WASHINGTON — America is the world's largest supplier of weapons, but to Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon, that's nothing to brag about.
The moderate Republican is sponsoring legislation to give Congress new powers to approve or block weapons deals with foreign governments. In the process, he'll take on the powerful US defense establishment, its numerous allies on Capitol Hill, and the Clinton administration over the US arms-sales policy.
Though even supporters say the bill has little chance of passage, the vote expected this week will provide an opportunity for fresh debate over America's status as the world's leading arms merchant.
That position was reaffirmed in the latest State Department report on the global-weapons trade. Published earlier this month, the report says American military hardware accounted for 56 percent of worldwide purchases in 1994, with buyers in both developed and developing countries.
At the same time, the report notes that overall worldwide arms procurement continued its post-cold-war plunge, dropping to $22 billion in 1994, a 73 percent fall from an all-time high of $83 billion in 1987. It is now at the lowest level since the 1970s. As a result, US defense industries saw their business shrink to about $12 billion, compared with a record $21 billion in 1987.
It is the steep drop-off in orders for American-made weapons that lies at the heart of the disagreements over current arms policy and virtually guarantees defeat for Senator Hatfield's reform bill.
Most members of Congress, their eyes on the November elections, are unwilling to endorse any measure they believe could restrict US weapons sales. They point out that some 1.5 million defense jobs have been eliminated since the end of the cold war, and that more will follow as the international arms market continues to shrink. This, they say, hurts local economies and undermines the country's military industrial base.
Critics counter that unrestricted sales of US weaponry overseas feeds international instability, and in some cases, can threaten US national security interests.
The Presidential Advisory Board on Arms Proliferation Policy in its June 24 report called for tighter regulation of US conventional arms sales, cautioning that US military personnel have already found themselves facing foes in Somalia, Haiti, Panama, and Iraq armed with weapons sold by American companies.
It is this so-called "boomerang effect" that Hatfield's legislation aims to eliminate. It would require that governments seeking to buy US weapons meet four criteria: support for democracy, respect for human rights, participation in the United Nations' arms-sale registry, and abstinence from illegal acts of aggression.
Under Hatfield's measure, the president would annually certify those countries that complied with the "code of conduct." Any nation not on the list could only buy US weapons with the consent of both houses of Congress.
"US-built weapons should not be provided to nations which are a threat to our security," says Hatfield, who contends that 85 percent of US foreign-arms sales went to "nondemocratic governments" between 1990 and 1994.
"As the primary seller of conventional weapons around the world, the United States has the chance to set a standard for other countries to follow," he says.
But the mood on Capitol Hill favors boosting weapons sales. The GOP-controlled House and Senate this month approved proposed fiscal 1997 budgets that contain some $7 billion more than the Pentagon sought, most of it for new weapons.
Additionally, dozens of lawmakers have written to President Clinton in recent weeks, urging him to support defense-industry calls for an end to a decades-old policy of refusing to sell advanced US weaponry to Latin American countries. With Chile, Brazil, and Argentina planning to modernize their air forces, the lawmakers caution that US firms stand to lose deals to France, Israel, or Russia that are potentially worth millions of dollars.
While the prospective sales would be comparatively small, US defense contractors say they are badly needed. "These days, everything is important," says Joel Johnson of the Aerospace Industries Association, which represents aerospace companies in Washington. "It's a buyers' market out there."
Critics respond that there is no justification for sales of advanced weaponry to Latin America, particularly the jet fighters that Chile is reportedly planning to buy.
The ban on advanced weapons sales to Latin America dates back to the era of military rule, when generals suppressed democracy and presided over destabilizing border disputes with neighbors. Advocates of lifting the ban argue that those days are gone, with democratically elected governments in control now.
"Here is a region in which every government is now democratic.... They have done everything right, but we still treat them the way we did in the 1970s," Mr. Johnson says.