pentagon, it seems, no weaponry is now off the table for key Asian allies in its incipient anti-China alliance, including advanced drones.  The Obama administration is already brokering a $1.2 billon sale of Northrop Grumman's RQ-4 "Global Hawk" spy drones to South Korea.  Recently, it has been reported that Japan is preparing to buy the same model as its dispute sharpens with China over a set of islands in the East China Sea.  (The Obama administration has also been pushing the idea of selling advanced armed drones to allies like Italy and Turkey, but -- a rare occurrence -- has met resistance from Congressional representatives worrying about other countries pulling a “Washington”: that is, choosing its particular bad guys and sending drone assassins across foreign borders to take them out.)

Here’s the strange thing in the present gun control context: no one -- not pundits, politicians, or reporters -- seems to see the slightest contradiction in an administration that calls for legal limits on advanced weaponry in the U.S. and yet (as rare press reports indicate) is working assiduously to remove barriers to the sale of advanced weaponry overseas. There are, of course, still limits on arms sales abroad, some imposed by Congress, some for obvious reasons.  The Pentagon does not broker weapons sales to Iran, North Korea, or Cuba, and it has, for example, been prohibited by Congress from selling them to the military regime in Myanmar. But generally the Obama administration has put effort into further easing the way for major arms sales abroad, while working to rewrite global export rules to make them ever more permeable.

In other words, the Pentagon is the largest federally licensed weapons dealer on the planet and its goal -- one that the NRA might envy -- is to create a world in which the rights of those deemed our allies to bear our (most advanced) armaments “shall not be infringed.”  The Pentagon, it seems, is intent on pursuing its own global version of the Second Amendment, not for citizens of the world but for governments, including grim, autocratic states like Saudi Arabia which are perfectly capable of using such weaponry to create Newtowns on an unimaginable scale.

A well regulated militia indeed.

For more from Tom Engelhardt click here.



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ABOUT Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the Tomdispatch.com website, a project of The Nation Institute where he is a Fellow. He is the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, and of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, as well as a collection of his Tomdispatch interviews, Mission Unaccomplished. Each spring he is a Teaching Fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

How dare those bastards not

How dare those bastards not discuss the 'role of guns'! The U. S. is So Backwards as a mentality! Why the "best" economy also has the stupidest mentality, or culture, is the question that I am addressing these days. There seems to be some kind of a trade-off. You get capitalism. But where is the corresponding intelligence, or is capitalism necessarily a nose-dive in the brains department? It's time to re-xamine economics, people!

Today's news story about the

Today's news story about the defection of major parts of the U.S.-trained and supplied Malian army to the radical Islamists trying to take over that country just confirms the lunacy of our policy of arming everyone and everything in sight as a substitute for constructive engagement with the world.

There is no other institution

There is no other institution in the world, where it's paticipants have supported the killing of more people, than government itself. An est. 230 million prior to 1900 and over 170 million since. Britton has envaded all but 22 nations of the world and the Fench, Dutch, Spanish and Brits just about wiped out the entire indigious cultures of the western hemisphere. We might want to ask ourselves how can an institution whose monetary existance that requires the threat or forced confication of money and property, promote a civil society? Things that make you go Hmm.... We have legalized theft and coercion to those who are willing to buy it or profit from it.

Guns and weaponry, both

Guns and weaponry, both advanced or otherwise, are merely an extension of the "true" problem facing humanity. That, of course, is man himself; his proclivity for violent solutions and his disregard for the consequences thereof. Between "civilization" arming itself at a record pace and the equally frantic efforts to destroy what's left of our environment, it doesn't take a soothsayer to predict the eventual and rapidly approaching outcome. You're labeled a "Liberal," in most derogatory fashion, if you simply want to see the world live without violence and in peace, whilst conserving the planet's natural balance and wonders for future generations. Then vehemently call me Liberal. Mark Twain in his autobiography said of man "For his history, in all climes, ages and circumstances, furnishes oceans and continents of proof that of all the creatures that were made he is the most detestable. Of the entire brood he is the only one--the solitary one--that possesses malice. That is the basest of all instincts, passions,vices--the most hateful. He is the only creature that inflicts pain for sport, knowing it to "be" pain. Man is the only one that kills for fun; the only one that kills for revenge."
And his time on this planet will be remarkably short-lived when the final body drops...quite possibly with a self-delivered bullet.

Mr. Engelhardt: you ask, "Who

Mr. Engelhardt: you ask, "Who doesn't know what an AR-15 is? Well, YOU, apparently. You call it an "assault rifle," yet anyone who has been in the military knows that an AR-15 is NOT a select-fire machine gun, the definition of "assault rifle." It is simply a plain old semi-automatic rifle that looks like a military M16/M4. Another thing you apparently don't know: ANY rifle, "assault" or not, is used in less than 4% of ALL gun crimes. Handguns are used in all others.

We saw the "assault weapon ban" movie before. It was allowed to expire because it made ZERO impact on violent crime. Did you know that?

You mention Chicago's "soaring death rate" and DC's declining one. Do you understand that Chicago has some of the toughest gun restrictions in the country, while DC's were recently -- highly publicized -- repealed? Did you know that?

I can concede that our military spending is WAY out of control. I'm opposed to the indiscriminate use of drone attacks by this administration. I think we have a little common ground. But seriously, if you want to speak with any kind of credibility on the issue of guns and the 2nd Amendment, get educated. I'd be happy to point you in the right directions for good answers to any questions.

GLOCKSLINGER, I'm glad you

GLOCKSLINGER, I'm glad you can concede that our government's military spending is WAY out of control. I'm sorry that you are evidently not prepared to concede that the 300 million guns in private hands in the USA have something to do with 30,000 annual gun deaths and 117,000 annual gun-injuries in the USA.

Consider that at that rate, over the course of a 79-year life expectancy, some 2.4 MILLION will die by gun-shot, and some 9.2 MILLION will be injured by gun-shot.

Pray tell what "GLOCKSLINGER" would do to significantly reduce those huge numbers of deaths and injuries. I already have a lot of education, so spare me that. Tell me what GLOCKSLINGER would do if it was in his power to do it.

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