A DEFINING moment in post-cold-war foreign policy will come today when the House of Representatives takes up the ''Code of Conduct'' amendment to the foreign aid bill. The Code of Conduct would ban US arms sales to dictators, human rights abusers, and governments not participating in the United Nations arms trade register.
On May 11, the code was narrowly defeated in the House International Relations Committee by an 18-to-17 vote after a heated debate. The vote on the House floor will be the first time in 19 years that Congress debates which countries should be permitted to receive our weaponry.
The code's surprisingly strong showing came despite the opposition of the Aerospace Industries Association, which represents arms-exporters whose political-action committees gave $7.5 million to candidates in the last election cycle. The Clinton administration also weighed in heavily against the amendment, with Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman appearing before the committee and distributing a letter ''firmly opposing'' passage of the code while supporting its principles.
Congress is getting involved in arms restraint for the simple reason that successive administrations have failed to show leadership. In 1993, the administration approved a record $12.9 billion in arms sales to developing countries, three times the sales to all other countries combined. More than 90 percent of those weapons went to dictators. Then in February, 1995, the president issued a directive that, for the first time, makes corporations' financial health a factor in arms sales decisions.
As the Pentagon buys less, arms-makers pressure the government to keep production lines open by approving strategically questionable sales abroad. In fact, arms sales to developing countries have doubled since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The arms industry claims that the increase in sales saves jobs. As defense industry profits and CEO salaries rise, however, layoffs of line workers have increased almost in direct relation. Even worse for the American economy, one-third of all sales are paid for by the taxpayer through foreign aid. ''Offset'' agreements that help purchasing countries co-produce weapons and sell commercial products in America displace as many workers as the arms sales save.
Hence, we are giving bullies bigger sticks, even though in the past they have used them against their own people and the United States. We have already seen this ''boomerang effect'' from past sales to armed forces that oppressed their citizens. In the last four overseas US engagements -- Panama, Iraq, Somalia, and Haiti -- our troops faced the very weapons we sold to those dictators who were once our friends. In Somalia, we spent $2 billion and two dozen American lives trying to clean up the mess that flowed from our $200 million in arms sales.
Who among today's favored customers are tomorrow's Somalias and Iraqs?
If the House passes the Code of Conduct, maybe we will not have to find out. Until then, arms transfer policy will be business as usual -- big business as usual.