IN the week since President Bush announced an arms-reduction plan for the Middle East, his administration has announced several new United States military sales to the region - immediate evidence of just how difficult implementation will be for the plan's US sponsor, critics say. Calling the Bush plan long on rhetoric and short on detail, they charge that the US, instead of initiating restraint, is caught in an arms-sales spiral.
The key element of the president's plan, announced May 29, would require the five largest arms suppliers - the US, Britain, China, France, and the Soviet Union - to notify one another in advance of certain conventional arms sales that could prove "destabilizing."
Mr. Bush has asked representatives from the five to meet in Paris later this month to discuss the proposed restraints. His plan also included a provision, however, that supported weapons sales to meet the "legitimate need of every state to defend itself."
In the last seven days, the administration has been more active selling arms than building a consensus to limit them, say critics, who expect little progress from the Paris meeting. "It's a mistake to go through another round of arms sales," says Alan Platt, an international security specialist who was chief of the arms transfer division of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in the Carter administration.
Continuing US sales to the region only undermine Washington's efforts to win international support for something the US itself does not subscribe to, he says.
A senior Pentagon official announced on Tuesday that 20 Apache attack helicopters will be sold to the United Arab Emirates and six to Bahrain. Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, who last week pledged to supply Israel with 10 F-15 fighter planes and to pay $200 million into the next phase of developing Israel's Arrow missile defense system, denied that the sales contradict Bush's plan to reduce arms sales to the Middle East.
Other deals are pending, such as the sale of several hundred M1-A2 tanks to Saudi Arabia. Mr. Platt says that US officials now in "Saudi Arabia to put together a shopping list of Saudi needs" will likely return with a large order.
Mr. Cheney says halting US military sales to the Middle East "would be unwise policy."
Seth Carus, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says "several parts of the overall proposal - like tightening the biological weapons convention and enhancing existing export controls on missiles - are a given, with or without the Bush plan."
Mr. Carus faults Bush for being "extremely ambiguous," especially regarding a proposed freeze, and eventual ban, on surface-to-surface missiles.
"Verifying a freeze is impossible," says Carus. Even if it were feasible, he says, it would be impossible to achieve without a successful Middle East peace process.
A senior Arab diplomat here agrees: "We can't have strong arms control in a region where animosities have been festering for so long. We need a peaceful environment. Arms control now will freeze the balance of power, which weighs heavily in favor of Israel. And it will breed Arab resentment."
Carus says the US plan fails to deal adequately with arms producers who do not qualify as major suppliers. "Many countries don't export for strategic reasons," he explains, "but for foreign exchange." Although they can't supplant the big producers, he says, their contributions add up. "Brazil may not be able to sell more than $1 billion a year, but it can direct those sales to a specific country."
China, an aggressive military exporter, is widely regarded as the wild card in any agreement. "Even if they show up for the [Paris] meeting, it won't mean much," says Platt. "Every day we hear new reports of Chinese arms sales."
Any plan must head off added Middle East arms sales that result from an arms reduction in another region. The soon-to-be-ratified Conventional Forces in Europe treaty (CFE), designed to cut the amount of troops and military equipment on the continent, "should be structured tightly so that arms reduced in the European theater cannot be transferred to more unstable regions, such as the Middle East," warns Platt.
Carus says an indefinite moratorium on new US weapons transfers to the region, as proposed by House legislators, is problematic. "The arms bazaar is thriving in the Middle East," he says. "In the last six months, the North Koreans, the Chinese, the Soviets, the Czechoslovaks, the Europeans, and the Brazilians have completed or initiated new sales in the region."
If the past is prologue, says Carus, a unilateral US moratorium will result in every other arms supplier filling the vacuum. Congressional supporters of the moratorium say they would rather drop the ban than give way to international competitors.