LIKE toadstools on the lawn, news items about Arab strategic weapons are appearing everywhere - the Libyan chemical plant, Syrian missiles, Libyan midair refueling technology, Iraqi missiles, and of course the favorite: Iraq's nuclear bomb. What is puzzling about all this is that none of these items is new, except for those fellows caught at London's Heathrow airport with the nuclear triggers, apparently destined for Iraq. We've known about Arab strategic weapons for a long, long time. Muammar Qaddafi's chemical-weapons plant is over five years old. The Soviets first sent SS-21 ballistic missiles to Syria in 1983. And Iraq's nuclear plant has been suspect since at least 1980, when inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency were first refused access to the facility.
All this is cause for concern. But why the frantic attention just now? The last time I worried like this about news coverage was last December, when we kept reading about that Panamanian soldier who insulted an American diplomat's wife at a roadblock. That was just before ... well, you remember.
Now it seems the fashionable thing for journalists and politicians to hurl threats at Iraq and other Arab states which have the temerity to develop weapons which have existed in the region for decades.
But it all seems too clear-cut. The images are those of cartoon villains - wild-eyed Saddam Hussein brandishing Iraqi nukes and missiles, or Colonel Qaddafi rubbing his hands together, chortling while his factories secretly manufacture deadly nerve gas. Is that what they are really like, or are we just being told that to justify an invasion, or yet another ``surgical'' bombing run?
US senators appear on Sunday morning newschat shows and say brave things about Hussein and Qaddafi. Sen. John McCain of Arizona fixes the camera eye and intones, ``It has to be made clear that we will exercise all our options, including that of the military....'' Sen. William Cohen of Maine flexes his jaw muscle and agrees ``... if you hand a flame thrower to a pyromaniac, someone's going to get burned.''
The thing that irks me most about all of this is the hypocrisy. For it is Senators McCain and Cohen, and their colleagues in the Senate and the House, who are largely responsible for the frantic search for strategic weapons which we now see in the Arab Middle East.
Israel has had nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them since 1966. Official Central Intelligence Agency estimates have listed Israel as a nuclear power since 1968. Even those in Congress who weren't privy to those estimates learned about them in 1974, when classified CIA testimony to Congress was leaked to the press inadvertently. Since that time, there have been numerous evidences of official US knowledge of the Israeli bomb, including indictments brought by the Justice Department in 1985 for the diversion to Israel of the same type of nuclear triggers that Iraq was trying to get out of Britain.
In 1977, Congress (including then Rep. William Cohen) passed the Symington Amendments to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which explicitly required the cutoff of US economic and military assistance to any country which manufactures, transfers, receives, or detonates any ``nuclear explosive device.'' Since 1977, that same Congress has voted over $36.5 billion in economic and military aid to Israel, including rockets, planes, and other technology which has directly advanced Israel's nuclear-weapons capabilities.
It is precisely Israel's nuclear arsenal, which the US Congress has been so instrumental in building up, that is driving the Arab states to attain countervailing strategic weapons of various kinds. Any doubts about this direct cause-and-effect relationship should have been dispelled a few days ago when the foreign ministers of Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, and Syria called for a ban on all nuclear and chemical weapons in the region - theirs and Israel's.
So when you next see members of the US Congress on one of those Sunday interview shows lamenting the spiraling Mideast arms race, if they aren't blushing you'd better adjust the tint button on your set. It must be malfunctioning.