Mideast Arms Race

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THE last thing the Middle East needs is an accelerated arms race, but that's what it seems likely to get as the Gulf crisis whets everyone's appetite for bigger and better guns. First, the Saudis petitioned the US for billions in advanced weapons to offset the threat from Iraq. Then the Israelis plied Washington with concerns about losing their ``qualitative edge'' in fire power if the Saudis were able to get all the items on their want list.

Families and individuals presented with lists of wants and limited resources often have to engage in some tough-minded ``want-need'' analysis. What's really crucial, and what's nice but not necessary? Maybe nations bent on arming themselves to the teeth to prepare for any conceivable threat should be put through a similar process.

The Saudis clearly have a tank threat on their doorstep. TOW missiles and other antitank weapons are reasonable. Other systems on their list, which has now been split by the administration into two parts in order to defer some items likely to cause trouble in Congress, may be much less critical. Such distinctions should be carefully drawn. Saudi forces are side by side with US soldiers in the desert now, and their equipping deserves a sympathetic hearing. In any case, the Saudis have the wherewithal to get their weapons of choice from other sources, if not the US.

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Israel's need, long acknowledged in Washington, is the ability to surmount threats from its potential adversaries. The Saudis can't credibly be considered an adversary at present, but Israeli officials argue - with some justification - that the political situation throughout the Arab world is unstable and that weapons placed in the hands of a relatively benevolent regime today could be in the hands of a radical one tomorrow.

Other big arms buyers in the region - Egypt, say, or Turkey - can add their own rationales for wanting more and more weapons. The US, given its present commitment in the Gulf and its longtime obligation to allies in the region, will likely scoop billions of dollars more in planes, tanks, and guns into the Mideast in the years ahead. But that tendency to shovel ammunition into a glowing political oven should be tempered.

Arms can have a deterring effect. But they can also have an emboldening effect. Iraq should have taught that lesson well.

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