Major Mariam al Mansouri’s exploits are an unintended benefit of a looser arms export regime.
Arms sales bear a bad reputation for mortgaging global political sensibilities to domestic economic interests. But as a diplomat in Washington reminded me over dinner last week, to have influence, one must be willing to talk. As sociologist Ori Swed of the University of Texas once speculated to me, French and American arms sales to the Tunisian and Egyptian Armies provided those military organizations a more Western sense of political-military relations. Later, this led to at least some restraint during the Arab Spring. The contrast with the Soviet-trained Syrian and Libyan Armies remains remarkable.
In thinking this over, we should remember how an earlier arms sale to the UAE has had an unintended, positive consequence. In early 2011, UAE aircraft were flying alongside NATO air forces over Libya, but without the effectiveness of usual suspects like the RAF and the Armée de l’Air, for the UAE Air Force relatively lacked precision air-to-ground weapons. So that November, the UAE’s government asked to buy 4,900 JDAMs for $304 million. This August, UAE jets were reportedly bombing rebels in Libya, and given the accuracy of the strikes, the work may have been accomplished with some of those bombs from Boeing. Beneficiaries of the bombing include almost anyone fighting the Libya Dawn militias or ISIS.
But those JDAMs may also have struck a blow for human rights in the Middle East. Had the US not agreed to sell those JDAMs, Major Mariam al Mansouri of the UAE Air Force might have had nothing useful to drop on ISIS. Perhaps too strict a view of who gets Western weapons limits engagement with those whom we’d like to influence. And sometimes, the influence can be delightfully and unintentionally positive.
James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.