Arab summitry, US interests, and arms sales

THE recent Arab League summit in Jordan produced some unexpected results that support United States interests in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Syria surprised almost everyone by endorsing a unanimous resolution that condemns Iran for refusing to comply with the United Nations bid for a cease-fire, for aggression in the Persian Gulf, and for its role in the massacre of innocent pilgrims at the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

The Arab leaders agreed that states should feel free to reestablish ties with Egypt broken after Cairo signed its 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Middle East states moved rapidly to do so, with an eye on Egypt's US-supported military capability to assist in defending against Iranian aggression.

Small wonder that Tehran criticized the moderate Arabs for being too cozy with the US and for implicitly accepting the Camp David accords. The results of the summit could hardly have been better if the US State Department had written the scenario.

American policy toward the region is now at a critical juncture. Momentum stems from common Arab concern about Islamic fundamentalism and a growing sense of pragmatism with respect to Israel; the motion could be lost or reversed over the issue of US weapons sales to Arab states.

The US and its allies in Europe and East Asia share vital interests in the area. These include regional balance and stability, security of Gulf energy resources, and free transit through international waters. The US has a particular, additional interest in the security of Israel.

The debates in Washington over US policies and programs to pursue those interests are old and recurrent. But the persistent argument over weapons sales to Arab states boils down to one fundamental issue: the security of Israel. The concern is that increasingly sophisticated Arab weaponry could alter the traditional assumption that Israel can militarily defeat any combination of Arab forces likely to be arrayed against it.

But the era has passed that saw the 1967 and 1973 Arab attacks against Israel and the June 1982 Israeli attack into Lebanon. Despite its current political turmoil, Israel is now a more stable force in the region's political-military balance and a deterrent to any would-be aggressors.

The reasons are many. Israel's military capability, fueled by enormous amounts of US aid, continues to improve compared with that of its Arab neighbors. Also, those neighbors face numerous foreign and domestic problems.

Given its 1979 peace treaty with Israel and enormous economic and political problems, Egypt is neither prepared for, nor disposed to, attacking Israel. Jordan's preoccupation with the plight of the Palestinians, its priority need for economic development, and lack of offensive capability ensure that the Hashemite Kingdom will pose no military threat to Israel. The solidarity of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the threats it may pose remain uncertain. An economy in shambles and the moderation of its relationship with Moscow leave Syria without the military assurance it needs to support any possible aggression against Israel.

Col. Muammar Qaddafi's Libya, although somewhat less regionally isolated these days, will continue to have its hands full in Chad and in managing its domestic problems. Iran ensures that Iraq and the region's Gulf Cooperation Council members will keep their attention riveted on their own defenses against Islamic fundamentalism.

So where is the military threat to Israel's security that should bar US sales to moderate Arab states of F-15 fighters, AWACS planes, Stinger missiles, and the like? Given the vital interests of the US and its allies, why should the US not sell the weapons and other support equipment that Jordan and GCC members ask?

Congress's basic response is twofold. It contends that the Iranian air threat is not credible because Iran has only a few old fighters in use. Really? Iran may have as many as 90 operational F-4s, F-5s, and F-14s. Even the old F-4s are highly credible threats if one is on the ground looking up and has no sophisticated local air defense capabilities, such as the F-15 fighter and the Stinger. Congress also says that aircraft and missiles for defense against an Iranian attack could be used against an Israeli counterattack. While true, the point would be credible only if the moderate Arab states had an overwhelming political incentive and the military capability to attack and defeat Israel. Neither exists now or in the foreseeable future.

The Arab states are not in an alliance with the US and have their own reasons for refraining from such a formal relationship. Yet the moderate Arab states are becoming an informal linchpin for the defense of US interests in the region, including the current interest in policing the Gulf without Soviet predominance.

The Arab Gulf states want to buy the military equipment to defend their interests, which are increasingly identified with those of the US. If the US does not sell them what they need, others will. That could adversely affect Washington's long-term political relations with moderate Arab states. Also, American refusal to sell would hurt US defense companies that produce the sinews of the US capability to defend itself and allied interests worldwide and work against current efforts to cut the growing US trade deficit.

The US should aggressively pursue the Arab-Israeli peace process begun at Camp David and support the ability of the Arab states in the Persian Gulf to defend themselves against Iranian conventional military threats, terrorism, and subversion. Basic policy need not change a great deal, but the programs to support that policy must change with changing times. The threats to Israel's security are far less today than they were in the 1960s and '70s. By contrast, the threat to regional stability and the security of Gulf energy resources have increased dramatically.

Supporting weapons sales to moderate Arab states, as the Reagan administration proposes, is now key to US and allied interests in this vital region; the situation will not change in the foreseeable future. If Congress does not recognize this fact and act accordingly, the US could lose the momentum gained from the Arab summit.

Bill Taylor is a senior political-military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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