Why Does the US Sell Teargas to Mubarak?

CNN's Ben Wedeman tweeted from Cairo on Friday night, "Teenager showed me teargas canister 'made in USA'. Saw the same thing in Tunisia. Time to reconsider US exports?"

Hours later, President Obama addressed his nation to say he'd just spoken with Egypt's head of state, Hosni Mubarak, and encouraged him "to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters." So with one hand the US wags its finger at Mubarak for repressing the will of the people, while with it other it hands him the tools with which to do so.

According to the Congressional Research Service, in 2008 the US accounted for $37.8 billion of the $55.2 billion total global trade in weapons. Tear gas to Egypt. Bullets to Israel. Fighter jets to Saudi Arabia. Missiles to Taiwan. We're like BASF in those ads: We don't start the conflict, we just make it better. And our arms sales work not only against our purported desire for the spread of democracy, but our diplomatic and military interests as well. We fret about China flexing its military muscles, yet we sell missiles to its oldest enemy.

This is, quite literally, insane. US international trade is around $160 billion a month. Surely the less than 2 percent of this total we'd give up by withdrawing from this killers' market could be recovered by an equivalent reduction in the Pentagon spending necessary to deter the threats created by our involvement in it.

It can be argued, in some cases, that strengthening one side of a mini-Cold War (such as that which has simmered between China and Taiwan since 1948) might help prevent the region from boiling over. But against whom is Saudi Arabia protecting itself with our F-16s? Iran? Iran has barely ever used its air force in an offensive posture, even during its eight-year war with Iraq, and with sanctions it's likely to be struggling to maintain its meager fleet. Israel? Israel takes its orders from the US. And any attack by either country on the guardians of Islam's holiest shrines would spark a revolt in the Muslim world that would make recent protests in North Africa look like Jon Stewart's rally in Washington last October.

And it's difficult to imagine whom those teargas canisters in Egypt and Tunisia were meant for other than peaceful domestic protesters; if they were violent, shooting would be justified. If they're not violent, they have the right, protected by international law, not to have teargas fired at them.

Surely there are other places on earth where a tyrant can buy his teargas. But our withdrawal from much of the international arms market would send a powerful signal. Just as the horrors of Abu Ghraib and hypocrisy of our terminal detention of enemy combatants harmed US standing as moral exemplars on the world stage, pretending to advocate for peace while we prepare nations for war provokes justifiable scoffing and shaking heads on the Arab street--and the east Asian and sub-Saharan African street as well. It's time for President Obama to announce that no longer will arm the world's dictators and war-makers.