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Gates outlines reform to arms exports but not strategic implications April 21, 2010

Posted by Matthew Leatherman in Analysis.
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May 21, 2009.  A middle-aged executive strolls into Washington, D.C.’s Ritz-Carlton hotel for a meeting with several representatives of an African Ministry of Defense.  They negotiate a lucrative deal for nearly 2,000 small arms, to be delivered to a warehouse in Virginia and distributed among the country’s elite presidential guard.  A twenty percent bribe, paid by the executive to the Defense Minister, sealed the deal.

Regrettably for Amaro Goncalves, a vice president at Smith & Wesson, the purported Defense Ministry representatives in fact were undercover FBI agents participating in an investigation under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FPCA).  Originally passed in 1977, this was the first sting operation conducted under FPCA, netting twenty-one Americans in addition to Goncalves.  On one hand, the FBI should be commended for this vigilance.  On the other, the fact that it was the first in the Act’s 32 year history also should raise eye-brows.

Seven blocks east of the Ritz-Carlton and two months after these indictments were unsealed, President Obama announced the National Export Initiative, an effort to double exports in five years as part of an overall economic recovery.  With regard to the arms industry, his March remarks at the Export-Import Bank revealed a laser-like focus on growth and job creation, but at the expense of the national strategy for which military export controls were originally created.  Indeed, President Obama offered the only the single caveat that “what we want to do is concentrate our efforts on enforcing controls on the export of our most critical technologies.”

Yesterday Secretary of Defense Robert Gates offered the Pentagon’s context on these reforms and again reiterated the importance of a regime that “prevents adversaries from getting access to technology or equipment that could be used against us.”  Few would challenge that caveat, or his larger claims that our export controls ought to be “agile, transparent, predictable, and efficient,” unencumbered by Cold War residue, and sensitive to the item in question.

Changing national security-related export controls for economic reasons is far less reasonable, however.  These controls were introduced for strategic reasons and designed to ensure our safety, manage our overseas relationships responsibly, and represent our values clearly.  Altering them without regard to the strategy almost certainly would contradict each of these goals.

The FCPA bust demonstrates why. Small arms are far below the most critical technologies referenced as priorities by the President and the Secretary.  Indeed, it was only the bribe that made this sell illegal – none of the small arms, ranging from pistols to rocket-propelled grenade launchers, are banned outright from export.  The influence even these weapons can have in a failing state, however, is enormous.

Once arms sales have aggravated life in a failing state, recent history has demonstrated powerfully the atrocities that state can inflict on its population, the threat that state can pose to U.S. national security, and the relationship between the two.  Americans’ safety depends not just on controlling the critical technologies of war, as the President and Secretary suggested, but also on behaving responsibly in proliferating even the simplest military kit.  We cannot afford to concentrate just on the first-order risk created by exporting next-generation military technology.  Accounting for the second-order risk of reckless arms sales of any type is equally important because its consequences, though indirect, are just as real.  These risks must be managed.

The FCPA helps to manage risk in a peripheral way.  It governs the export process, including arms deals, rather than limiting what can be sold.  January’s arrests belie its historically lax enforcement, an issue that warrants attention in its own right.

The Arms Export Control Act, along with related statutes and regulations, are the true underpinning of this aspect of our strategy, however.  These are the subject of the administration’s attention.  Stimulating our economy and generating jobs surely is a worthy goal, but these pillars must not be mortgaged for financial ends irrespective of our national strategy.  Doing so would only fuel global insecurity, force defense spending increases, and ultimately counteract the economic boon of wider arms sales.

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