WASHINGTON — ONE year after President Bush called for new curbs on weapon sales to the Middle East, there has been some progress toward international controls, but no hint of any arms deals forgone.
The world's five largest arms exporters - the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France - have held three rounds of talks on the subject. The latest session was held in Washington last week.
Administration officials point out that the mere fact these discussions have been held, and will continue, is unprecedented.
Critics, though, focus on what they call the rather paltry results so far, which include general promises of future restraint and movement toward an international registry of arms sales.
"If seriously pursued, these talks would have enormous potential to limit the arms trade," said Arms Control Association assistant director Lee Feinstein last week.
"However, the negotiators so far have avoided using the talks as a forum for discussing placing actual limits on arms sales to the Middle East."
At last week's Washington session the Big 5 exporters agreed they would not transfer any equipment related to chemical, biological, or nuclear weaponry to any other country in the world.
This step was hailed as "quite an achievement" by a State Department official who briefed reporters on the results of the meetings.
But negotiators didn't agree to exchange data on prospective weapon sales to the Middle East before those weapons are actually shipped.
US officials say they think such an exchange is crucial, since it would allow discussion of controversial sales before they're wrapped up.
China, however, opposes the idea, according to US officials.
Arguing that a historic opportunity that was brought about by the end of the cold war and the Gulf war may be on the verge of being "squandered," a broadly based Washington study group last week urged that more specific steps be taken to build on the general guidelines already agreed upon.
While some arms will undoubtedly be sold to the Middle East for some time to come, the report says that "it is critically important that the floodgates are not wide open, allowing the unbridled introduction of arms that could alter the relatively stable balance of power now existing in the region."
The report's authors are a bipartisan list of lawmakers, think-tank fellows, and industry officials working under the auspices of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington.
Among their recommendations:
* The world's major arms exporters should agree to exchange information about pending sales in secret before delivery contracts are signed.
* Surface-to-surface missiles should not be sold to countries in the Middle East at all.
* Important new military technologies, such as "stealth" radar-avoiding materials, should not be transferred to the region.
* Middle East countries should not increase the numbers of their stocks of five major types of weapons: armored combat vehicles, tanks, fighter/attack jets, and artillery pieces.
Modernization of these items would be permitted, but nations would be expected to destroy one piece of old equipment for each corresponding new one purchased.
Meanwhile, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the resultant chaos in its military-industrial complex have left the US far and away the number one arms exporter to the third world.
Since the end of the Gulf war, US military equipment sales to the Middle East have totaled $10.8 billion, according to Arms Control Association figures. Of that figure, about $3 billion went for major weapons systems such as attack helicopters.
"And about $8.5 billion has been transferred since President Bush announced the Middle East Arms Control Initiative," pointed out Lee Feinstein.