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Arms folly

It is a source of concern to Americans to learn that Israel has used US-supplied cluster bombs in its invasion of Lebanon. But it is even more sobering to realize that the supply of American weapons to the Middle East - and other regions of the world - is reaching all-time highs. Beyond the question of Israeli violation of US laws (requiring that the arms be used only defensively) is the larger issue of the wisdom of pouring weapons into areas of hostility and conflict.Does such a policy contribute to stability - or merely invite the ultimate use of such weapons?

Today we are witnessing the folly of responding to the unrestrained thirst for arms. The United States literally saturated the Shah's Iran with the most sophisticated armament. Now not only is Iran in the hands of a militant Islamic leader, but Iran and Iraq are at war. The British sold warships and electronics to Argentina while the French supplied advanced Exocet missiles and the West Germans submarines. The end result? Ironically, a bitter conflict over the remote Falkland Islands in which Britain found itself the target of the missiles , ships, and other arms supplied by the West.

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And now we have Lebanon.For Israel to justify its use of the cluster bombs on grounds that Syria had entered the fighting and turned it into a ''full-scale war'' seems the height of sophistry. It was, after all, Israel that invaded Lebanon and upset the relatively well observed cease-fire.

There is little point in supplying Israel with every latest weapon upon request and then cavilling when the weapons are used. Why should any nation be given cluster bombs? Could they not be provided quickly if and when an ally were actually the victim of an all-out attack? Of course Israel should be supplied sufficient arms for its defense and security, but is there no limit to what and how much it gets - and, above all, no credible restraint on how it is used? It should not be lost on the public, moreover, that in an effort to show ''evenhandedness'' the US now is also selling the most modern arms to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other friendly Arab countries. It was doubtful, for instance, that the Saudis really needed those AWACS planes.

And we say ''selling'' advisedly. The fact is, many nations are falling more behind in their interest payments to the US for arms purchases. According to the US General Accounting Office, Egypt and Israel are under increasing strain because of their military debt. If interest rates remain high, Egypt is expected to be paying $1.2 billion a year by 1989 in interest alone on US military loans. Israel is already shelling out over $900 million a year in principle and interest payments.

This is not even to mention the fact that Washington - and the American taxpayer - are providing Israel and Egypt hundreds of millions of dollars annually in outright military grants, i.e. foreign loans. Why, the ordinary American citizen might ask, should he be asked to underwrite other people's wars , especially when the parties seem so resistant to settling their differences by political means? Should no diplomatic price be exacted for such US largess?

Surely it is time the US and its allies came to some agreement about their competition in weapons sales. It is also time the Western nations sought to work out an understanding with the Soviet Union, which is no less culpable in fueling the world arms boom. The Reagan policy of promoting arms sales - and lifting many previous prohibitions on US military aid - ought to be reexamined and the flow of weaponry to the volatile Middle East brought within a level of reasonableness.

The question is eloquently simple: how deeply does the world really want peace?

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