The U.S. Addiction to Military Involvement: It Just Can’t Say No

Only a few weeks after news broke that the Pentagon lost track of $500 million in arms transfers to Yemen, including small arms, ammunition, night-vision goggles, patrol boats, vehicles, and other equipment, the US government has decided to send more firepower to the region.

Despite the fact that Pentagon officials reportedly told Congress that they cannot locate the equipment in the current unrest, and have little ability to ensure that it does not fall into rebel hands, on April 7, deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced that the United States is speeding up and supplementing arms shipments to Saudi Arabia in support of the Saudi–led coalition forces combatting Houthi rebels in Yemen. The weapons, Blinken said, would send a “strong message to the Houthis and their allies that they cannot overrun Yemen by force.”

The U.S. government might be forgiven for inadvertently arming both sides of the conflict, after all, they didn’t intend to arm the Houthis. But Yemen is not an aberrant case. Adam Rawnsley reports on how American anti-tank missiles intended for carefully selected moderate Syrian rebel groups have fallen into more radical hands.   The problem of arms falling into unintended hands is not unique to the US, and Rawnsley also reports on how Russian and Iranian anti-tank weapons are flowing across the Middle East to unintended actors in Iraq, Syria, and Sudan. However, close scrutiny of the US in particular is warranted, given the enormous reach of the American military footprint and the key role of the US in global arms sales.  In October of last year, the capture by the Islamic State of US weaponry that had been transferred from the US to the Iraqi army,  was a weapons windfall for the terrorist organization. The latter example prompted the World Peace Foundation to ask whether or not the US is in an arms race with itself. This question seems equally relevant today, as coalition forces engage rebels in Yemen—and both sides may be holding American-sourced weapons.

Public debate sometimes erupts over the decision to train or transfer weaponry to armed groups—as happened in relation to Syrian rebels in 2014 and the provision of weapons to the Ukrainian government in early 2015. In other cases, massive arms flows are simply business as usual: the announcement of increased arms aid to Saudi Arabia has stirred little attention. This dearth of interest is likely because US arms shipments to Saudi Arabia are a regular occurrence, and few people or institutions are in the habit of monitoring how arms are used once they arrive on Saudi soil. $46 billion in new weapons transfer agreements have been signed with Saudi Arabia alone since the Obama administration came into office.

Weapons in Saudi Arabia and Yemen are not the only problem. Director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International PolicyWilliam Hartung notes in a recent article that, “More than 160 nations, or 82% of all countries, now receive some form of arms and training from the United States.” The US aims to maintain a massive network of bases and military force capable of mobilizing in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, the Asia-Pacific, Latin America, and most recently, the Arctic. Hartung charges that the Pentagon is constantly claiming to be starved of funds because, “No amount of funding could effectively deal with the almost endless shopping list of global challenges the US military has mandated itself to address, most of which do not have military solutions in any case.”

A similar critique has surfaced in foreign policy articles of late, with Stephen Walt asking whether the US can Just Say No and Do No (More) Harm in the Middle East. His argument is that the US led “War on Terror” has been costly, counterproductive, and reminiscent of the US “War on Drugs”. From Afghanistan, to Iraq, Libya, and Syria, there is little to show for US meddling, and some of these countries are arguably in worse condition as a result of US military involvement. While neoconservatives claim that the US failure to solve problems in the Middle East is for lack of applying enough military might, Walt argues that US failures are a result of, “overreliance on military force and other ‘kinetic options,’” among other shortcomings. This is not to say that the US should disengage from events in the Middle East. Rather, it is a suggestion that the US should engage in less ‘kinetic’ ways.

Despite growing criticism of past US interventions in the Middle East, a public with little appetite for involvement in another foreign war, and an already enormous defense budget that is stretched thin across the globe, the US may be unable to just say no–begging the question of whether the US may perhaps be addicted to international military involvement.

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