US Arms Makers Still Push Sales

Efforts blunt White House restraint policy

THE hand-out makes a frank economic pitch. "Benefits of F-15 Sale," it blares, "40,000 Aerospace Jobs ... $13b Income Potential ... Benefits Economy of 45 States."

Another page pictures a balance, with an F-15 on one side and a European Tornado jet on the other. "A Middle East Ally Wants 72 F-15s.... But Will Buy from Europe if Refused ... F-15s Made in America," it reads.

Produced by F-15 builder McDonnell Douglas, the brochure is part of a lobbying campaign aimed at winning congressional approval for a new Saudi Arabian purchase of F-15s. Now circulating on Capitol Hill, it plays on the powerful appeal of foreign arms deals to legislators whose districts are decimated by Pentagon spending cuts.

It also shows the difficulties involved in any effort to get international restraints on arms sales to the Middle East. The Bush administration is currently trying to get the world's major weapons exporters to agree on such curbs, but lately the effort is stopped in its tracks. Critics claim the United States's own bad example is one reason why.

"If we are selling, and selling in such large quantities, what motivation does another country have to restrain?" asked US Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana in a congressional hearing on arms sales policy last week.

Administration officials reply that there is a difference between irresponsible sales of offensive equipment to dangerous states and legitimate purchases by allies that need to defend themselves. Foreign arms sales, they maintain, remain an important means of United States influence.

"We are not starting from the proposition that arms sales are, of and by themselves, by definition bad," said Reginald Bartholomew, undersecretary of state for International Security Affairs.

Between March 1991, and March 1992, the US concluded $11 billion in big government-to-government Middle East arms deals, according to the State Department. Of that total, 56 percent - about $6 billion - was for sales of Patriot and Hawk missile batteries to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Israel. Mr. Bartholomew labled these "clearly defensive systems."

Some 23 percent was for vehicles and upkeep on weapons already owned by Middle Eastern nations. Only about 20 percent of the $11 billion was for big, new weapons systems - primarily 46 F-16 jets for Egypt and 20 Apache attack helicopters for the United Arab Emirates.

Mr. Hamilton totes up US arms flowing into the Middle East in a slightly different way, however. If military construction and commercial sales are added, US weapons sales to the Middle East actually totaled about $23 billion in fiscal 1991, he said.

Last year, in the wake of the Gulf war, the Bush administration called on the five permanent member nations of the UN Security Council (US, Britain, France, China, and Russia) to reduce destabilizing arms flows into the Middle East region. Since then, five diplomatic meetings on the subject have been held, and while some progress has been made, there is as yet no agreement on US proposals.

Not all of the five nations have agreed to ban all sales of surface-to-surface missiles to the Middle East. China resists labeling such arms weapons of mass destruction.

There is tentative agreement on the central issue of setting up some kind of notification process so that information about what arms are being sold where is shared among the five. But when this information should be passed along remains a point of contention.

The US wants sales information exchanged before weapons are actually shipped. Other countries, without the US tradition of open debate of important sales, are resisting sharing the information that early.

With this point and others still up in the air, a high-level plenary meeting of the Big 5 on conventional arms control, scheduled for the end of March in Washington, has been postponed yet again.

"This is complex and difficult and they haven't been able to pull it off," says a nongovernmental source with first-hand knowledge of the process.

Some critics point out that the issues being discussed in the Big 5 meetings would not in and of themselves stop any weapon sales. Sharing information is all well and good, they say, but nobody is talking about dollar limits on weapons flowing to the Middle East or strict guidelines on how sophisticated arms to be sold can be.

"Where's the constraint?" asks Dr. Natalie Goldring, deputy director of the British American Security Information Council.

It is against this background that the proposed Saudi purchase of 72 more F-15s, to supplement the three squadrons they already own, is moving toward public debate.

In 1986, partly due to concerns about Israel maintaining its technological edge, Congress declined to allow a similar purchase request. This turn-down led the Saudis to sign contracts for European Tornado aircraft.

Many analysts feel that this year the quarrelsome state of US-Israeli relations and the pain of defense cuts gives the Saudi purchase a better chance to pass congressional muster.

As yet the administration has yet to officially notify Congress of its intent to make the sale.

That hasn't stopped McDonnell Douglas from mounting a quiet lobbying campaign that includes enlisting key union support, promoting the concept of jobs gained, and emphasizing the angle: "If we don't do it, somebody else will." The company has placed ads promoting the sale in inside-the-Beltway publications such as Congressional Quarterly, and even made efforts to brief influential private groups that often oppose weapons sales and defense spending.

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