In the coming weeks the Clinton administration faces an important decision. Should it maintain current restrictions on sales of advanced military equipment to Latin American nations? Or amend that policy and allow United States weapons contractors to market such products in Latin America?
Recent news reports suggest the administration will probably loose the armsmakers around the time of the hemispheric Defense Ministerial Meeting in October. Such a decision would be bad for both regional security and US efforts to encourage continued political and economic reform in the region.
After decades of dictatorial military rule, widespread human rights abuses, and faltering economies, nations in South America have been democratically electing governments, improving rights records, and recovering financial health.
The US arms industry sees opportunities for profit in these reforms. For a year and a half it has strongly lobbied the administration to end 18-year-old restrictions on sales of F-16 fighter jets and attack helicopters. The Pentagon quickly saluted the idea, but others in the administration are far from convinced that selling advanced equipment to South American countries is the best policy move.
During testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Aug. 1, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said his "strong conviction" is to show "great restraint" when considering policy changes that could spur an arms race. Indeed, former Argentine Defense Minister Oscar Camilin recently stated that the introduction of advanced fighter planes into the region "would be very unstabilizing."
Relations among Latin American nations have not been this good in years. Unrestricted arms sales could tip the delicate balance that has been reached by one-time adversaries.
Mr. Christopher told the Senate panel that the US should encourage its regional allies to invest their scarce capital in nonweapons programs that will be of "greater benefit to their citizens." Increased arms purchases would siphon resources from economic development, thus hurting local economies and the growth of trade relationships.
The push for US arms sales comes just as the 18-month-old regional trade pact, Mercosur, is beginning to take hold. The pact reduces trade tariffs among members. It was strengthened in June when Chile joined original members Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
This Southern Cone Common Market promotes not only trade but, by extension, hemispheric stability. Its effectiveness could be impaired if new offensive weapons were to enter the region.
Moreover, current Washington diplomatic efforts could be scuttled if arms-sales restrictions are removed. The United States, along with Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, is working to institute a policy on conventional arms acquisitions by Ecuador and Peru that will ensure against a replay of the border war the two countries fought in February 1995. It is an excellent initiative that will greatly enhance confidence and security-building measures undertaken by the Quito and Lima governments.
This State Department effort should be the model for US policy throughout the region and can be the basis for negotiating stricter controls on the procurement of technologies not currently held by these nations. United States leadership on this last point is a key element for continued regional stability and economic growth.
The Clinton administration should call on other weapons suppliers (mostly NATO partners) to refrain from selling certain technologies not already being used by the South American countries.
A pledge by the US to do the same would confirm its own willingness to prevent an unnecessary arms buildup. At the same time, such a pledge would go a long way toward creating an atmosphere that is in line with US policy goals of promoting stability and bolstering economies.
Claims by the defense industry that current policy has caused US firms to "lose" the Latin American market to foreign competition - and that thousands of jobs have been lost - hit especially hard in an election year.
However, according to a new Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, those claims are unfounded. US weaponsmakers, the CRS study notes, already control more than 22 percent of the Latin American market - double the market share held by the closest competitor.
Further, the June report of the Presidential Advisory Board on Arms Proliferation Policy suggested that industrial arguments should not be made to justify weapons sales. "Unwise arms sales remain unwise no matter how many jobs are involved," the panel noted.
The primary question to be answered is: What threat requires the sale of advanced military technology? With no substantial danger on the horizon, any decision to allow attack aircraft in the region should be postponed.
Refusing to lower restrictions in no way indicates a failure to support South American allies. Rather, a decision to withhold sending some of the most advanced US weaponry to South America is a prudent approach to strengthening those democracies and bolstering those economies - and thus improving the atmosphere for American export and investment.
*Thomas A. Cardamone Jr. is director of the Conventional Arms Transfer Project at the Council for a Livable World Education Fund in Washington. He also is editor of the project's monthly newsletter Arms Trade News.