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An Arms Moratorium

SOME ideas can't be allowed to drift away for lack of action. They're too important. A brake on Middle East arms sales, for example. By the end of the Gulf war a consensus was mounting that the time was ripe to curb the region's voracious appetite for weaponry. Everyone agreed that Saddam Hussein's military colossus - shaky though it proved - should have taught the world a lesson. It didn't. Arms dealing has already regained its old clip - with a new spring provided by the awareness of how effective the latest high-tech firepower can be.

But the idea of stopping that deadly momentum has some energy too. A number of arms control and Middle East specialists have been arguing for a temporary moratorium on sales to the region. Last week a group of influential Democratic congressmen sent President Bush a letter urging that the United States take the lead in enacting such a moratorium.

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The Democrats' petition can be seen as a political move designed to back the president into a corner on the arms sales issue. The administration's view, as expressed most clearly by Defense Secretary Cheney, is that arms transfers are a necessary policy tool.

But more is involved here than a partisan attempt to seize some foreign policy high ground. An arms sales halt would signal that the US is serious about taking the Middle East along on the journey toward a new world order.

The US has the authority, following victory in the Gulf, to lead, but others will have to follow. And they just might. The Soviets may find they have more to gain from becoming part of the peace process in the Middle East than by continuing their arms shipments to such clients as Syria - few of whom have any cash to buy with. The French already have a $5 billion bill pending with the Iraqis. But beyond financial disincentives, many in France are uneasy with their country's role in arming regimes like th at of Saddam Hussein.

Recipient nations will raise objections, but in the long run their interests will be served. Their greatest security lies not in being armed to the teeth, but in better relations with neighbors.

The opportunity exists for a sharp departure from the business-as-usual that leads toward future wars. The US should seize it.

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