Feeding the appetite for arms

At a time of economic recession, it may be tempting to view increased US arms sales abroad as a way of stimulating American industry. Indeed the United States in this fiscal year has worked out agreements for arms transfers totalling up to $30 billion. The profit ledgers of selected defense firms may look impressive, but is this the way the United States should be headed?

Renewed focus on the issue is prompted by a recent State Department report that the Soviet Union is the world's largest arms dealer, selling nearly twice as much weaponry to developing nations during the last decade as did the United States. This assessment is used to justify the vigorous arms promotion policy of the Reagan administration, which sees the transfer of arms as a means of winning friends in the third world, contributing to stability there, and countering Soviet influence.

Some independent defense analysts dispute the calculations on which the State Department's findings are based. The figures do not, for instance, reflect the military capability of the weapons. But, whether the figures are exaggerated or not, the disturbing point is that the Soviet Union, the United States, and the West Europeans are embarked on what seems an unrestrained policy of dumping arms around the world. Instead of trying to match the Russians, the administration should be trying to revive the long-stalled talks with Moscow and with its European allies about limiting the sales of conventional arms (the so-called CAT talks).

For neither side, East or West, has thetransfer of arms proved an unqualified blessing. On the contrary. The Russians have seen their vast arsenals blown up in the Middle East by superior American weaponry. Despite their generosity with arms, they have not been able to dictate policy to such countries as Syria and Iraq. Nor have they been able to buy the long-term friendship of such countries as Egypt, Indonesia, Ghana.

Washington, for its part, is now reaping the tragic results of arms excesses in the past. It supplied $12 billion worth of weaponry to Iran - a friend - only to see US influence go up in the smoke of revolution and its weapons used in a war with Iraq. The misuse of US arms by Israel in Lebanon is but the latest stark illustration of the naivete of thinking that arms supply necessarily provides political influence. As the Soviets and the Americans have learned from experience, every country ends up acting in its own national interest, and not to suit a patron state.

Of course, arms can and do play a role in winning cooperation with US diplomatic objectives. Promises of American aid, for instance, helped achieve an Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement and encourage Saudi moderation in its oil-pricing policies. But arms transfers are not a guarantee of loyalty. A ''friendly'' country today can turn out to be an obstreperous opponent or even aggressive adversary tomorrow - witness the war between Argentina and Britain.

Arms transfers may yield some economic benefits (and even these affect only a small segment of industry) but they must be weighed against the political and military dangers. Infusing lethal weapons into areas torn by bitter racial and ethnic hatreds risks not only regional wars but superpower confrontation. Most of all, it diverts the third world's precious resources from civilian needs - thereby prolonging the social and economic conditions which give rise to Soviet adventurism to begin with.Think what could be done for the poor nations of the world with even a small chunk of the more than $500 billion a year now going into military budgets.

Supplying nations with the arms they need for a ''reasonable defense'' is not at question here. Racing to outmatch the Soviet Union is. Instead, the administration should be working for international agreements to stop what is a wasteful and perilous trend.

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