STRONG postwar words in Washington about the need to reduce the flow of arms into the Middle East have so far been just that - words. In recent days the Bush administration has approved a plan to allow the Export-Import Bank to guarantee loans for the purchase of weaponry by allies of the United States, including Israel. Some $23 billion in arms sales to coalition partners is under consideration. The war had hardly ended before the administration was pushing for the sale of $1.6 billion worth of F-16s to Egypt.
Some of these deals were struck months ago. But in the face of them, how can the US demonstrate that it's now serious about arms control in the world's hottest region? Secretary of State James Baker III recently told a congressional hearing: "The time has come to try to change the destructive pattern of military competition and proliferation in the region . 201&gt;"
The revving of the arms-sales engine shows how automatic these sales have become. They are an ingrained part of foreign policy. The F-16 sale to Egypt, for example, continues a decade-long policy of weaning Cairo off Soviet arms. Weapons deals with Israel are politically sacrosanct, given that country's strong backing among Americans. The Saudis are convinced that the latest weapons are crucial to their new stabilizing role in the Gulf.
In fact, governments throughout the region are convinced that armed might is critical to their status, strength, even survival. The Gulf war, provoked by an over-armed Iraq, should have altered these attitudes. It seems, instead, to have made US high-tech weaponry all the more attractive.
What should the US do? First, it should put its full weight behind international efforts to limit arms sales - not just chemical and nuclear arms, but highly destructive conventional systems as well. The US should be leading discussions of ways to regulate the arms market, instead of backing off every time a regional ally pleads or an American armsmaker bemoans Pentagon budget cuts. The president's commitment to press for limits on the sale of missile technology is a good start.
Second, it should persevere in completing arms-control agreements with the Soviets and thus set an example. This has become more difficult as the Soviet military has grown more assertive. But cooperation with the Soviets, major suppliers to Arab countries, will be essential to arms control in the Middle East.
Third, the US must push ahead with peacemaking in the region. Only progress toward normal relations among nations and respect for the rights of all peoples will allow a genuine move away from reliance on arms.