Rather than speeding up sales to these risky countries, U.S. policymakers should reevaluate American arms policy in the Middle East and how weapons sales to these actors endanger both American interests and regional stability.

Despite the Biden administration’s relatively new Conventional Arms Transfer policy that seeks to include human rights in the arms sales process, the administration’s actual sales profile suggests that it seeks little real change from decades of prior U.S. arms transfers. 

Since 2009, the United States has delivered over $444 billion in arms sales to 169 countries. A major justification that U.S. administrations have used to overlook the inherent risks of arms sales is that, despite no empirical evidence, weapons sales allow Washington to leverage recipient dependence on American-made arms to force policy changes in line with U.S. interests.

Nowhere are the shortcomings of the “arms for leverage” argument more glaring than in the Middle East. The massive and constant flow of arms to the Middle East is predicated on the false notion that such sales help American partners to stabilize the region while simultaneously increasing U.S. influence and leverage. The logic that “if we do not sell arms, someone else will” is now one of the most citedreasons for continued arms sales to America’s Middle Eastern partners, lest they turn toward Russia or China. 

Instead, our research shows that weapons transfers to the Middle East do the opposite: Such massive weapon flows to the Middle East fuel the root causes of instability and provide nefarious actors with the tools for their repressive and aggressive domestic and foreign policies.

There is thus little evidence to suggest that leverage exists in ways that U.S. policymakers suggest. Instead, recipient states are using “reverse leverage” to guarantee a continuous flow of American weapons, undermining Washington’s foreign policy goals. Rather than doubling down on this flawed reasoning, which is rooted in decades of misunderstandings of the benefits from arms sales and the Middle East, the Biden administration should change course and begin reevaluating their rationale for sending weapons that empower dictators who actively undermine U.S. interests.

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