DESPITE all the bluster from Republicans about making government more responsible and making America more secure, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his colleagues have been curiously silent about a bill, ``The Arms Code of Conduct,'' that if ratified by Congress would do both.
Reintroduced on Feb. 1 by Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D) of Georgia and Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon, the code of conduct calls for banning the sale of American weapons to dictators, human rights violators, and other regimes the State Department deems undemocratic or repressive. Washington approved a staggering $25 billion in such sales in 1993, and President Clinton has just signed a policy statement that will continue business as usual by placing no new restraints on arms sales.
Representative McKinney asks, ``Does the United States of America want leaders and regimes which our own State Department identifies as human rights abusers and aggressors to use our weapons in executing their heinous craft?''
They do not, say polls. A National Security News Service survey shows that 96 percent of Americans think their government should not sell tanks, airplanes, and so on to undemocratic states - a view informed by common sense and an awareness that today's customers are tomorrow's threats. America recklessly armed and then intervened in Panama, Iraq, and Somalia - costing lives and money.
So why are Mr. Gingrich and other Republicans, who rail at peacekeeping costs and the president's laxity on security issues, so reticent about arms sales? The answer is money. Putting restraints on the transfer of weapons will cut into the profits of defense firms like Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas, something Gingrich and his followers, like Mr. Clinton, are anything but eager to do.
Lockheed, for example, produces the F-16 ``Fighting Falcon,'' which the Pentagon stopped ordering last year because of post-cold-war budget cuts. Lockheed adjusted by getting Washington to approve foreign sales of the F-16, an activity which generates billions in revenue. Among last year's customers was Turkey, which, according to a recent Human Rights Watch Report, has used the F-16 to drop deadly cluster bombs on Kurdish villages. Lockheed is also pressing to sell the F-16 to Chile, whose armed forces are still run by Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, the brutal dictator who seized power from a democratically elected government in 1973 and is a human rights abuser if ever there was one.
Though the latter sale has yet to be approved, the White House no doubt delighted the company by announcing last week that the F-16 can now be sold to countries in the former Eastern bloc.
While Lockheed hawks the F-16 with one hand, it uses the other to lobby Congress to fund the F-22 advanced fighter, which the company claims is needed to keep America ahead of its competitors -
at a $72 billion cost to taxpayers.
The F-22 is not necessary for US defense. A 1994 General Accounting Office report showed that current-generation planes could meet any foreseeable threat to US forces.
Still, last year Lockheed distributed a brochure on Capitol Hill touting the need for the F-22 by highlighting the looming danger posed by the spread of advanced fighter-planes like the F-16 to foreign countries. As an official who helped produce the brochure says, ``We've sold the F-16 all over the world; what if [a friend or ally] turns against us?''
What if, instead, Congress simply pressed Lockheed and others to stop arming undemocratic states?
One shudders to think what Gingrich would say of such duplicity coming from a recipient of welfare or a national arts grant. But the Speaker actually supports Lockheed's bid for the F-22, and has not said a word about its arms sales. That's because many of the F-22s will be produced in his home district of Marietta, Ga. Lockheed's political action committee gave Gingrich $15,000 last year.
The Speaker and his supporters rail at the burdens of peacekeeping. They're determined to bring back ``star wars.'' They want billions more for the Pentagon. They say they'll do what it takes to make America safe and strong. Nevertheless, they remain silent about Clinton's green-light arms-sales policy and buy the specious reasoning on the F-22 when money talks.
That's some way to act if you're claiming to make government more responsible. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.