Stratton and Sawhney: Should U.S. government allow military sales to countries involved in Yemen?

Abigail Stratton and Asha Sawhney

As the conflict between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels worsens, it is apparent a proxy war with numerous players — most notably Iran and Saudi Arabia — is reaching full force. Originally, the two sides were those loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi versus the Zaydi Shia group called the Houthis, who are rebelling against his rule. This Sunni-Shiite split has led the two huge rival powers in the Middle East to back opposing groups, with Saudi Arabia supporting the Sunni majority and Iran the Shia rebels. Iran has been accused — but never formally confirmed — of directly funding the Houthi rebels, a group born out of an ideology of peace and tolerance in the 1990s before President Hadi’s fear of their influence led them to be the focal point of a proxy war fought on Yemeni soil between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. However, the Irani government has said it supports the rebels. Many other Arab states have joined this war, including Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt. Traditionally, these nations would call upon the United States for military support and would give money in exchange for the use of U.S. military bases and weapons. However, in this conflict, the United States has refused to directly employ its own military resources, and Arab states have turned to private weapons companies to fund their participation. Namely, Boeing and Lockheed Martin — two American companies — are profiting hugely off of the purchase of their weapons and planes, particularly the F-15. Is it fair for the United States to stay out of a conflict politically but still profit economically off of the use of destructive American-made weapons? Should the government intervene and restrict this economic participation?

Abigail Stratton: U.S. can only act if defense companies break law

The United States is home to the three largest defense companies in the world, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman. All three are powerhouses, with their combined revenues totalling roughly 1 percent of U.S. gross domestic product. Additionally, all three companies sell to the U.S. government, which accounts for at least half of each company’s sales as of 2001. As the largest arms-producing companies in the world, they are dependent on both domestic and foreign arms sales. In 2000, Lockheed Martin’s arms sales comprised 73 percent of their total revenue, Boeing 33 percent and Northrop Grumman 48 percent.

Those who oppose these defense companies’ sales to Arab nations often remark on how these companies profit from the suffering of others. However, historically, and particularly during the Cold War, the dependency on foreign military sales was surprisingly small. In 1999, only 4.32 percent of Lockheed Martin’s sales were to foreign militaries allied with the United States, while Boeing sold 2.44 percent and Northrop Grumman sold 0.97 percent to American allies. These small percentages amounted to $2.7 billion, a sizeable sum of money but nowhere close to domestic sales to the U.S. military.

It is important to note that the vast majority of sales by these American companies are domestic rather than exports to foreign militaries. These companies are under the control of the U.S. government in more ways than one. Firstly, many U.S. laws keep these companies from selling to anyone other than allies of the United States. The U.S. government also restricts the types of weapons American firms are allowed to sell to Arab nations in an effort to protect Israel from its “traditional adversaries” in the region. In addition to the laws in place, the U.S. government has economic pull in these companies. As mentioned before, a huge percentage of these companies’ sales and therefore their profit comes from the U.S. military. This means the companies not only have to follow the law but also keep the military happy to guarantee the U.S.’s continued support as the largest customer to these defense companies.

The possible weapons sales to Arab states would not happen without some sort of say from the government. These companies have international operations surrounding defense and commercial interests. But unless a company breaks a specific law, the U.S. government cannot directly prohibit them from selling to certain countries, especially if the sale will not threaten the security of the United States. Ultimately, even if the government has not taken a stance on the war in Yemen, it cannot prevent private defense companies from manufacturing or selling to certain countries, but the government can still have an influence over these companies’ decisions.

Asha Sawhney: U.S. could save lives by limiting weapons sales

At first glance, it seems U.S. involvement in Yemen is purely economic. However, there is a flaw in this judgment due to the indirect participation of Israel in this war. The situation in Yemen caught the attention of Israel, which, under the guise of re-elected Prime Minister Netanyahu, has made the alleged threat of Iran a top priority. Despite a historically strained relation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the nation has decided to align itself with the kingdom for the sake of fighting against Iran, because, as the saying goes, an enemy of my enemy is a friend. The trade alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States undoubtedly also played a role in this decision.

In 2008, Congress enacted a law that ensures arm sales provide Israel with a “qualitative military edge” in the region. All sales to the region would thus be evaluated for how they affected Israel’s superiority. This means the United States is incapable of being a neutral economic force in this proxy war because they can only fund the side Israel has aligned itself with, which are the efforts by Saudi Arabia to quash the Houthi rebels. In this proxy war, we are just as much taking a distinct side as any of the other players.

It is dangerous for the United States to be playing such a powerful and one-sided role in a war that will involve none of our troops. Generally, extreme caution is taken when deciding to enter a conflict where American lives will be at stake, an attitude that was clear during Obama’s speech about the Islamic State when he repeatedly promised that there would be “no boots on the ground” in Syria. When our involvement is political but only through corporations like Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman, there is no incentive to act with caution. In fact, our companies have an incentive to sell as many weapons as possible, potentially multiplying the destruction that would have occurred without U.S. resources.

Similar to how the United States imposes sanctions on countries for their involvement in violent conflict, we should consider doing the same for defense companies. If we truly want to remain neutral, the government cannot let companies within its jurisdiction profit from continuing conflict. In the past, the United States has instructed companies not to enter certain markets on political grounds and has sanctioned entire countries. We have imposed sanctions against Russia for the war in Ukraine, against Iran for its view on Israel and against Libya to halt a proxy war, which is quite literally the phenomenon we are fueling now.

Unfortunately, insurmountable ties with Israel will almost certainly stop the United States from viewing its involvement neutrally. With reason, the United States is finding a way to avoid sending troops to Yemen. Therefore, if we understand that lives of our own people are not worth losing in this violence, we should be restricting our companies as best as possible from funding the loss of innocent Yemeni lives along with the lives of soldiers from all over the Middle East.

Abigail Stratton is a Weinberg freshman. She can be reached at [email protected]. Asha Sawhney is a Weinberg freshman. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].