IN early August, sandwiched between rumors of a possible invasion of Haiti and continuing reports of unprecedented death and dislocation in Rwanda, came the disquieting news that the United States has consolidated its position as the post-cold-war world's top weapons trafficking nation.
A new Congressional Research Service report reveals that US arms-sales agreements with developing nations accounted for an incredible 73 percent of the third-world market in 1993. No other country is even remotely competitive with the US. The United Kingdom and Russia, second and third on the list, each sold less than an eighth as much as the US.
Some analysts and industry lobbyists welcome this new US dominance of the global weapons trade. Joel Johnson of the Aerospace Industries Association argues it is merely a logical extension of the US comparative advantage in the production of other ``low volume, high technology'' goods such as airliners and mainframe computers. Ethan Kapstein of the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard asserts in the May/June 1994 issue of Foreign Affairs that ``the American arms trade monopoly will be good for the United States, international security and the world economy.'' But weapons are not just another high-tech export. A US role as the world's premier arms merchant is nothing to cheer about.
Arms sales fuel conflict. Of 48 ethnic and territorial wars under way as of mid-1993, 39 involved forces that had received US arms. Arms sales can also pose a threat to US forces. The last three times the US sent troops into combat in substantial numbers -
in Panama, Iraq, and Somalia - adversaries were equipped with US arms or military technology.
Last but not least, arms sales promote repression and instability. The majority of the weapons sold by the US in 1993 went to undemocratic governments such as those now ruling in Indonesia, Taiwan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Providing top-of-the-line armaments to this client list is a gamble that may have disastrous consequences down the road.
To add insult to injury, in many cases US weapons exports are paid for by US taxpayers, not foreign clients. Secretary of State Warren Christopher's recent pledge to give Jordan debt relief and a new round of US weapons is a quid prop quo for signing a peace deal with Israel. It was in keeping with a long and dubious tradition of utilizing arms giveaways as a foreign-policy instrument. Direct and indirect taxpayer support for US arms exports averages $7 billion annually. If the defense industry has its way, that price tag will grow.
Where does the Clinton administration stand on all this? So far, nowhere. A review of conventional arms transfer policy has been delayed for nearly a year, partly because the administration fears that reining in the weapons trade will provoke a political backlash from the arms lobby.
IN the meantime, Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon and Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D) of Georgia have filled the leadership vacuum by introducing legislation that would establish a ``Code of Conduct'' for US arms sales. The code would sharply restrict exports of US weaponry to governments that abuse the human rights of their citizens, engage in aggression against their neighbors, come to power through undemocratic means, or fail to participate in international agreements like the United Nations arms register.
Setting higher standards would be a step in the right direction. But ultimately presidential leadership is needed. Just as he took on the National Rifle Association to secure an assault-weapons ban, it's time for President Clinton to stand up to the defense industry. He should redeem his campaign pledge to press for limits on selling arms. Unrestrained selling will contribute to nightmares like Rwanda, Somalia, and Haiti.
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