The U.S. government approved $40billion in private arms sales to countries including Libya and Egypt in 2009 – before they both dissolved into unrest this year – the State Department reported.
From 2008 to 2009, the U.S. authorised an increase in sales of military shipments to the now-toppled Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak and the embattled kingdom of Bahrain.
But they did reduce the sales approvals to Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan government to $15million that year from $46million in 2008.
Libya is now under a blanket weapons ban imposed last month by the Obama administration.
The $40billion overall figure during the first year of the Obama administration is an increase on total approved arms sales over the final year of the Bush administration in 2008, when the State Department licensed $34.2billion.
The sales were for military hardware from missile systems to bullets that the State Department authorises from private U.S. defence companies to other countries.
The figures do not include direct U.S. military aid to other nations, providing a limited snapshot of the ebb and flow of American arms abroad.
They are also for proposed sales rather than actual shipments.
The State figures detailed sales of U.S. defence items for Egypt ($101million) and Bahrain ($88million).
The figures show $458,000 in tear gas sales licensed to Egypt, where there were numerous reports that U.S.-supplied crowd-control gas suppressed democracy protesters in Cairo.
The U.S. authorised $18,000 in tear gas for Bahrain in 2008, but did not license it in 2009, the figures show.
Both countries were also authorised shipments of firearms, shotguns and close assault weapons.
All sales to Libya were restricted to non-lethal equipment.
Almost all of the equipment approved in 2009 were aircraft parts, compared to more than $1million that had been approved in 2008 for explosives and incendiary agents.
State Department spokesman Mark C Toner said earlier this week that the explosives were limited for use in oil exploration, but other officials raised concerns that the material could be converted into crude battlefield munitions.
In total $7.3billion of the $40billion in U.S.-approved defence sales went to Middle East and North African countries indicating the willingness to pay top dollar for American defence equipment.
Iraq, where U.S. forces are still drawing down and the fledgling government is struggling against militants, was the biggest buyer with $1.51billion, closely followed by Turkey with $1.5billion.
William D Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation, a non-partisan Washington think tank questioned whether the U.S. was lax in providing such weaponry and crowd-control devices to authoritarian regimes.
‘Some of these countries have very serious records of human rights abuses that are being overlooked in deference to other aspects of their relationship with the U.S.,’ he said.
‘When you’re selling something like tear gas, what’s it going to be used for? Dissenters, most likely.’
However, other defence experts cautioned that other countries would quickly move to replace the U.S. in any arms sales stopped for human rights concerns.
Matthew Schroeder, an arms expert with the Federation of American Scientists, pointed to a massive surge of $470million in armaments to Libya by European nations while the U.S. held back.
‘If you cut off arms sales, a client would go straight to U.S. competitors like Russia or China,’ he said, adding that American monitoring of private defence sales is more systematic than most other nations.
State officials say the department is scrutinising the proposed defence sales as part of an ongoing review process.
As part of the review, the administration is also looking specifically at the use of force by Bahraini security and military forces on peaceful demonstrators and ‘will take into account any evidence of gross violations of human rights,’ according to a State official.
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