The US soldiers exposed to chemical weapons in Iraq is just the latest in a long tradition of American troops endangered by American-made munitions.
An investigative report released by the New York Times on Wednesday noted numerous instances in which American troops encountered chemical weapons. Far from the “Weapons of Mass Destruction” President George W. Bush used to justify the invasion of Iraq, these were “filthy, rusty, or corroded” relics of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. Still, the U.S. military personnel failed to properly report these encounters on several occasions, and neglected to properly dispose of them, leaving behind the dangerous — though aging — caches of chemicals.
“The Iraqi troops who stood at that entrance are no longer there,” the Times’ C.J. Chivers wrote of a bunker containing cyanide precursors and sarin rockets. “The compound, never entombed, is now controlled by the Islamic State” or ISIS, as the militant group is often called.
The irony is that the chemical weapons were made, in large part, by American companies –- but that’s the case with a lot of arms that land in enemy hands.
The U.S. sold $66.3 billion in weapons last year – more than three-fourths of the entire global arms market. As a comparison, Russia clocked in as number two on the list of top sellers with $4.8 billion in arms deals.
American weapons’ sales an “extraordinary increase” over the $21.4 billion of arms sold in 2010, according to a bipartisan report from the Congressional Research Service. The report’s authors note that 2013 marked a historic high in arms agreements even despite an economic downtown, with Saudi Arabia, India, and the United Arab Emirates topping the list of buyers.
This trend looks likely to continue with the implementation of the Export Control Reform Initiative which was rolled out in October of 2013. The new policy is meant to “impose controls based on the sensitivity of the item and the destination” of arms by making two separate regulatory categories. One, to be controlled by the State Department regulates the sale of the items like fighter planes. The other contains products like fuel filters and break pads and is managed by the Department of Commerce. Notably, the policy also breaks with the need for “specific licenses if intended for the ultimate end-use by the governments” of key allies. Needless to say, however, tracking “end-use” is a tricky business – and it’s sparked fears of arming terrorist networks.
William D. Hartung outlined these concerns in Foreign Policy soon before the new policy went into effect:
“The danger of the administration’s new export control approach is that it could make it easier for significant military articles to reach major human rights abusers, countries seeking nuclear weapons, or destinations where they may be more likely to fall into the hands of terrorists. Although the administration claims that items moving from the Munitions List to the Commerce Control List will be subjected to strictures similar to those on the Munitions List, there are strong reasons for skepticism. The Commerce Department has no history of vetting potential exports on human rights grounds. And there are 36 friendly nations that will be allowed to import almost anything on the Commerce Control List without first getting specific licenses for the items — including articles that could be useful to terrorist groups or technology that could help countries develop nuclear weapons. The problem is that many of these three dozen states have spotty records of keeping sensitive U.S.-supplied technology out of the hands of less trusted third parties like Iran, China, and Venezuela.”
Under this new policy, the sale of helicopters and aircraft engines to Saudi Arabia are rubber-stamped with little second thought.
That’s despite evidence that ISIS has access to weapons including anti-tank missiles that ultimately originated from U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. These weapons only compound fears of the country’s support for terrorist networks around the world. A leaked memo signed by former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton makes the kingdom’s haul of weapons worrisome.
“Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide,” Clinton wrote in 2010.
A white paper put out by the American Bar Association last year calls for a revision of the arms export reform initiative noting that they could “seriously undermine the sophisticated system of controls” created by Congress around weapons trade.
“Further,” it continues, the reforms, “create ambiguity concerning the application of important counter-terrorism and human rights provisions of the…control the provision of security assistance.”
Clearing weapons and bases after a conflict, especially in hostile terrain, is no easy task. But containing the impact of the stockpile the U.S. is now selling in bulk around the world may signal the next battle.