At least 430 people have been killed and more than 1,200 others injured in 338 mass shootings in the United States so far this year. An estimated 400,000 Americans have been shot and killed since 9/11.
On Oct. 1, a few hours after a 26-year-old gunman murdered nine people and injured 20 others at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, a visibly agitated President Barack Obama addressed a grieving nation — the 15th such statement he has given since taking office. “We’ve become numb to this,” he said from the White House. He’s right.
He has repeatedly called for tighter gun control laws — a desire shared by many Americans. However, any meaningful attempt at introducing stricter background checks on purchasers, for example, has fallen on deaf ears. “When Americans are killed in mine disasters,” lamented Obama, “we work to make mines safer. When Americans are killed in floods and hurricanes, we make communities safer … the notion that gun violence is somehow different … doesn't make sense.”
His focus on the plight of shooting victims, however noble, exposes another, less discussed form of national numbness. The United States’ arms trade with countries that violate the human rights of their citizens is a major contributor to the armed violence that has gripped the Middle East, especially since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Even as he implores the nation for the fate of Americans affected by gun violence, he has failed to acknowledge Washington’s responsibility for the lives of civilians whose oppressive governments kill and maim using U.S.-made weapons. So why is he antsy about tackling gun violence in the U.S. but silent on the excesses of the U.S. military-industrial complex?
The answer is simple: It’s a political choice. The U.S. is one of the largest suppliers of weapons to India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, all of which are strategically important but have dismal human rights records.
For example, this month the U.S. agreed to sell $1.29 billion worth of air-to-ground munitions to Saudi Arabia. This adds to the arms deal announced on Sept. 30 to sell advanced air and missile defense systems worth $1.75 billion to Riyadh. The deal ignored Amnesty International’s call for the U.S. to halt its arms trade with Saudi Arabia, citing concerns over war crimes in Yemen, where the Saudis are conducting a controversial military campaign against Houthi rebels.
In addition, the rapid rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is in part the result of its ability to acquire modern weaponry from various sources.
ISIL commandeered some of these weapons from Iraqi forces that were trained and armed by the U.S. and its allies. Some weapons were bought on the black market, and according to The New York Times, Turkey and Saudi Arabia supplied some in a bid to destabilize the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Arms the U.S. shipped to the Free Syrian Army have also ended up in ISIL’s hands.
The resultant tensions have led to shifting regional alliances and competing interventions by antagonistic stakeholders, including Russia and the United States. However, none of this is surprising, given the myriad interests in the region.
Saudi Arabia has used its expanded role in the war against ISIL to launch a controversial aerial bombardment in Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s allies in the fight against ISIL have largely looked away as Riyadh pursues its questionable political interests in Yemen. However, Saudi Arabia has not turned its back on elements of ISIL’s worldview, including obsession with sectarian threats and a fetish for power concealed under an austere and rigid interpretation of Islam. ISIL is not simply an external militant threat to Saudi Arabia but also the product of an ideology that the Saudi leaders incubated to expand their control and regional influence.
To be clear, Saudi Arabia is hardly alone in the multifront proxy war in Syria. The Syrian regime continues to receive weapons and other military assistance from Iran. The Gulf states have been trying to arm different Syrian rebel groups, leading to disastrous attempts at cooperation with one supposedly moderate rebel faction after another.
Moreover, given Russia’s recent intervention in Syria, the U.S. is looking to strengthen its proxy positions in the Middle East while supplying lucrative modern weapons to Syrian rebels.
The increased demand for arms and the countries’ readiness to aggressively and frequently use them against more targets and at a greater scale increases the risk of collateral damage. This has been true for the U.S., as well as Saudi Arabia. This is why the U.S. military-industrial complex appears increasingly devoid of an ethical strategy and risks repeating mistakes made in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the Cold War, which led to the weaponization of the Taliban ideology.
Military operations on a massive scale — whether it’s the U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan or the aerial campaign against the Houthis in Yemen — lack precision. And this lack of accuracy leads to the widespread perception of the United States’ complete disregard for human life and its contribution to the cycle of violence that its weapons sales are supposed to break.
Nearly 90 percent of those killed by U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan in five months were civilians, according to The Intercept. Not only is this counterproductive, but it also instills hostilities among the people whose deaths and grief remains marginalized by the euphemistic language of war. Civilian deaths are often reported as those of combatants, low-level militants or military-age males in a strike zone, who typically pose no risk to the United States but are deemed legitimate targets. It also weakens the morale of dissidents who are beheaded by Saudi Arabia for expressing opinions that oppose ISIL’s extremist worldview.
If there is one abiding lesson from history, it is that the Taliban could not have come to power without U.S. military assistance and moral endorsements. In addition to its failure to adapt to changing contexts, the U.S. arms strategy in the Middle East has led to misplaced priorities and undermined peaceful conflict resolution mechanisms and is bound to further destabilize the region. Such myopic strategies will continue to yield further catastrophic results unless the U.S. learns not to shoot itself in the foot.