Arms-Race Rules

As CEO of the world's biggest arms dealership, President Clinton wants to do the right thing. He just doesn't want to be required to do the right thing. So his administration supported the essence but opposed the passage of the Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers that was narrowly defeated (21 to 23) in the House International Relations Committee last month.

Why not put a law where your good intentions are, Mr. President, when the code comes up again (perhaps before long on the House floor)?

One reason for White House reluctance may be that it wants to sell to countries - Turkey, for example - that are friendly to the US but that may not satisfy all the code's conditions for recipients of American arms. These conditions include a democratic form of government, respect for basic human rights of citizens, and nonaggression against other states. An estimated 85 percent of US arms transfers in the first half of the '90s went to countries that do not meet code conditions.

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Under existing nonbinding international agreements, many nations forgo selling arms to so-called pariah countries like Iraq, Libya, and North Korea. Several years ago Britain, a major arms exporter, was found to have side-stepped its own rules by selling defense-related equipment to Iraq. This week new Foreign Secretary Robin Cook promised fresh emphasis on human rights, including tightened reins on arms exports to repressive regimes. He seeks a common European position on the subject.

By declining to accept a legislated US code, Clinton & Co. accepts the burden of self-policing US weapons exports, which have risen from 13 percent of the pre-cold-war global market to about 70 percent of the multibillion-dollar market today.

The administration needs to (1) set a leader's appropriate example of responsible merchandising; (2) avoid past experience of US forces being attacked by US weapons sold to customers, such as Saddam Hussein, who become enemies; (3) address the moral question of arming the world to the hilt - and of boosting profits for companies selling weapons developed and promoted with taxpayers' money. This money pays for participation in arms marketing shows around the world. It also backs up US-guaranteed private loans to other nations for the purchase or lease of US arms.

Onetime dove Clinton has turned out to be an unexpectedly eager weapons salesman, personally urging Arab leaders to buy F-16s, for example. Saudi Arabia is already a prime US arms customer, spending a third of its national budget on defense.

Apart from strategic considerations in sending US arms as aid or moneymakers to spots around the globe, Mr. Clinton seems to see fueling the arms race as good business. He is the first president known to order that proposed weapons sales be evaluated for impact on US industry and "the defense industrial base." Encouraging arms exports undercuts hoped-for peace dividends of converting armsmakers' know-how to civilian uses - not only in the US but in all countries competing for the arms-sales pie.

An example of responsibility by the biggest merchant on the block could help legitimate customers preserve security while cutting the size of the pie - and the resources it drains from meeting human needs.

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