The U.S. weapons industry gets its way
by Jennifer Washburn
The Progressive magazine, May 1997
The U.S. arms industry, which has sold an estimated $1.1 billion
worth of weaponry to Indonesia's military since 1975, has far
more influence on U.S. policy toward the Suharto regime than John
Huang, the Riadys, and the Lippo Group. But their interests are
identical: maintain warm economic and military relations between
Washington and Jakarta.
The complicity of the U.S. government and the American weapons
industry in Indonesia's illegal occupation of East Timor has persisted
through Democratic and Republican Administrations alike. Two days
prior to Indonesia's invasion of East Timor, in December 1975,
President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave
the green light to Suharto while attending a state dinner in Jakarta
with the dictator. During that same visit, the United States pledged
a substantial increase in military aid to Indonesia. U.S. military
aid from 1974 to 1976 more than doubled, rising from $]7 million
to $40 million. U.S. weapons sales to Indonesia from 1974 to 1975
jumped from $12 million to $65 million.
In approving these sales, Kissinger knew he was violating
a 1958 treaty between the United States and Indonesia, which stated
that imported American weapons must be used strictly for Indonesian
"self-defense." But that didn't trouble him. "We
can't construe [prevention of] a Communist government in the middle
of Indonesia as self-defense?" Kissinger cynically asked
State Department officials in internal memoranda, which have since
been made public.
Despite its professed concern for human rights, the Carter
Administration approved a record $112 million in new U.S. arms
sales to Indonesia in 1978. These exports enabled the Suharto
regime to consolidate its military occupation of East Timor after
its arsenal had been largely depleted in the initial invasion.
That year, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta lost
three family members at the hands of Indonesian forces armed with
U.S. weapons. "My sister Maria Ortensia was killed by a U.S.-made
Bronco aircraft that was being used . . . for counterinsurgency
operations," says Ramos-Horta. "The same year I lost
two brothers, Nunu and Guilherme, the first killed by fire from
a U.S.-designed M-16 automatic rifle made under license in Indonesia,
and the second during a rocket and strafing attack by a U.S.-supplied
The Reagan Administration averaged $71 million per year in
arms sales to Jakarta, including a 1986 blockbuster deal to provide
twelve F-16 fighters at a cost of more than $300 million. During
the Bush Administration, sales dropped to roughly $28 million
Now, despite international condemnation of Indonesia for human-rights
violations and a political storm brewing in Congress over Indonesian
donations to his campaign, President Clinton continues to advocate
the sale of up to eleven F-16 fighter planes to Indonesia. This
would be the first U.S. sale of major combat aircraft to Indonesia
in more than a decade.
If the President has his way-which is looking increasingly
unlikely due to Congressional and grassroots opposition-the Clinton
Administration will have approved roughly $270 million in arms
sales to Jakarta in just over four years. This would represent
more than twice the arms sales concluded during the Bush Administration,
and, allowing for inflation, would amount to the highest level
of U.S. sales since the second Reagan term.
Yet the President has tried to turn his arms-sales record
into an asset, arguing that his Administration's decision-following
Congressional pressure-to ban small-arms sales to Indonesia proves
that there was no foreign influence on his policies. "Indeed,
look at the difference in my policy and that of my predecessor,"
Clinton remarked at a news conference held just after his election
on November 8. "We changed our policy on arms sales because
of East Timor, not to sell small arms. And we co-sponsored a resolution
in the United Nations in favor of greater human rights in East
Timor. And I'm proud that we did that. So I can tell you categorically
that there was no influence."
But the Administration has flatly contradicted the principle
behind its small arms ban by approving other major weapons exports,
which signal continued U.S. support for the Suharto dictatorship.
The U.S. arms industry has been actively seeking greater subsidies
to increase weapons exports overseas. Many of these exports will
directly benefit countries like Indonesia, which is dependent
on massive arms imports. In 1995, according to a recent report
by William D. Hartung of the World Policy Institute, the arms
industry gobbled up $7.6 billion in federal subsidies to promote
and finance U.S. arms exports. This makes corporate subsidies
for arms-exporting companies the second largest corporate-welfare
expenditure (the first being agricultural price-supports) .
The $7.6 billion in federal subsidies for arms exports paid
out in 1995 represents more than half the total value of U.S.
arms exports in that year. This means that U.S. taxpayers, not
foreign governments, are paying for more than half of all U.S.
In October 1994, the arms industry successfully persuaded
Congress to allow the Export-lmport Bank to provide guaranteed
loans for foreign countries to purchase so-called dual-use equipment,
amenable to both military and civilian uses. The amendment to
the bank's charter-which was drafted by the Aerospace Industries
Association, a powerful arms industry trade group-marks the reversal
of a longstanding legislative prohibition on Export-Import Bank
support for military deals. In late 1995, Indonesia became a major
beneficiary of this change when it received a $22 million loan
guarantee from the Export-Import Bank to refurbish seven of its
U.S.-made C-130 and L-100 transport aircraft, currently manufactured
by Lockheed Martin.
In the 1995-1996 election cycle, arms exporters poured more
than $10.7 million in PAC donations and soft money into campaign
coffers, winning themselves an even bigger prize: a $15 billion
loan-guarantee fund. The fund, which Clinton approved, will provide
extremely favorable loans to any of thirty-seven foreign governments
(including human-rights violators like Indonesia and Turkey) to
finance the purchase of U.S. weapons systems. If the guaranteed
loans are not repaid, U.S. taxpayers will almost certainly be
left to foot the bill.
The close ties between the arms industry and the U.S. government
were starkly manifest at an airshow held in Jakarta in June 1996.
During the exhibition, U.S. Navy and Air Force personnel showed
off U.S. military versions of the same weapons that American firms
were offering to sell, including McDonnell Douglas F-15 and Lockheed
Martin F-16 fighter jets, a Boeing KC-135 mid-air refueling tanker,
and a P-3C naval aircraft. From a carrier wing of the USS Carlvinson
stationed just off the coast, ten planes manned by U.S. personnel
flew demonstration flights over the show. "Participation
in the air show demonstrates our commitment to the Pacific region,"
the Pentagon said, "and enhances military-to-military contacts."
Jennifer Washburn is a freelance journalist and a research
associate at the World Policy Institute in New York City. Her
article draws from a recent Institute report she co-authored with
senior fellow William D. Hartung called "US Arms Transfers
to Indonesia 1975-1997: Who's Influencing Whom?"