Pope Francis on Thursday gently scolded Congress on a variety of issues, from immigration to foreign policy, but on one unexpected topic — the weapons sales that fuel armed conflicts around the world — he couldn’t have been much more blunt.
He was speaking about his determination “to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world,” when he said this:
Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.
Those were fighting words, especially given where he spoke them. The U.S. is by far the largest arms supplier in the world, with domestic manufacturers selling more than $23.7 billion in weapons in 2014 to nearly 100 different countries. During the Obama administration, weapons sales have surged to record levels, in large part due to huge shipments to Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia.
And a healthy chunk of those arms sales — especially to Israel and Egypt — are heavily subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer.
Congress, which could have blocked any of this, went along happily — in no small part because of the approximately $150 million a year the defense industry spends on lobbying and direct campaign contributions.
William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, praised the Pope’s comments as “a refreshing change from the antiseptic language that too often surrounds discussions in this country concerning the global arms trade.”
Hartung wrote in an email to The Intercept:
The recognition that arms sales can result in the spilling of “innocent blood” for profit is a far cry from the cover stories so often used to justify multi-billion-dollar arms deals — that they promote “stability” and are only for “defensive purposes.” As the country that reaps the most money from the international arms trade, the United States bears a responsibility to take the leadership in curbing weapons trading around the world. A good start would be to cut off U.S. supplies to Saudi Arabia until they stop engaging in indiscriminate bombing in Yemen, which has caused a humanitarian catastrophe of the highest order.
Hartung’s research shows that the volume of major arms deals concluded by Obama in his first five years far exceeds the amount approved during the eight years of the Bush administration.
U.S. firms make up seven of the top 10 arms-exporting companies, with Lockheed Martin and Boeing coming in at numbers one and two. Also in the top 10: Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, United Technologies and L-3 Communications.
In June, the State Department announced it was lifting the freeze it imposed on the repressive government of Bahrain, despite recent human rights abuses including arbitrary detention of children, torture, restrictions for journalists and a brutal government crackdown on peaceful protestors in 2011.
And in August, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that he would even further speed up U.S. arms sales to Gulf countries. As part of his attempt to reassure Gulf states alarmed by negotiations with Iran, he said the U.S. “had agreed to expedite certain arms sales that are needed and that have taken too long in the past.”
Thursday’s speech was not the first time the Pope has spoken out about the arms trade. He referred to it as “the industry of death” in a talk with Italian schoolchildren in May. “Why do so many powerful people not want peace? Because they live off war,” he said.
“This is serious. Some powerful people make their living with the production of arms and sell them to one country for them to use against another country,” he said. “The economic system orbits around money and not men, women. … So war is waged in order to defend money. This is why some people don’t want peace: They make more money from war, although wars make money but lose lives, health, education.”