AMERICANS are rightly concerned by reports that between 1985 and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait last year, the US Commerce Department approved sales to Iraq of $1.5 billion in sophisticated dual-use technology - that is, technologies like computers and advanced electronics that have both peaceful and military applications. The possibility that US technology contributed to Saddam Hussein's brutal war machine raises questions about the spread of potentially lethal products to countries that will misuse them. The issue of dual-use technology transfers is related to controlling the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and "smart" weaponry around the globe. It's a distinct problem, though, because dual-use technologies have perfectly legitimate applications. Certain high-end computers can improve the aerodynamics of civilian aircraft - or of ballistic missiles.
Moreover, the foreign sale of products incorporating dual-use technology is an important component in America's economic growth and competitiveness.
In fact, the process for licensing acceptable technology transfers and blocking harmful ones is not in the "disarray" some critics have charged. The relative ineptness of Saddam's vaunted military testifies to the general success of the US and its allies in keeping advanced military technology out of his hands - among other ways, by keeping it from Iraq's main arms supplier, the Soviet Union.
But the licensing process, managed by the Commerce Department in consultation with the State, Defense, and Energy departments, is hardly foolproof. Interagency coordination in licensing decisions, including the sharing of relevant intelligence information, can always use tightening. And coordinating technology-export policies with Europe and Japan - commercial competitors of the US as well as security allies - requires constant policing.
Also, a watchdog system designed for East-West trade must be adapted to monitor North-South trade. With the breakup of the Soviet bloc, the so-called COCOM controls on technology sales to Eastern European countries are being loosened. But the process needs to be beefed up for controlling dual-use transfers to the third world.
Countries like Brazil and India are becoming leading weapons suppliers to the third world, including countries that could threaten Western interests. The US must be as vigilant in controlling dual-use transfers to these emerging high-tech arsenals as it has been in controlling such sales to former Warsaw Pact nations.
The trick is to protect US security concerns without unduly narrowing the global market for American technology. A balance can be struck - although export advocates will always believe the controls are too rigid, and those primarily concerned about security will regard the licensing procedures as too loose.
The challenge is getting more difficult, as the number of nations engaged in high-tech trade increases. Meeting it must remain a top US priority.