IT has become common in Washington, at the United Nations, and elsewhere to speak of a ``new world order'' emerging from the collapse of the cold war and from the near-universal adherence to UN sanctions against Iraq. Out of the present Gulf crisis, President Bush declared last month, could come ``a new era, freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace.'' But while some recent United States moves suggest a genuine commitment to this new era, Mr. Bush is clearly sticking to the old world in one conspicuous way: his approval of billions of dollars in arms transfers to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, and other Middle Eastern nations.
On Sept. 14, the Bush administration announced a $20 billion-plus sale of advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia - the biggest such deal ever. Included in the proposed sale were some 385 M-1A2 tanks, 24 F-15 air-superiority fighter, 48 AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships, and 400-500 M-2 Bradley armored personnel carriers. Bush subsequently agreed to split the sale in two, with some tanks and aircraft to be included in a later transaction, but even the diminished package represents an extraordinary transfer of military gear.
Nor is the Saudi deal the only major US arms transaction under consideration. In early September, Bush suggested that the US was prepared to erase Cairo's existing $7 billion military debt, a step clearly intended to pave the way for fresh Egyptian orders. (Egypt already has been promised hundreds of M-1 and M-60 tanks under earlier agreements.) The administration has also promised a sympathetic response to Israel's request for $1 billion in new transfers (reportedly to include F-15s, AH-64s, and Patriot air-defense missiles).
If all these sales go through, US arms sales to the Middle East could jump from approximately $5 billion per year in the late 1980s to $30 billion or more in fiscal 1991, with comparable figures in the year ahead. Other major arms suppliers are also expected to benefit from the current flurry of buying. Great Britain, for instance, is pursuing new sales contracts with Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, and Oman, while France is seeking sales to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. And while Moscow has not yet announced any new military sales to the region, the buildup among conservative Arab nations will likely stimulate orders for Soviet equipment from such clients as Libya, Syria, and Algeria.
The result of these transactions, then, will be a massive transfer of sophisticated military equipment to the nations of the Middle East. And while many of these deals are predicated on the current crisis in Kuwait, the weapons themselves will probably not be delivered to these countries until 1992, 1993, or later - long after the present crisis is resolved.
Today, the nations of the Middle East are largely united in their opposition to Iraq's takeover of Kuwait. However, most of these nations are involved in the Arab-Israeli dispute or in internecine conflicts of their own. And if history is any indication, the current consensus in the region will disappear as soon as the present crisis is resolved, to be followed by the resumption of traditional rivalries and conflicts. Thus, weapons supplied today for defense against Iraq will be used, in all probability, to settle scores and resolve disputes that predated the invasion of Kuwait.
It is delusive to believe that the US can control the ultimate use of weapons supplied to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, or other countries. Once a weapon is in the arsenal of a country, rulers can use it as they see fit - a fact demonstrated by Saddam Hussein's use of French- and Soviet-supplied munitions to seize Kuwait.
It is likely, therefore, that the ultimate consequence of new arms sales to the Middle East will be an accelerated arms race and growing tension between traditional rivals. Experience - particularly with the Arab-Israeli conflict - suggests that this sort of tension and rivalry fed by arms sales leads, sooner or later, to the outbreak of war.
If the White House were truly interested in building a world ``more secure in the quest for peace,'' Bush would severely restrict future arms transfers to regions of turmoil and work with other nations, including France and the Soviet Union, to establish a common framework for moderating the arms trade.
Now, with the world united in its opposition to the Iraqi invasion, is the perfect moment to begin such negotiations. Surely, we should not allow all the progress by the world community in recent weeks toward a common response to aggression to be undermined by an accelerated arms race in the Middle East.