The Washington Post’s recent investigation on how hundreds of former U.S. military officials have been working for repressive foreign governments like Saudi Arabia and the UAE is just the latest sign of how all too often U.S. foreign policy is determined by special interests rather than the national interest. The investigation, supplemented by work done by the Project on Government Oversight, was made possible by lawsuits under the Freedom of Information Act that forced the U.S. government to reveal at least some information about what the Post rightly described as “foreign servants” among ex-generals, admirals and more who went to work for the Gulf States and others for contracts often worth in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
There is supposed to be a process for seeking approval to work for foreign entities that includes informing the officials’ former military service and seeking approval by the State Department. But the requests are generally rubber stamped, with the vast majority going through without complaint. In addition many former officials don’t seek approval in the first place, yet brag about their foreign ties on their LinkedIn pages and elsewhere. For its part, the administration has seemed more intent on protecting the “privacy” of former officials and shielding them from being subjected to “embarrassment” or “harassment.” God forbid that an ex-general be held to acccount in the court of public opinion for enabling regimes like Saudi Arabia in their prosecution of their brutal war in Yemen, much less looking the other way at the Kingdom’s human rights abuses, most notably its murder of U.S.-resident Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
The question now is whether the new revelations will prompt real reforms in the system of allowing former U.S. military officials to sell their services to the highest foreign bidder, or if it will be a one off that fades from public discussion as other crises grab public attention. The issue should be addressed seriously, among other reasons because the judgments of military leaders towards regimes like Saudi Arabia and the UAE may be colored by their knowledge that they can cash in by working for these governments after they leave the armed forces.
But the employment of ex-admirals and generals by foreign governments seeking to shape U.S. foreign policy is just one component of a system that tips the balance in favor of an aggressive, militarized foreign policy. As the Project on Government Oversight has amply documented in its database on the revolving door between government and the weapons industry, hundreds of senior government officials, from the Pentagon, the National Security Council, and Congress routinely go to work as lobbyists or consultants to big arms makers after leaving public service. They have an inside track on promoting the arms industry’s agenda through privileged access to their former colleagues and special expertise in how to manipulate the legislative and procurement processes. According to recent data from the organization Open Secrets, the arms industry as a whole employs roughly 700 lobbyists in any given year, most of whom come from the halls of government.
And it is important to remember that the revolving door swings both ways. Executives of weapons makers often go into high ranking policymaking positions in government, positions that allow them to advocate for the interests of their former employers. To cite just one egregious example, four of the last five secretaries of defense have come from one of the top five defense contractors – General Dynamics, Boeing, or Raytheon.
Then there’s the role of former military officials in shaping the media narrative on issues of war and peace. Ex-officers with ties to the arms industry are ubiquitous as expert guests discussing vital issues of war and peace, and their industry ties are rarely disclosed.
The influence of foreign governments and weapons contractors often work in lockstep, as in the push by companies like Raytheon and governments like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to promote weapons sales to the Gulf States. Some lobbyists, like former House Armed Services Committee chair Howard “Buck” Mckeon, have worked for both companies like Lockheed Martin and governments like Saudi Arabia. Add to this the heavy role of the Pentagon, contractors, and foreign governments in funding prominent foreign policy think tanks, as documented in detail by my colleague Ben Freeman, and the potential for conflicts of interest that favor a militarized approach to U.S. global policy became painfully apparent.
It’s long past-time for Congress to take strong measures to reduce the sway of the weapons industry and foreign governments in shaping both U.S. foreign policy debates and national security policy writ large. Without such reforms, the public will never know for sure whether decisions about our safety and security are based on objective assessments or skewed by parochial financial interests.