WASHINGTON — PRESIDENT Bush's plan for arms reduction in the Middle East falls significantly short of calling for a moratorium on United States arms sales to the region, a step strongly urged by his congressional opposition. ``Nowhere are the dangers of weapons proliferation more urgent than in the Middle East,'' President Bush said when he proposed his Middle East arms control initiative in a US Air Force Academy commencement address on Wednesday. His plan, however, allows regional nations ``to acquire the conventional capabilities they legitimately need to deter and defend against military aggression.''
Many Capitol Hill lawmakers strongly support an indefinite ban on US sales of major military equipment to the region.
Among them is Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, chairman of the Europe and the Middle East Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. While Representative Hamilton concedes that the Bush proposal is a first step to ``sharply reduce the arms flow to the Middle East,'' he and other lawmakers question whether the administration is serious about implementing the plan and whether it is even feasible.
Specifically, Bush wants to require the big five arms suppliers - the United States, Britain, China, France, and the Soviet Union - to notify one another in advance of certain sales that could prove ``destabilizing'' to Middle East peace. Since the 1970s, the Middle East has imported over $200 billion in conventional arms, largely from the big five suppliers.
Bush called on the five nations to meet soon in Paris to discuss arms transfers to the Middle East, but China and the Soviet Union have yet to accept.
Other key elements of Bush's proposal:
Barriers to exports that contribute to weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical, biological, neurological, and nuclear weapons.
A freeze and eventual ban on surface-to-surface missiles.
A ban on production of nuclear weapons material.
Since Israel is the only nation in the region known to have surface-to-surface missiles and nuclear weapons, Jerusalem is likely to raise stiff opposition to the plan.
Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware credits the president with ``a concept that Congress and the NATO allies will support. The question is whether the administration will follow rhetoric with action.''
``The administration has done a lot of zig-zagging on this,'' says Hamilton. ``First, Secretary of State James Baker endorsed the reduction of arms transfers to the Middle East when he testified before the Foreign Affairs Committee. Then [Secretary of Defense] Dick Cheney backed away from that and said the US has got to do what it can to see that our friends are supplied. And the Canadian Prime Minister's [Brian Mulroney] call for an international conference on arms control was rejected by Bush.''
The message from the president, says Hamilton, is ``that it's business as usual concerning the sale of arms.''
US defense suppliers are facing lean times. Bush noted in the speech that ``in the years ahead, US defense spending will drop below 4 percent of our gross national product - the lowest level in 50 years.'' With fewer US government orders to fill, defense contractors are looking internationally for sales prospects.
To support this effort, the administration has proposed that the US Export-Import Bank, under law restricted to commercially viable civilian projects, help finance US military exports abroad. The White House stipulates that only NATO countries, plus Australia, Japan, and Israel would be eligible for the credits.
A senior Treasury official says privately that ``ironically, the best prospects for repayment of those Eximbank loans would be from asset-based economies, such as the oil-producers in the Middle East.''
Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Appropriations Foreign Operations Subcommittee, whose support is necessary for Eximbank to assume a military financing role, strongly opposes the White House on this issue.
The administration's push to go ahead with military sales to the region call into question Bush's efforts to limit conventional arms sales, says Hamilton.
General Dynamics Corporation, a key US government defense contractor, has supplied 460 M1A2 tanks to Saudi Arabia during the past year by selling the equipment to the US government, which then engaged in a government-to-government deal with the Saudis. Congress authorized the transaction through the US foreign military sales program. The firm now has a similar deal in the works.
Bush's arms-reduction proposal fails to address the inadequacy of limiting the application of export controls to just the big five arms suppliers, says Hamilton.
Military exporters that seem to have escaped close examination are developing countries that bank on arms exports for precious foreign exchange earnings. Czechoslovakia, for example, faces closure of munitions plants and high unemployment. Unable to sell much else abroad, it is anxious to sell tanks to Syria and Iran.