Arms Sold in Cold-War Rivalry Are Turning Inward

IN the aftermath of the cold war, those who suffer from its effects are not all in the former Soviet Union. Many are in countries where the arms delivered in the chess game of superpower rivalry are now turned inward in internecine warfare.

Somalia is an example. Last week another negotiated cease-fire broke down in a bloody conflict between two rivals for power in the capital, Mogadishu, that has cost several thousand lives. The weapons used in that conflict undoubtedly came from many sources including the former Soviet Union. But some almost certainly came from the United States. These are, moreover, not just small arms; the rivals in Mogadishu were firing through the rubble of the cities with heavy artillery.

Somalia was one of 17 African countries that for at least two decades have been recipients of US military assistance. Others include such strife-torn nations as Chad, Sudan, and Zaire. Meanwhile in Europe, Yugoslavia - scene of violent internal divisions - received $130 million worth of US arms and military training between 1984 and 1988.

Whatever the region, for the past 40 years military assistance, through grants, credits, and sales, has been a significant element in the global US-Soviet competition. Both sides equated the provision of arms with political influence - although, in retrospect, the relationship was not always that clear.

Ambitious leaders, however, seeking to please their military officers and enhance their own power bases, have played on the great-power rivalry to gain access to the armories of both East and West. In the US, officials in the executive branch and Congress were persuaded to support military assistance by the threat that countries might otherwise be armed by the Soviets.

The rationale was enhanced by arguments that US help to foreign military establishments could strengthen democratic elements. Those manufacturing and selling arms waded in, seeking to convince policymakers that the provision of such assistance was in the national interest. In just the four years between 1984 and 1988, the value of US arms transfers to developing countries alone was $34.4 billion.

In the official deliberations on arms deliveries, cautionary advice that such transfers might fuel regional conflicts was brushed aside. Such conflicts were seen as cold-war arenas where the US needed to help "its side." In the Carter and Reagan years, Somalia was helped because it was a thorn in the side of a Marxist regime in Ethiopia, supported by Cuban troops. It also supplied access to a little used naval facility at Berbera on the Indian Ocean.

The possibility that the arms might become the instruments of a tragic civil war was given little attention. In fact, frequently, the argument that it would help "internal stability" was used in support of military assistance.

Arms supplied to shore up "friends" have also been used against populations in Chad, Sudan, and Liberia. Other recipient countries contain the seeds of unrest that could also bring arms delivered "to protect freedom" into action to suppress freedom.

The genie is out of the bottle. The millions of weapons distributed to the third world as part of the global competition can never be recovered. Even in the unlikely event that deliveries from the industrialized countries could be curtailed, enough arms are scattered around the world to provide a brisk international trade for many years.

And friends of the US such as Saudi Arabia will argue - persuasively to many - that they face threats from Islamic fundamentalists and from aggressive neighbors that will provide continuing arguments for supply.

As the result of the Gulf war and the experience with Iraq, an international effort is under way to restrict the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Efforts, however, to discourage manufacturers in the US from selling conventional weapons abroad in the post-cold-war era encounter greater resistance. They are met by arguments that other nations are doing it, that weapon exports help to right the trade imbalance, and that such exports will keep America's defense industry healthy. These will be pe rsuasive arguments to many in political life.

Nevertheless, if a grain of concern over the implications of our weapon exports exists, it should be strengthened by the realization of what has happened to those arms destined in other years to strengthen the "free world." They are today being turned against innocent populations in struggles both to achieve and to retain power. That is not a cold-war heritage of which anyone can be proud.

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