The Guns of August 2007

The new weapons “package” and containment strategy that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have been peddling around the Middle East lately have received a lot of coverage. In light of American policy in the region, the proposal is so predictable that discussing it seems trite; yet Americans’ persistence in staying uninformed on the issue makes the deal tragically inane, demanding a critical response.

Also predictably, the leading press has been clinical and acquiescent on the matter. Take, for instance, the affirming tone of reporter Robin Wright’s two articles on the deal in the Washington Post (July 28 and 29). Ignoring the atrocious record of the Bush administration in the Middle East, Wright simply accedes to the fact that the arms deal and all its consequences will come about: “a new cold war will take center stage” in order to “isolate Iran more aggressively,” as though launching this war-by-another-name is the most ordinary and normal course the United States could take.

We need not dwell on the proposal’s $30 billion gift to Israel; there has been much coverage of that. Two other aspects of the gift have not been discussed, even though they speak to the larger U.S. strategy in the region. Both Gaza and the West Bank have been left in economic shambles by America’s recent “cold” war against them. While the tens of million dollars in new aid to the Fatah-led regime might improve the drive from Qalandiya to Ramallah on the West Bank, the money is a pittance compared to the weapons gift to Israel. It will not lift the territories out of their misery and it will be reversed at a moment’s notice.

Secondly, there is fresh in memory–at least in Lebanese memory, if not American–the use of American weapons to destroy southern Lebanon once more in summer 2006. The appalling scattering of 100,000 cluster bombs after an armistice was in sight still makes me shudder. I still feel horrible about my complicity in that action as a taxpayer-contributor of those weapons. Yet the likely–almost certain– prospect that the weapons distributed under the new package will be used to deal casual death and destruction by their recipients doesn’t seem to faze our leaders one bit.

The armaments aid for what the Bush administration currently deems to be the Middle East’s “good side” is estimated at $78 billion in value: thirty to Israel, thirteen to Egypt, twenty to Saudi Arabia, and fifteen to the Gulf states. The single motive behind this largesse seems to be the intimidation of Iran. But that raises the key and undiscussed questions. Is Iran really that scary? Is this rhetorical overkill not of the same scope and distortion as that heard in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq? If American policy has gone from shock-and-awe to threat-and-awe, can we expect the outcome to be different?

What will all these weapons do to the cultures of the Middle East? Some reporters resort to snide sarcasm when reporting on the death and mayhem in the region: “So what do you expect? This is the Middle East.” It is more than ironic that those who saturate the region with weapons designed for endless death and destruction then accuse its people of an historically endemic violent nature. The phoniness of that move should be immediately obvious; yet people continue to fall for it. What if $78 billion were spent instead by USAID, Oxfam, or denominational relief and development agencies on projects to foster the conditions of peace? Who are the irresponsible crazies in this situation, really?

The $78 billion proposal means a bundle of business for the American weapons industry. In The Sorrows of Empire (Metropolitan Press, 2004, pp. 277-281) Chalmers Johnson makes the point that arms are now a signal export of the United States, the only thing this country still makes better than anyone else, the only product (along with foodstuffs) to stem the nation’s trade deficit. Without it the economy would collapse. Perhaps we should therefore be cheering on Ms. Rice and Mr. Gates as they drum up this new business for America and its weapons manufacturers to save our own economic hides! I feel trapped: Our ideals would have us be peace makers, but our wallets share in the proceeds of the weapons makers.

Whatever its purpose or consequences, the weapons package amounts to a confession of failure. All the lofty talk about spreading democracy has come to this–the military empowerment of a set of countries that are each in their own way undemocratic, that each in their own way exploit their dispossessed and their poor. With Iraq, Gaza, and Lebanon left in a shambles and really no way for the United States to pay the Iraq war bill, this is a most cynical, irresponsible, and distracting move to new-old business. Robin Wright gave it her clever and dispassionate label, “Cold War II.” We might well remember Barbara Tuchman’s title, The Guns of August, for her classic account of how Europe’s strutting, foolish leaders blundered their way into the suicide of World War I.

Bert deVries teaches history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.