As President Bush and his foreign policy team tackle myriad challenges, an issue they likely did not contemplate during the transition - the proposed sale of attack jets to Chile - is quickly coming to the fore. Pentagon and corporate representatives are now pushing for the deal on Capitol Hill. The issue is key, because it raises pivotal questions about how the Bush administration will define US interests in Latin America.
Last December, the Chilean government announced that it had chosen Lockheed Martin to produce 10 F-16C/D fighters to replace its vintage F-5 jets. As part of the $700 million package, Chile is slated to receive an array of advanced weaponry, including air-to-air missiles and a state-of-the-art targeting system, as well as additional fuel tanks for extended range.
At first glance the decision may appear to be simple. Chile is a democracy in a peaceful region and has a rapidly aging jet fleet. Moreover, there are strong military ties between the two nations. In addition, Lockheed Martin has plants in Mr. Bush's home state of Texas and, it should be pointed out, was a generous contributor to the Bush campaign and the inaugural committee fund.
Beyond the issue of whether corporate contributions should shape US policy, what's wrong with the deal? Simply put, it represents a short-sighted, militaristic definition of US interests at a moment when the United States and Latin America have an unprecedented opportunity to establish a hemispheric community of democracies that could be a model for the world.
For the first time in the region's history, every country except Cuba has a democratically elected head of government. Civilian leaders are slowly increasing their authority over the military and, at the Santiago Summit of the Americas in 1998, the leaders all agreed to give greater priority to education.
The issue for the Bush administration is what its priorities should be in Latin America. Does it want to sell arms or foster stronger economies? Does it want to promote an arms race or a race for better education?
In Quebec next month, the third Summit of the Americas will be held, and President Bush should use that forum as an occasion to declare his support for negotiating a regionwide system of restraint on arms purchases.
Further, Bush should urge all the leaders to establish an education fund that would be financed from reductions in defense spending.
If the administration rejects such an initiative, it could still provide upgraded early-model F-16s to Chile while barring the sale of power-projection technologies. These technologies are wholly unnecessary for defensive purposes and could destabilize the region. For that reason nine senators, led by Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut, expressed their concern about the deal in a letter to President Bush in early February and asked that many of those components be left out of the arms package.
But even selling early-model jets is a second-best solution. The best would be if President Bush first initiated discussions with Latin American leaders to establish a regionwide agreement limiting, in numbers and technology, the military equipment countries will purchase.
The spread of democracy, the lack of regional tensions, and the absence of external threats have created a situation in which Latin American nations could establish a framework to modernize their militaries. The slower the pace, the more benefits to the economies and the democracies.
President Bush has a unique opportunity to help transform the phrase "hemispheric community of democracies" into one with substantial meaning, and offer the region a post-cold-war peace dividend that we can only dream about.
Thomas A. Cardamone Jr. is executive director of the Washington-based arms control group Council For a Livable World Education Fund. Robert A. Pastor is professor of political science at Emory University and author of 'Exiting the Whirlpool: US Foreign Policy Toward Latin America' (Westview Press).
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor