With Iraq's military smashed, the United States and its allies are considering new curbs on the Middle East arms trade to help head off the rise of future Saddam Husseins. Controlling the proliferation of nuclear and chemical weapons will be a top priority of this effort. Iraq came perilously close to obtaining a nuclear bomb before coalition air power smashed its development facilities, and its chemical artillery shells were among coalition ground commanders' major concerns. Conventional weapons will be a target, too. Purchase of rifles, mortars, and other simple arms is impossible to regulate. But the spread of top-of-the-line tanks and aircraft could be stopped via big -power agreement. ``Some kinds of equipment can only be supplied by a handful of countries,'' says Leonard Spector, weapons proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ``It might not take much for two or three major suppliers to say, `Let's pause here'.''
The economic importance of weapons exports to many producer nations, particularly those in Western Europe, could be a stumbling block. Maintaining a defense industrial base large enough to produce first-rate weapons sometimes depends on selling abroad.
One possible solution to this problem is now being floated among NATO nations by the US Ambassador to NATO, William Howard Taft IV. Ambassador Taft is proposing that the members of the Atlantic alliance increase arms trade among themselves by lowering tariff barriers to weapons. In years past, the development of an efficient inter-NATO arms market has been hampered by protectionism and lack of cooperation.
Under the Taft proposal, NATO nations would agree to sell fewer arms to Third World nations. ``When Taft first raised this, no one paid attention to him,'' says a State Department official. ``But if you're interested in curbing arms transfers to the Middle East, this might help.''
In retrospect, the world paid too little attention while Saddam Hussein was amassing the most formidable military force in the Middle East. The Soviet Union was his primary source of weapons, at a time when greater cooperation between the Soviets and the West was just beginning. But many Western nations were guilty, too: France supplied high-tech aircraft, as well as civilian nuclear-power technology; Britain sold Saddam uniforms; and the US government approved the sale of some civilian-model helicopter s. The role of German citizens in clandestinely developing Iraqi chemical weapons technology has been well-documented.
The developed world didn't mind Iraq's growing strength as long as Saddam was fighting Iran. But with the invasion of Kuwait came the sudden understanding that many countries had contributed to the development of a fearsome regional juggernaut.
``Everybody suddenly realized that the indiscriminate selling of weapons might not be in the First World's long-term interests,'' points out Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Arms Control Association.
Early on, the Bush administration made control of weapons proliferation one of its main goals for the post-war Middle East. Among other things, administration officials have stressed that they support the concept of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the region. They admit such an agreement might be hard to reach. Egypt has supported a nuclear-free treaty for the region, as has Israel, a nation widely thought to already possess nuclear capability. But Israel says it would sign such a pact only in the contex t of a broader regional peace agreement that would include Arab recognition of its right to exist.
The military utility of chemical weapons may have been called into question by the coalition's ground blitz. The Bush administration also says that wrapping up a global ban on chemical weapons, now under negotiation in Geneva, could be helpful in ridding the Middle East of mass destruction weapons.
``In the aftermath of this war,'' Secretary of State James Baker III told Congress recently, ``there may be greater receptivity in the region to arms control efforts.''
US officials have made it very clear that unless Saddam Hussein goes, the embargo on arms shipments to Iraq will remain in force. Beyond that, Secretary Baker in recent days has been consulting his NATO counterparts on the possibility of setting up a ``suppliers committee'' of large nations to help stem conventional-weapons sales in the Middle East.
For such a committee to be effective, the Soviet Union would have to cooperate. Indications are Moscow might well go along. Last week, Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh publicly called for joint reduction of arms sales to the region.
Some analysts doubt that curbs can long be kept on shipments of tanks and front-line warplanes to the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is likely to inherit large amounts of military equipment the US will simply leave behind, and Israel could well press for further arms shipments, particularly if Saddam is able to maintain his grip on power. And one conclusion that regimes such as Iran and Libya (and, outside the region, North Korea) may draw is that conventional weapons don't mean much in the face of Western t echnical superiority. What's needed for national security, they may decide, is a redoubled effort to obtain nuclear weapons. Some leaders ``might look at this and say, `I ought to get those bombs in a hurry','' says Mr. Spector.