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Rethink Conventional-Arms Sales

US nonproliferation efforts should target all weapons, not just nuclear warheads

THE Bush administration is to be commended for its efforts to bring nuclear weapons under control and especially for its success in persuading Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to dispense with their nuclear arsenals. These weapons are so frightening that even a fractional reduction is welcome.

But it must also be remembered that nobody has been killed by a nuclear weapon since 1945 - that is 47 years. How many uncounted millions have been killed in that time by less awesome weapons, ranging all the way from handguns on the streets of American cities to machine guns in the mountains of Afghanistan?

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For 40 years, the export of arms was one of the ways the United States fought the cold war. The military-assistance program in 1949 was designed to help our NATO allies defend western Europe. The program was shortly extended to Yugoslavia when Marshal Tito broke with Stalin. One wonders how many of those weapons, which were supplied for a good purpose, have recently been used so destructively in the Serbian aggression against Bosnia and Croatia.

By the early 1950s, US military assistance was generally available to any third-world government with anti-communist credentials.

By the 1960s, Congress was getting restless. Military assistance was no longer assistance; it was sales. Lawmakers perceived a contradiction between a policy of promoting economic growth in a country and a policy of encouraging the same country to spend a lot of money on military equipment. Congress tried to put legal limits on military sales, but these efforts were largely ineffective.

One reason was that the industrial part of the US military-industrial complex was churning out more and more weapons that needed to be disposed of. As new models came off the line for US forces, the old models became surplus, and US military attaches in the third world peddled them much like agricultural attaches peddled surplus wheat.

These were the routine exports. By far the largest volume of weapons exports occurred because of wars in which the US engaged either directly or by proxy - in Korea, Vietnam, and Central America, to name three. Some of the arms we left in Vietnam later turned up on the other side in Central America.

Now the global trade in conventional arms has been given several new boosts. The end of the cold war has lowered procurement for US forces. The recession has increased the pressure to export as a jobs-protection measure. The breakup of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact has created a pool of surplus weapons in Eastern Europe and has also forced Eastern European arms manufacturers to look beyond that region for markets. And some of the East's previous markets no longer exist, for example Cuba and Centra l America.

After the Persian Gulf war, George Bush expressed the hope that "out of this there will be less proliferation of all different types of weapons." But in 1991, the same year he made that statement, US arms exports were a record $23 billion. The Pentagon has always argued that if we don't sell arms, some other country will, and that Americans might as well get the money.

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But the Pentagon carries the argument a step further and gets in trouble. Listen to a Defense Department spokesman: "Our customers are our friends and allies who need the means to safeguard their legitimate security interests. We have criticized [other] countries for attempting to sell arms to potential customers whose interests include destabilization of neighboring governments and the export of terrorism to other states."

To a great many people in the third world, this sounds like insufferable hypocrisy. Our customers are good guys. Somebody else's customers are bad guys.

President Bush has stated one arms-sales policy, and the government has carried out another. The policy in practice is irresponsible in that it ignores the foreign consequences of selling arms: On such a large scale, the sales of American weapons are themselves destabilizing. And surely we are not so dimwitted that we have to scatter weapons of war overseas to provide jobs at home.

Conventional-arms proliferation is so far out of control that there does not seem to be much that can be done about it. We might try buying the arms back ($100 for an M-16 and no questions asked), but that idea is probably not politically viable. In the meantime, if we can't make things better, we might at least try not to make them worse.

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