Shut Down The Mideast Arms Bazaar? Forget It

As coalition strategists planned for the assault on Iraq, they had to contend with one threat that they had brought upon themselves. Iraq might have blown allied warplanes out of the sky with U. S.-made HAWK missiles captured in Kuwait. And it could have sunk their ships with Exocet missiles fired from Mirage F-1 jets, both purchased legitimately from France.

Iraq's arsenal of advanced weapons took a terrible beating in the war.But Operation Desert Storm has done nothing to diminish Middle Eastern armies' appetite for smart bombs, mis-siles, sophisticated aircraft, andother weapons (map). Western nations want to see the flow of deadly arms checked, but politics will make progress difficult.

BIG CHILL. Secretary of State James A. Baker III is making arms control a pillar of his plans for the postwar order. But the unity of purpose that the coalition showed in standing down Saddam Hussein is likely to fizzle in the war's aftermath. U. S. and European leaders are already squabbling about how to choke off the supply of advanced weapons to the Middle East and to would-be Saddams elsewhere in the Third World. And the chill in U. S.-Soviet relations could torpedo Moscow's cooperation in arms-control efforts. The lesson that Israel and America's gulf allies are likely to draw from the conflict is that their security rests on acquiring more--not fewer--high-tech military tools.

There's no shortage of schemes to curb the arms bazaar. Reflecting a growing bipartisan view on Capitol Hill, House Middle East subcommittee Chairman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) says: "A worldwide moratorium on arms sales to the Middle East is worth serious consideration."

Although the Bush Administration isn't ready to go that far, it will soon unveil new export restraints on chemical and biological agents and production equipment. The U. S. is also pushing to expand the role of the Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM), which has a mandate to restrict the flow of military technology to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. But Europeans doubt whether COCOM, which never worked to the satisfaction of the U. S., is the way to go. Says a COCOM official in Paris: "The Soviets would have to be a policeman in any limits on arms proliferation. But in COCOM, they are the policed, not the police." Instead, many European arms-control experts want a separate agency to monitor exports to the Third World.

Another U. S. scheme to free arms trade among NATO allies while clamping down on weapons transfers elsewhere has also run into trouble. The goal is to boost sales within the alliance, lessening the need for defense industries to pursue Third World customers. But officials in Belgium, France, and other major arms-producing countries fear they might lose business to the U. S.

The economic squeeze on Europe's bloated arms makers could be the biggest obstacle. France's defense industry develops a wide range of weapons and relies on significant export sales--mainly to the Middle East--to achieve economies of scale. "There will be lots of financial pressure on France, as well as Germany, to get around any limits," predicts one Western diplomat in Paris.

BUYING MOOD. Eastern Europe is another potential weak link. Hungary and other former Warsaw Pact states have a surfeit of weapons--many Soviet-made--that they might unload for hard currency. Third World countries--including China, North Korea, and Brazil--also have the capacity to export advanced weapons.

And the oil-rich gulf states are in a buying mood. "We must have more teeth and more bite," says Kuwait's Abdullah Bishara, secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Bishara is scornful of the clamor for an embargo on weapons sales to the region. "Cash on the barrelhead will determine who gets arms," he insists.

For its part, Israel favors limiting conventional arms sales in the Middle East. But the Jewish state produces some of the world's most sophisticated arms on its own and is beyond the reach of any export-control program. And Jerusalem rejects Egyptian calls for Israel to open its budding nuclear program to inspection. Baker will try to coax Israel and its Arab neighbors into at least taking steps such as agreeing to notify each other in advance of major military exercises and missile test launches.

But it will be tough for the U. S. to turn a cold shoulder on its Mideast partners' demands for more arms. Concedes an Administration official: "Everyone wants more, and the instinct will be to sell it to them." After sending in half a million troops and defeating Saddam in short order, Washington will find it awkward to lecture its Middle East partners on the benefits of cooling their arms race.

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