THIS weekend, President Bush is to give a major speech on the Middle East in Ann Arbor, Mich. In his triumphal post-Gulf war address to Congress in early March, he observed that it would be ``tragic'' if there were a new spiral in the arms race in the Middle East. But concerning conventional arms - the weapons with which the Gulf war was fought - that seems to be where we are headed. Current thinking in Washington about restraining the sale of conventional arms to the region is polarized. The Bush administration, while backing international efforts to control unconventional arms (nuclear and chemical weapons, surface-to-surface missiles), seems committed to a new round of conventional arms sales to meet the perceived security needs of friendly countries in the region.
In his Feb. 6 testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State Baker called for a reduction in the ``arms flow into an area that is already very over-militarized.'' However, according to a senior National Security Council staff member, the administration believes that ``defense cooperation will provide far more security than arms control in the Middle East.'' The administration notified Congress of its interest in selling $23 billion in arms to five Middle Eastern countries this year .
A number of congressional Democrats are committed to the opposite approach: a unilateral US moratorium on arms sales to the region. House majority leader Richard Gephardt and four colleagues, citing ``serious threats to peace,'' called on Bush to halt all US arms sales to the Mideast.
What is needed but missing is a pragmatic, centrist approach to conventional arms control in the Mideast, jointly spearheaded by the White House and Congress. Any approach, to be successful, needs to build on past lessons, including bilateral conventional-arms transfer talks with the Soviets during 1977-78. Several lessons emerge from these negotiations and other restraint efforts:
*Unilateral efforts don't work. The Carter administration unilaterally imposed sweeping controls on US arms sales, hoping unsuccessfully to induce other major arms suppliers to follow suit. The overall effect was not to limit the international flow of arms but to disadvantage American companies and undermine our defense industrial base by giving European and other suppliers leave to pursue a growing, worldwide market. Control efforts must be multilateral. The US is going to have to lean on our European allies as well as the Soviet Union and China to participate in an international restraint effort. *Any multilateral effort must be actively led by the US. As the world's preeminent arms exporter - a fact likely to become increasingly pronounced after the qualitative successes of our weapons in the Gulf war - the US must take the lead in any multilateral arms-transfer restraint effort. If we pay lip service to restraint but sell Abrams tanks, Apache helicopters, and High Mobility Wheeled Vehicles to the U nited Arab Emirates, as currently under consideration, it will send a signal to other arms suppliers. It will be hard to induce other nations to forgo selling arms if we now pursue major arms sales.
*Any American effort must be actively led by the president. If the administration is serious about arms control in the region, as the president and Baker have told Congress and foreign leaders, Bush needs to spell this out in his Michigan speech and demonstrate it by exercising near-term US restraint and seriously pressuring other major arms suppliers to join an international restraint effort.
*Multilateral arms-transfer restraint negotiations should focus on military-technical issues. If negotiations focus on larger Mideast issues, they are doomed to fail, at least in the near-term. Initially, these talks should focus on detailed lists of high-tech weapons systems like stealth fighters, multiple launch rockets, and precision-guided Tomahawk cruise missiles). Once international agreement was reached to control the most highly advanced and potentially destabilizing weapons system, the talks co uld consider international restraints on less advanced systems.
Saddam Hussein helped push US credibility to an all-time high. The Bush administration should take advantage of this. The president should lead a bipartisan effort to exercise American arms-sales restraint and an international effort to control the transfer of the most highly sophisticated arms to the Middle East.