The United States Needs A Conventional-Arms Policy

PRESIDENT Clinton last year unveiled a good initiative on nonproliferation. Yet a crucial element is missing: a policy to limit the transfer of conventional arms. On Aug. 3, Undersecretary of State Lynn Davis explained the 18-month delay on conventional-arms policy this way: ``Other things have come a little bit higher on our agenda.'' I do not understand how ``other things'' can come higher when conventional arms have killed 40 million people since the end of World War II.

Nothing will limit the proliferation of conventional arms unless the United States takes the lead. We have become the No. 1 supplier since the Soviet Union's collapse. Last year, the US accounted for 73 percent of all arms transfers to the third world. Russia is far behind at 9 percent. The Clinton administration claims the US is maintaining a steady share of a dwindling world arms market. Yet the US set a record in 1993 of $33 billion in government-to-government arms sales, more than doubling previous figures.

Sheer dollar volume illustrates the problem. The more serious implication is that arms sales stimulate arms races that undermine US security. Arms races increase the risks and lethality of regional conflicts and the risks of our involvement. US forces may face US-supplied weapons in some future war.

After the Gulf war, Congress passed legislation that pressed the Bush administration to start negotiating limits on conventional-arms transfers, especially in the Middle East. Talks involving the US, Britain, France, China, and the Soviet Union (later Russia) were intended to bring guidelines and limits to arms sales to the Middle East. They broke down in 1992 when China walked out.

Restraining arms sales is the toughest of policy and political issues. Suppliers have good reasons to sell. Through arms sales, the US can deter aggression, help friendly governments meet legitimate security interests, cut defense costs through longer production runs, and promote jobs and exports.

Buyers have good reasons to buy. They want top-quality US arms to meet legitimate and perceived threats. They also want the political and military ties to the US that come with agreements to purchase arms.

How can the US get a handle on conventional arms transfers that destabilize regional peace and security?

First, convene talks among major arms-supplier governments. They must agree on a code of conduct based on mutual restraint. Why does the Middle East need more advanced aircraft or tanks? How can we stop Russian submarine transfers to Iran if we do not work for restraint by all parties, including the US, on other weapons transfers to the region? We should strive for more than ``transparency'' and prior notification of arms transfers. We should persuade governments to agree on one-for-one replacement as a starting point for negotiations.

Second, convene talks among arms-purchasing governments. Arms control is an important aspect of multilateral Middle East peace talks. Governments in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are beginning a similar security dialogue. Nations have legitimate requirements, but the US should press for regional restraint so they do not bankrupt each other and diminish security for all.

Third, ask the US and other national defense industries to develop restraint initiatives. Recently the chemical industry devised constructive ways to limit chemical transfers for weapons purposes and helped bring about the Chemical Weapons Treaty. Arms-makers should come up with suggestions for restraint.

Fourth, analyze the economic impact of arms sales. Despite past euphoria over the job-creating aspect of arms sales, recent studies question benefits to the US economy. The downside includes: large subsidies for arms exports, through US grant and loan assistance; offset agreements, which undercut the domestic jobs benefit of arms sales; costs to the US defense budget of responding to regional arms races; and costs to US nonmilitary exporters, who suffer because military sales stunt the growth of foreign markets for US consumer goods and services.

We should also be honest about the security impact of arms sales. The US in recent decades sold billions of dollars worth of military hardware to Persian Gulf states. Yet when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Gulf states were still unable to defend themselves, and the US had to do the job. We must ask ourselves with each major weapons sale: Does it contribute to US security, or does it fuel a regional arms race?

I do not underestimate the difficulties of conventional arms restraint, but I do believe a policy is necessary. It is in the US national interest to take the lead in setting worldwide ground rules on arms transfers. Negotiations will not occur unless the US convenes them. Without US leadership, the problem of conventional-arms proliferation will just be kicked down the road a few years, when it will become even more difficult to address.

It serves the US interests to act on conventional arms sales now, rather than to look back later and ask why we did not.

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