by Chrisana Panzica
Originally published in Truthout
Since 2015, the U.S.-backed Saudi-led bombing and blockade of Yemen has killed tens of thousands of people and devastated the country, creating what the United Nations calls the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Half the country’s people are on the brink of famine, the country has the world’s worst cholera outbreak in recorded history, and now Yemen has one of the very worst COVID death rates in the world: It kills 1 in 4 people who test positive.
People and organizations across the world are uniting to call for an end to this genocidal war on January 25 in an international day of action. President Joe Biden, who was part of the Obama administration which started U.S. support for the war, has vaguely promised to end U.S. support for the war. However, Biden’s promise should be viewed with extreme skepticism. Weapons manufacturers like Raytheon have a vested interest in continuing the war and wield an immense amount of power in Washington. It is unlikely the U.S. government will end the war without a fight — it’s on us to push it to do so.
Starting under Obama and continuing under Trump, the U.S. has been heavily involved in the war on Yemen, primarily through weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners. These weapons are by and large used to intentionally target and kill Yemenis. This bloodthirsty logic has been a driving force behind the war for almost six years.
Raytheon Technologies, the second-largest arms manufacturer in the world, is one major provider of these weapons. It stands out from the rest of its competitors because of its close ties with Saudi Arabia, having been the first weapons manufacturer to build a permanent operation there in the 1960s, hiring members of the Saudi royal family as consultants, and opening a branch of the company in Riyadh in 2017. After the war began in March 2015, Raytheon’s stock price went from about $108 to more than $180 in 2019, reflecting billions of dollars in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.
Despite the countless threads connecting Raytheon to Saudi Arabia and its financial interest in continuing the war in Yemen, the company portrays itself as a neutral force which simply carries out the foreign policy of the U.S. government and therefore is not responsible for the destruction wrought by its weapons. When Vice President of Business Development and CEO of Raytheon Company International John D. Harris II was asked by CNBC in a February 2019 interview about the use of Raytheon bombs in Yemen, his response was: “We are an element of U.S. policy — our role is not to make policy, our role is to comply with it.” By characterizing itself as an obedient, law-abiding company, Raytheon not only attempts to weasel out of its culpability, but also obfuscates the horrific tragedy playing out in Yemen and other countries where its bombs fall.
The reality is the harrowing situation in Yemen can be directly traced back to Raytheon and other weapons manufacturers’ influence on U.S. foreign policy. This is not due to a lack of government “checks and balances” or oversight; rather, it is the result of a calculated policy of the U.S. government to ensure its dominant geopolitical position in the world, which includes maximizing the profit interests of these companies at the expense of Yemeni lives. The U.S. is also involved in Yemen to limit Iranian influence in the region and protect its access to seaborne oil trade that passes through the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb.
Raytheon’s claims of neutrality fall flat when one takes a closer look at its influence on U.S. policy, including both explicit lobbying of government officials and its unified interests with members of the U.S. political elite. The revolving door between private companies and government positions has supported Raytheon’s goals — in fact, Raytheon has managed to insert itself as a permanent fixture at the highest levels of government. Obama and Trump both had former Raytheon lobbyists serve in senior roles in the Defense Department (William Lynn and Mark Esper, respectively), and Biden is continuing the tradition, choosing Gen. Lloyd Austin, who sits on the Raytheon board, for defense secretary and breezed through his confirmation hearing without issue on January 19.
While the situation in Yemen continued to dramatically deteriorate during the Trump administration, Trump shares the blame with his predecessor. Obama played a key role in starting the war, giving Saudi Arabia a green light for its initial attack. He also worked to expand U.S. arms sales abroad, including to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In 2013, Obama oversaw a big increase in U.S. arms sales to foreign governments that has enabled Saudi Arabia’s current assault on Yemen. As a result, U.S. arms exports went from $6.9 billion in 2009 to $8.7 billion in 2012, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s database, a 25 percent increase. Of that, U.S. arms exports to Saudi Arabia increased by 4,489 percent between 2008-12 and 2013-17.
Despite his grandiose campaign rhetoric about “change” and “progress,” Obama enabled and deepened the same corruption he had previously denounced. Three days into his presidency, Obama waived a rule prohibiting lobbyists from working in the government on issues they had lobbied on for two years. He then nominated William Lynn, a Raytheon lobbyist and head of the company’s division for government operations and strategy, as his deputy secretary of defense.
United States of Raytheon
In 2015, when the war in Yemen began, Obama agreed to back Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Yemen by qualifying weapons sales as “defensive support.” Obama was well aware that weapons sold to Saudi Arabia would not be used for defense but would instead be used to attack Yemen; however, he considered it a necessary evil to placate Saudi Arabia in the wake of the nuclear deal struck with Saudi Arabia’s adversary, Iran. Since then, U.S. support for the war has been indispensable to Saudi Arabia’s ability to slaughter Yemenis. Saudi Arabia has very little ability to produce weapons on its own, so it is reliant on foreign companies for its military capabilities and maintenance. U.S. weapons sales are therefore essential for Saudi Arabia’s siege of Yemen. In addition to weapons sales, U.S. support for the war initially included refueling Saudi bombers twice a day. As of January 2021, the U.S. still provides logistical support and intelligence.
In October 2016, news broke of Saudi Arabia striking a funeral procession in Sana’a, killing at least 140 people and injuring 500. In a largely symbolic move, the Obama administration blocked the delivery of Raytheon bomb parts that were sold but not yet shipped, citing concerns regarding Saudi Arabia’s “poor targeting.” Raytheon’s then-chief executive officer, Thomas Kennedy, personally called and lobbied Tony Blinken, the deputy secretary of state, and also reached out to Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice to express his discontent with Obama’s move. While the shipment of those specific weapons was momentarily stopped, Obama continued aircraft refueling and increased intelligence-sharing with Saudi Arabia.
After the election of Trump, Raytheon continued to exert influence on U.S. policy. The company’s first order of business was arranging several meetings between Thomas Kennedy and Trump, including during Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May 2017. Soon after, Trump approved the shipment of the weapons that Obama blocked. It certainly did not hurt that Raytheon had allies already embedded throughout the Washington bureaucracy. For example, the company’s former chief lobbyist, Mark Esper, became secretary of the Army and eventually secretary of defense from July 2019 to November 2020. During his confirmation, Esper refused to recuse himself from decisions affecting Raytheon. In addition, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Charles Faulkner had previously lobbied on defense procurement issues on behalf of Raytheon. He was eventually removed from his post for his integral role in fast-tracking $8 billion in Raytheon arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Raytheon (like other defense contractors) also employs other tactics to influence U.S. policy. One method included hiring former State Department officials to lobby their former colleagues in the department to approve the sales Obama had blocked. These officials are not required to register as lobbyists. In its quest to guarantee Trump’s approval of the weapons sales that Obama had halted, Raytheon also solicited support from lobbyist David J. Urban, who was in the same class at West Point with Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. They maintain strong ties and affectionately refer to themselves as the “West Point Mafia.”
Raytheon and other defense contractors also hire lobbying firms on a retainer basis to monitor legislation and step in if necessary. The two largest defense-industry lobbying firms are American Defense International (ADI) and McKeon Group. McKeon Group represents not only a large percentage of the arms industry, but also the government of Saudi Arabia. McKeon Group was founded by Buck McKeon, a former House representative from California’s 25th congressional district who served on the Armed Services Committee from 1991 until 2014. His largest campaign donors and current clients are Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, two of the largest defense contractors in the world. Simultaneously, McKeon Group lobbies on behalf of the government of Saudi Arabia, working to kill bills that would impact U.S. arms sales.
Both companies, ADI and McKeon Group, have been integral to setting U.S. policy regarding Yemen. In November 2018, two weeks before a vote was to be held regarding the bill that would end U.S. involvement in Yemen, the McKeon Group contacted Sen. Jim Inhofe, chair of the Armed Services Committee, on behalf of Saudi Arabia. Inhofe then voted in favor of continuing U.S. support of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and the very next day the McKeon Group donated $1,000 to the senator. Foreign Agents Registration Act records show that the company made several phone calls and sent multiple emails to a host of other members of the Senate and House regarding the bill.
These lobbying companies work tirelessly to safeguard their clients’ interests no matter who is in office. What’s more, the countless lobbyists and officers from these companies in unelected government positions give the weapons industry a direct hand in governing and creating policy. Raytheon’s claims that it does not set policy but merely complies with it is immediately discredited upon examination of this web of influence within and upon the government. Because of growing public outrage at the atrocities being committed in Yemen, Raytheon and all weapons manufacturers have had to find ways to continue to rationalize their bloodstained fortunes.
Given that arms manufacturers are intertwined with the U.S. government, we should remain skeptical of Biden’s promise to end the war in Yemen. As demonstrated by the Obama and Trump administrations, the role of U.S. presidents is to pursue a foreign policy that in large part protects and upholds the interests of the U.S. elite, including U.S. arms manufacturers. To perform this duty, Trump and Obama appointed top Raytheon executives while members of Congress carefully heeded their guidance, delivered by ADI and the McKeon Group. Biden is no exception to this trend, evidenced by his nomination of Lloyd Austin.
The U.S. government is a government of, by and for corporations. The leaders of multinational corporations move continuously from industry to government and back again. The corporatocracy is often characterized by the proverbial “revolving door,” but in some instances, there is no door — distinctions melt away, and corporations and government become one. Corporations like Raytheon do not, as they claim, follow U.S. foreign policy: they make it.
Thus, the question at hand is not about forcing government officials to divest from any stake they have in companies they previously worked for. Nominally cutting off ties does not indicate a divergence in interest. The U.S. government, by design, works to serve the interests of the billionaires, not the majority of people who live paycheck to paycheck, and definitely not to bring “freedom” to the millions who face their bombs and boots. In order to bring an end to the genocidal war in Yemen, we must reckon with and fiercely oppose this reality.
As people living in the U.S., we have a responsibility to stand up against what the U.S. government and corporations do abroad in our name. The global day of action against the war in Yemen on January 25 is just one part of this. Hundreds of antiwar, Yemeni and humanitarian organizations from across the world are coming together to call for an end to the genocidal war in Yemen days after Biden’s inauguration and the day before Saudi Arabia’s “Davos in the Desert” forum, where the Saudi Crown Prince will promote foreign investment in Saudi Arabia. Protests are planned across the country and the world, and an online event is being held for those who can’t attend an in-person protest. Join us for an important step in building up a broad and powerful antiwar movement in the U.S. to put an end to all U.S.-led and supported wars.