Ugly Arms Sales Habit

Why, in the wake of a Gulf war aimed at demilitarizing a dictator, is the US about to send more large shipments of arms to the Mideast region?

LESS than a week before Secretary of State Baker's recent trip to the Middle East to promote postwar security arrangements, State Department officials quietly informed Congress of plans to sell a record $33 billion worth of United States arms worldwide this year. More than half of that total would go to Saudi Arabia and other US allies in the anti-Iraq coalition. If these massive exports go ahead as planned, the Bush administration will miss a historic opportunity to restrain arms sales and reduce the chances of another Middle East war.

No event in recent times has more forcefully demonstrated the need for a new system of regional disarmament and arms transfer reductions than Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The major participants in the coalition that was assembled to combat Iraqi aggression were all suppliers of advanced weaponry and military technology to Saddam Hussein's regime throughout the 1980s. If these nations had worked together during the Iran-Iraq war to forge an embargo on military supplies, the latest war in the Gulf might nev er have happened, and it would certainly have posed far less danger of escalation.

Unfortunately, instead of seizing upon its role as leader of the anti-Iraq coalition to press for multilateral controls on arms shipments in the postwar period, the Bush administration seems determined to repeat the mistakes of the past. Less than a year ago, it was Iraq that was being treated as a virtual US ally, receiving billions of dollars worth of export financing and militarily useful high-tech equipment from US sources while government regulatory agencies looked the other way. Now, it is a new s et of regional partners, from Egypt to Turkey to the United Arab Emirates, that are being offered US arms to "maintain the balance of power" and support US security objectives in the region.

In a world characterized by shifting alliances and rapid political change, these new weapons transfers could easily come back to haunt US policymakers down the road, just as the ill-conceived policy of helping to build up Saddam Hussein's arsenal came home to roost.

The White House penchant for resorting to rapid-fire arms dealing as an all-purpose solution to even the most complex foreign policy problems is not new. The president is simply picking up where his predecessors left off.

President Nixon inaugurated the current arms sales binge over two decades ago when he embarked on a strategy of providing top-of-the-line weaponry and training to key third-world allies like the Shah of Iran and the US-backed regime in South Vietnam. In return, these regimes were expected to serve as regional surrogates for the US, using their newly enhanced military might on behalf of US strategic objectives. The overthrow of the Shah by his own people punched a gaping hole in the surrogate strategy, l eaving billions of dollars worth of US-supplied weaponry in the hands of a hostile regime.

After a brief, unsuccessful attempt at controlling arms transfers, President Carter also succumbed to the temptations of arms sales. Carter administration officials bartered US weaponry for access to military facilities for his proposed "Rapid Deployment Force," which was designed to put 250,000 US troops into the Persian Gulf on short notice.

And last but not least, President Reagan used military exports for everything from supporting anti-communist "rebel" movements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to trying to secure freedom for US hostages, with decidedly mixed results.

These political and strategic motivations for unrestrained arms trafficking have also been reinforced by economic rationales. Just as sales to the Middle East during the mid-1970s helped US defense firms cushion the impact of Vietnam War cutbacks, the current round of arms exports is being promoted in part to ease the effects of declining Pentagon weapons purchases in the post-cold-war era.

Last fall's proposed $21 billion arms package for Saudi Arabia was aptly described by one congressional aide as "the defense industry relief act of 1990." At least three of the weapons slated for sale to the Saudis - the M-1 tank, the F-15 fighter, and the AWACS radar plane - are "endangered species," systems scheduled for termination if foreign customers aren't found. The White House has joined hands with industry in stressing the economic benefits of using foreign sales to keep such programs alive, an argument that will be played to the hilt when the next phase of the Saudi arms package is presented to Congress later this year.

These overlapping strategic and economic incentives have combined to make arms transfers a virtual addiction for US policymakers. As a result, US strategists have been blinded to the dangers of arming and training a series of unstable, dictatorial regimes in the third world.

If ever there was a time to kick America's arms sales habit, it is now, while the attention of the public and world leaders is focused on the dangers of arms proliferation that were so graphically demonstrated by the Gulf war. If President Bush is willing to put even a fraction of the energy that he put into organizing an international coalition to go to war against Iraq into efforts to prevent future conflicts, he should take the lead in proposing and implementing a system of multilateral arms transfer restraints.

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