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Congress shows essential leadership in debate on military export controls September 21, 2010

Posted by Matthew Leatherman in Analysis.
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Mikhail Kalashnikov and Robert Oppenheimer (photo) were the 20th century’s most influential scientists of war.  Both produced weapons responsible for massive destruction – Oppenheimer, the nuclear bomb, and Kalashnikov, the Soviet-issue AK-47 assault rifle.

Which of these types of equipment should the U.S. subject to stricter export controls?  Next generation high technology literally has reached the point of being able to destroy the world in minutes, a uniquely consequential act but one that now is extraordinarily improbable, partly because so much of U.S. foreign policy has been dedicated to keeping a lid on the Pandora’s box that Oppenheimer opened.  The simplest tools of violence, by contrast, take their victims one-by-one but every day.  Like the AK-47, they are inexpensive, durable, fool-proof, and ubiquitous around the world, killing millions with industrial efficiency.

Many would argue that the U.S. should sell military equipment, both the simple and the complex, only with a clear strategic purpose and to the most trusted of buyers.  After all, a country’s approach to arms trading speaks volumes about its values and shapes the risks it faces internationally.

Not President Obama, though.  He believes in building “higher walls around the export of our most sensitive items while allowing the export of less critical ones under less restrictive conditions. “ This will strengthen our national security, he argues, while also helping us increase exports and create jobs.

The President undoubtedly is under tremendous pressure to create jobs, but economic stimulus is no reason to mortgage American values and redefine our role in the world.  National Security Advisor Jim Jones backpedaled from this impression on the same day Obama made that comment, assuring the public that the President’s ongoing National Export Initiative also would enhance “our government’s ability to find violators and bring them to justice.”

No such move is yet apparent from the executive branch.  Congress, on the other hand, just took a very meaningful step in that direction.  Last Thursday the House of Representatives unanimously passed H.R. 5366, stipulating that “any person found to be in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 shall be proposed for debarment from any contract or grant awarded by the Federal Government.”

That’s right – at present, arms exporters that violate laws prohibiting bribery face no legal restrictions on continuing to conduct business on behalf of the U.S. government.  The only obstacle they face is buried in the Federal Acquisition Regulation’s subsection 9.407-2, a vaguely-worded warning that suspension from the acquisition rolls may follow an offense “indicating a lack of business integrity or business honesty.”

Unfortunately, Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT), the bill’s sponsor, lacks a companion in the Senate.  Without that support, H.R. 5366 is likely to stall.  Now is the time for President Obama and his administration to prove that they are serious about protecting our national security interests even as they go about reforming military export controls.  This bill will never make it onto the Senate calendar so close to an election without the President’s support.  But, with it, enactment could be almost immediate, given the bipartisan nature in which the House approached the issue.

Barring businesses that violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act from continuing to facilitate U.S. arms sales would not wipe away all concern from the President’s export control initiative.  The FCPA doesn’t even govern what items change hands – just the process by which they are sold.  It would communicate, however, that the administration understands that all arms sales, whether the kit is simple or complex, reflect our values and impact our security.  Those concerns must take precedence over economic stimulus.  H.R. 5366 should be passed before moving further into the military section of the National Export Initiative.

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