In Yemen, years of intense fighting between Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led military coalition has culminated in what the U.N. deems the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Since 2015, the Saudi-coalition has laid siege to Yemen, blockading Houthi-controlled areas and waging an intense bombing campaign.
The blockade has caused severe shortages of food and medicine for Yemeni civilians, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of young children from malnutrition or disease. The coalition’s bombing campaign has been condemned by the U.N. as indiscriminate, taking a devastating toll of civilians and civilian infrastructure.
That campaign has been fueled, in large part, by American weapons manufacturers to the tune of billions of dollars.
In one infamous case, a laser-guided MK 82 bomb made by Lockheed Martin struck school bus in August 2018, killing more than 40 children.
As the humanitarian toll continues to climb, the administration of President Donald Trump has faced growing pressure to end U.S. support for the war.
In a historic vote in April 2019, the U.S. Congress passed a War Powers Resolution directing Trump to end U.S. involvement in the conflict. Three months later, lawmakers passed a series of resolutions blocking arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
But both measures faced staunch opposition from the American defense manufacturing industry, which stood to lose billions of dollars if Washington cut support to the coalition. The resolutions were ultimately vetoed by Trump and both override efforts failed in the Senate.
In a new report titled “A Mutual Extortion Racket: The Military Industrial Complex and U.S. Foreign Policy – The Case of Saudi Arabia and UAE,” Transparency International’s Jodi Vittori documents how the American defense manufacturing industry has been able to exert influence on U.S. foreign policy decisions, particularity on Yemen.
As the war grinds on, The Globe Post’s Bryan Bowman spoke with Vittori about the many “pathways to influence” used by the defense industry to ensure its ability to continue to export arms to the coalition, even in the face of significant bipartisan opposition.
The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Bowman: To start, I’d actually just like to ask you about the title of the report. What do you mean exactly by a “mutual extortion racket?”
Vittori: I actually borrowed the phrase from Lawrence Lessig who used it in his book Republic, Lost. He wrote about how elected officials often have the ability, through their power of legislation and contracting and so forth, to be able to have significant control over what industry does. And often oftentimes in industry, because of campaign contributions and because of the revolving door and so forth, they are able to have an impact back on congressional representatives.
So I took that idea and expanded it for arms sales and added in some of the other key players because in my field I often see people look at how the defense industry, through lobbyists, PR firms and so forth, influences Congress and it’s a one way arrow. And that’s not really the case. That’s especially not the case when we deal with the defense industry as a defense export industry in particular, which is a very unique sector, I think, in the American economy. So I really wanted to take what he worked with, but really expand on it for this unique sector.
Bowman: In the executive summary, you write the report “examines how the US defense industry uses a combination of pathways to influence the American federal government to ensure the ability to export to countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).” What are those pathways of influence and what are a couple of examples of how they’ve been used in recent years?
Vittori: Absolutely. So this is a somewhat different project for transparency than normal, because we usually were focused very, very narrowly on corruption as focused on illegality. So, you know, someone takes a bribe and violates the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act or something. In this case, we were looking at not only corruption, which is one of those pathways to influence. It’s been well documented, its role in defense exports. There are wonderful books put together by the likes of Andrew Feinstein, author of The Shadow World, for example.
So we looked at corruption. But we also looked at other defense pathways that can pull U.S. foreign policy as it relates to arms exports away from what one could argue is in the best interests of U.S. foreign policy and international peace overall.
One of them, of course, is lobbying. Elections are incredibly expensive in the United States, as we’re watching as we go through the presidential and congressional elections. It takes a lot of campaign donations to be able to run for office, to stay in office. And so this gives the defense industry a lot of influence over key members of Congress, in particular those from major defense districts. And that’s across the board.
The second is campaign finance, which is closely linked to lobbying. We have the information given in lobbying and the ability to help draft laws, to influence legislation and so forth. But then we have campaign financing, like I mentioned, giving money to campaigns. This has ramped up significantly since Citizens United.
It’s very, very difficult to track dark money. By definition, it’s dark. But thanks to some great work done by the likes of Issue One, who were able to do some data scraping and pull some court cases, they were able to get a small amount of data on dark money. And sure enough, defense companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing popped up.
Then we looked at the revolving door, and this is based off the incredible work that the Project on Government Oversight has done. We often focus on a revolving door with members of Congress and their staffs. And this has been extensively studied. There’s a lot of very strong empirical evidence that supports the fact that staffers are primarily hired for their access and less for the information expertise that they provide.
That’s just as true in the defense industry, but often neglected, as is the role that senior military officers and senior Department of Defense and State Department officials can play in the revolving door and how loose those rules are.
Just as an example, General [James] Mattis was on the board of General Dynamics. He left the board and became the secretary of defense and is now already back on the board. And he’s able to do that because the rules are so specific and so narrow. Just think about what Mattis is able to bring to General Dynamics, the access, the name, the ability to open doors, the ability to call senior members of the executive branch or people in Congress and so forth.
There was a time when senior military officers used to retire and – even General [Douglas] MacArthur, who’s notorious for his ego, went off to go sell typewriters. He worked for a typewriter company. This whole senior officers running senior defense firm stuff, this is a relatively recent situation. And it can have tremendous impacts both on the defense establishment and, frankly, the morale of the younger troops underneath them if those troops are concerned that those officers are looking out more for their future careers and less about getting them the best equipment and services that they need to do their missions.
Then we also note the lack of controls for former military officers and others to go work for foreign countries. That’s less common but it does happen.
Bowman: You note in the report that “few recent cases exemplify this cycle as clearly as the war in Yemen,” which is causing what the U.N. deems the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. How specifically has the US defense export sector sought to influence the government to maintain its support for the Saudi coalition fighting there, even in the face of mounting opposition within Congress and growing pressure from the international community to end the war?
Vittori: Certainly. It basically runs the gamut across all of the pathways of influence. We noted, obviously, significant lobbying of both Republicans and Democrats to maintain those defense exports going forward. And campaign finance goes with it.
And then there’s the revolving door jobs. I’ll just pick on Secretary Mattis again. When he was secretary, he was writing to Senators and Congressmen, saying don’t restrict our ability to export these weapons. I have no indications of what he’s done since he’s gone back on General Dynamic’s board. But I’m sure they’re quite pleased that somebody supported continued UAE exports on their board.
Then there’s soft influence. We document a number of cases, for example, with defense advisory boards and even think tanks. There was a a leak of the UAE ambassador’s emails that documented a lot of things, including some questionable offsets given by U.S. companies that filter back in the U.S. to influence drone exports, for example. And also just significant money given to think tanks that helped support, for example, drone exports as well. Those think tanks argue that they were not engaged in lobbying. But they did things like set up roundtables with defense experts that could potentially help influence U.S. foreign policy on those issues.
So it’s not just one thing, and that’s what the empirical evidence shows as well. It’s not just lobbying or just revolving door. When all of these work together in concert they are far more effective.
Bowman: President Trump has vetoed multiple congressional measures on Yemen. One was a War Powers Resolution to end U.S. support for the coalition. And then were a series of resolutions that would have blocked a number of arms sales to the Gulf. And he’s justified the vetos on the grounds that these contracts are worth billions of dollars and he doesn’t want to harm American companies.
And he’s also argued that there are supposedly a lot of American jobs that are tied to these continued exports. Do you have a general sense of how much money is coming into these companies specifically in terms of their exports to the Gulf and then whether or not that translates directly into a significant number of American jobs?
Vittori: We do have some indication. When Trump met with the Saudis, he had a famous poster board of how many jobs in how many states were supposed to come out of this. It was a very sort of amateurish looking high school project poster board. I don’t have it in front of me, but there’s been great analyses done by the likes of William Hartung and others who have argued it’s really a fraction of the number of jobs that were promised.
It’s always hard to tell exactly how many jobs are created because the industry keeps those figures rather secret. But I think it’s clear that the numbers are much smaller than is advertised and certainly the defense industry does seem to perhaps exaggerate. We’ve got examples like the F-35 project where there was significant exaggeration. And also what they don’t say when they talk about how many states things are rendered is that most states have very, very few defense jobs in them. For certain projects that might have a dozen or less.
But defense industry lobbyists often go to members of Congress and talk about how many jobs are in their districts. I was able to interview a defense analyst who wishes to remain anonymous and he made it very clear that when they are lobbying Congress, their goal is to focus just on jobs and not focus on the larger foreign policy concerns. They keep the conversation very, very narrow, because often there are very, very large foreign policy concerns with defense exports – future blowback, diversion of goods, and so forth.
Bowman: That’s actually a perfect lead in to my next question. Obviously these exports are great for the defense manufacturers as a special interest. But what are some of those broader consequences of the continued support for the coalition in Yemen in terms of international security, US policy aims, and human rights?
Vittori: It’s interesting that Congress, back in the wake of the Vietnam War, put in laws like the Arms Export Control Act and a number of amendments to Foreign Assistance Act because they recognized the foreign policy issues related to defense exports. Defense exports should be categorized as a subset of U.S. foreign policy and specifically a subset of U.S. foreign assistance. And yet defense exports are treated separately from other security assistance, which is highly problematic.
So you might be talking about, for example, limiting exports to a place with significant human rights abuses on one side, and yet planning to do major arms sales at the same time. You would think that there was a coordinating body that said, “these are U.S. foreign policy goals in the region, this is our U.S. security assistance, and this is where arms exports fit into it.” That can happen at times with country teams and in embassies. But it’s not a guarantee. There’s nowhere in the U.S. government that really takes all of that together.
On U.S. foreign policy goals like building and supporting reliable democracies, not supporting major human rights abusers because of there’s a larger impact that has on us, and also not building up our enemies, there isn’t one portion of the government that really makes sure all of that is really balanced.
In terms of Yemen and the exports to the UAE and Yemen, there are a lot of reasons countries decide to import weapons from a country like the U.S. One is national security. But believe it or not, that is often not the main reason. A primary reason might be to remain under the security blanket of a key ally. So a lot of the reason that Saudi Arabia and the UAE purchased weapons over the years is that they’re very weak countries. And this helps keep them under the U.S. security umbrella.
And it also allows for regime survival. These are highly authoritarian states. There is no defense budget published. There is no oversight of that budget there. The UAE has perhaps the least democratic parliament in the world. And yet you have these massive, massive multi-billion dollar purchases. And so there’s a lot of reasons countries buy these weapons that aren’t examined.
One of the reasons that the United States was always happy to sell, frankly, was they never thought Saudi Arabia was really going to use most of the stuff. It was fairly safe. They were going to buy lots of stuff and make lots of American jobs. It was an easy export. Make lots of money. Keep the security umbrella going. Everybody was happy. But lo and behold, in Yemen they start using the stuff. And I don’t think the United States foreign policy world was really expecting that.
Bowman: Lastly, what were some of the main policy recommendations that you made in the report. Going forward, what are some of the most pressing things that you think need to be done in order to contain this “mutual extortion racket” and the negative consequences associated with it?
Vittori: We put our policy recommendations in three broad buckets. The first bucket is to help create the conditions to better align U.S. defense exports with larger U.S. foreign policy. As I mentioned before, having one place where all of this stuff is considered in a rational manner.
Secondly, the narrative around defense exports needs to be changed. These are not normal exports like sweatshirts or bulldozers or something. We talk about states being defined as a place with a legitimate monopoly on the use of violence. And states can’t have that without weapons. And when you’re exploring that, you’re getting to the key of how regimes secure themselves and survive.
If you’re exporting to a democratic state with good rule of law and good parliamentary oversight, helping that regime stay in survival is a wonderful thing. But when you’re exporting weapons to highly authoritarian states who are highly predatory and engaged in wars like in Yemen where it’s hard to see how this is going to come out well for Yemeni citizens or U.S. foreign policy, these should be under higher controls.
And finally, the one that people kind of expect from transparency or national, which is limiting the excessive influence of the defense industry on U.S. foreign policy. So our number one recommendation in creating conditions for better alignment of defense exports. Ideally, we would like to see one agency whose job it is to look at all U.S. security assistance, including defense exports.
Ideally, that should be under the control of the State Department because they are the agency that’s supposed to be in charge of all foreign policy. As as a stopgap, we would love to see a defense exports Czar on the National Security Council that could take a look at those bigger picture issues.
But we would really like to see the State Department put back in the lead of all defense exports. Right now, it’s spread out across State and the Department of Defense with a high degree of day to day operations in Defense. But also, a number of items have been moved under the control of the Department of Commerce, believe it or not, including things like small arms and light weapons. It sounds like a title off The Onion, but small arms and light weapons are no longer on the U.S. munitions list. Munitions are not on the munitions list. And so there’s very limited oversight.
Then finally, when it comes to limiting the excessive influence of defense industry, a lot of it is restricting the revolving door between congressional staffs, Congress themselves, senior executive branch, senior officers, and their ability to go work for these defense companies to help with exports later on. And in addition, for national security purposes, further limiting the ability to do various campaign contributions, which can have very significant effects on U.S. foreign policy.