Research: Publications

Risk and Returns: The Economic Illogic of the Obama Administration's Arms Export Reforms

August 21, 2013 | Report

By William D. Hartung

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Early in its first term, the Obama administration announced the outlines of a new approach to arms export controls designed to reform “what we control, how we control it, how we enforce those controls and how we manage our controls.”  The stated goal of the reform effort was to focus on “controlling the most critical products and technologies” while “enhancing the competitiveness of key United States manufacturing and technology sectors.”

A central element of the administration’s approach has been to move items from the United States Munitions List (USML) – a compendium of arms and arms-related technologies monitored by the State Department – to the Commerce Control List (CCL), which subjects equipment destined for export to less rigorous scrutiny.

The Obama administration’s loosening of controls goes far beyond anything contemplated by the Clinton or Bush administrations. The White House has asserted that, “At the end of this process, we anticipate that a significant percentage of the items that are transferred off of the USML would be permitted to be exported without a license.” This means that oversight would be lifted from these items.

It is generally agreed that existing export control laws and regulations need to be simplified and updated, but human rights groups and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have raised serious concerns over the potential for the Obama administration’s reforms to undercut current laws designed to keep U.S. defense articles out of the hands of terrorists, human rights abusers, or countries or groups seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

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