What Progressives Miss About Arms Sales

Celebrating their success in retaining blue-collar jobs is one way Republicans are winning the votes of working-class Americans.

Evan Vucci / AP

Whew! For once, one of my predictions was correct: Donald Trump had a great visit to Saudi Arabia. It was a great visit for him, it was a great visit for the Saudis and the other Arab Gulf states, and—last but not least—it was a great visit for magical, glowing orbs.

I want to spend a little time talking about one of the reasons why the trip went so well. I’ll warn you: This is a somewhat taboo subject for progressive foreign-policy types. The subject, friends, is arms sales. Progressives don’t like arms sales very much, but they need to pay attention to them, because they’re one big way Republicans are fighting for—and winning—the votes of working-class Americans who have traditionally voted for Democrats.

While the president was in Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration announced $110 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia—with an additional $240 billion committed over a 10-year period. If you’ve ever worked in government, you know this is what is called a “deliverable,” the clunky management-consultantese term for a tangible outcome of a visit or meeting. When Donald Trump is asked to justify his trip to Saudi Arabia, he’ll cite that $110 billion in arms sales.

There are a few interesting things about these sales. The first is that many of these sales were already in the works. The Obama administration spent eight years quietly selling a lot of arms to Saudi Arabia: When President Obama left office, for example, the United States still had $100 billion in the foreign military sales pipeline with Saudi Arabia and, in 2011, had inked what was previously the largest arms sale in U.S. history with the Kingdom—a $29 billion deal to sell F-15s to the Saudis.

Obama-era sales to Saudi Arabia were in keeping with sales to other Gulf states: Both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates bought a tremendous amount of U.S. arms between 2009 and 2017. Qatar bought more U.S. arms than any other state in 2014 and, in the waning days of the Obama administration, announced that it would buy nearly $4 billion in Boeing-made F-15s in addition to $19 billion in commercial aircraft, also from Boeing.

Overall, the Arab Gulf states went on a spending spree during the Obama years, and most of the money was spent on American arms.

So why didn’t you hear a lot about this from Democratic politicians during the 2016 election season? There are two main reasons—one strategic and one moral.

Strategically, not everyone is convinced that arming the Arab Gulf states to the teeth is a wise idea. Some worry that these arms might someday endanger Israel’s security, while others worry the Arab Gulf states might be encouraged to use their new toys on disastrous military interventions against Iran or Iranian proxies in, say, Yemen.

The quick and unsatisfying answer to these concerns is the global market. The Arab Gulf states have money, and that money will buy the weapons that are available. If U.S. arms are not for sale, fine: French, Chinese, or Russian arms will be. (And if you don’t believe me, look at the way in which Gulf states—frustrated by U.S. export controls on drone technology—are turning to the Chinese.) Selling U.S. arms to the Gulf states, by contrast, further ties them to U.S. interests by deepening cooperation and interoperability between the U.S. military and its Gulf partners. One of the reasons Qatar wanted to buy U.S. fighters to partially replace its French-made fleet, for example, was because they discovered how difficult it was for their existing fighter aircraft to fly with the U.S. air force as part of coalitions over Libya and Syria.

Arms sales also drive down the cost of our own weapons and thus the amount of money U.S. tax-payers have to spend on defense instead of other priorities like, say, the State Department, school lunches, or housing subsidies. Here’s one example: Because the United States is buying fewer F-35s than originally planned and using more of its “fourth generation” fighters (F-15s, F-16s, etc.) in the skies over Iraq and Syria than previously anticipated, the Department of Defense will likely need to buy more of those fourth generation fighters in the coming years. The recent sales of F-15s to Qatar, F-18s to Kuwait, and F-16s to Bahrain will drive down the cost per plane for the Pentagon. That’s a good thing—at least financially.

Morally, though, many progressives just grow ill at the idea of selling weapons abroad. Senator Chris Murphy, for example—one of the more eloquent and consistent critics of U.S. arms sales in the Senate, even though his own state has a very robust defense industrial base—sees nothing admirable about the idea of selling weapons to the Saudis that might be used in Yemen. Other progressives agree: Yes, they argue, we understand the demand of the market will be met by someone, but do we have to be complicit in providing the supply? In other countries, progressives have even taken to the courts in an effort to halt sales.

I have a lot of respect for these progressives and their values. I spent too much time in Sunday School as a kid to not feel a little uneasy about the business of selling weapons. And the angst many progressives feel about U.S. arms sales has been enough to keep many Democrats from talking up their successes in helping U.S. industry abroad. I wonder, though, if there isn’t a real political cost to not doing so.

Boeing employs 157,000 people—almost all of them in the United States. 14,500 people work in Boeing’s facilities in Missouri, where the F-15 and F-18 are made, where Senator Claire McCaskill is up for reelection next year, and where Donald Trump trounced Hillary Clinton 56 to 38 percent in 2016. (Those 14,500 people do not include the many thousands of other Americans who make parts for the F-15 and F-18 elsewhere in America.)

Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, a huge winner in the recent arms deal with Saudi Arabia (despite ace businessman Jared Kushner negotiating the price down on behalf of the Saudis), employs an additional 97,000 workers—again, most of them in the United States. And Raytheon, another big winner last week, employs another 60,000 or so Americans.

Donald Trump obviously has no moral qualms about selling weapons to our partners and allies abroad. And so while Democrats leave points on the board with working-class voters by not talking about how much Democrats do to support U.S. industry, Republicans swoop in to take credit with assembly line workers for even those things that Obama approved and set in motion.

The way in which Trump brags about U.S. arms sales, of course, is in keeping with the strain of economic mercantilism that ran through his populist campaign message. That message worked with voters throughout the Midwest, helping to cost Clinton the election. So while progressives might have moral qualms about companies that sell weapons, the roughly 1.2 million American voters who work in the aerospace and defense sector—together with the roughly 3.2 million Americans who support the sector indirectly—see little wrong with the sales that help ensure their livelihoods and provide a future for their children.

This might be another area in which progressive elites—who have the kinds of education and skills that don’t require them to seek work on the assembly line—are simply out of touch with the voters they need to win back control of the Congress and state assemblies, never mind the presidency. And politics aside, surely even the moral calculus of arms sales gets more complicated when you think about the millions of American mouths that are fed by mothers and fathers who work in the aerospace and defense sector.

Donald Trump, for his part, is speaking to those voters. And even as progressives fret about U.S. arms sales, they should also fret about what it will mean for the rest of their agenda when Republicans claim credit for protecting some of the last good assembly-line jobs in America.