Arming the world to the teeth

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- For all the heated talk about curbing gun sales at home, neither Bob Dole nor Bill Clinton has said a word in their campaigns about the worldwide proliferation of conventional weapons -- let alone the U.S. role as the world's number-one arms dealer. That could change under a proposal by Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., for a "code of conduct" to rein in U.S. arms exports.

Most Americans would be shocked to discover that 85 percent of U.S. weapons are sold to countries the State Department deems undemocratic, such as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. Others are routinely sold to countries that ruthlessly repress their own citizens. Turkey, for instance, has used U.S. F-16 fighter planes and Cobra helicopters to bomb and depopulate 3,000 Kurdish villages.


The vast majority of these weapons are sold overseas without any congressional debate, hearings or even a vote. Current U.S. arms deals are largely conducted behind closed doors. Once negotiations between the U.S. government and the purchasing country are nearly complete, then notification is given and Congress has 15 to 30 days to win the necessary two-thirds majority in both houses to block the sale. The legislative process is so difficult and hurried that Congress has never successfully voted down any pending weapons sales.

If passed, the code-of-conduct law would drastically alter these policies. It would prohibit arms sales to any country that is undemocratic, disregards the basic human rights of its citizens, engages in acts of aggression against other states, or fails to register arms sales with the United Nations. Under the new law, the president could seek an exemption for a particular country that did not meet these criteria, but the exemption would still require congressional approval.


In a just-released report, the president's advisory board on arms proliferation underscored the urgency for such reform. It cautioned that without scrutiny and control, conventional-weapons exports can "drastically undermine regional stability and hence U.S. national security," as well as "promoting arms races."

Over the last decade, the U.S. has sold $42 billion worth of weapons to 45 of the 50 countries involved in ethnic and territorial conflicts -- violence that could well trigger a larger regional war. In Panama, Somalia, Iraq and Haiti, this has led to U.S. troops facing weapons either paid for or provided by their own government.

Arms-control opponents counter that if the U.S. doesn't sell weapons, other countries will. But as the world's largest weapons exporter, the U.S. is the only country that can lead the way toward multilateral arms control. When it has led the way before (with anti-ballistic-missile control and anti-personnel land mines), it has successfully encouraged other countries to follow.

Contrary to defense-industry claims that cutting back on exports will cost jobs, the code-of-conduct law would save taxpayer dollars. In 1995, government subsidies to promote, finance and sell weapons abroad amounted to $7.6 billion, according to a new report by William Hartung of the World Policy Institute.

Paying them to buy

Because the international market is saturated with weapons, moreover, the arms industry offers purchasing countries special incentives -- offsets -- to encourage them to buy American. Today, thanks to those offsets, there are nearly twice as many workers employed building the F-16 in Ankara, Turkey (2,000), as there are at Lockheed Martin's principal F-16 plant in Fort Worth, Texas (1,155).

It will take a strong public outcry for the code-of-conduct bill to succeed in the Senate. The defense industry has poured thousands of dollars into congressional coffers to defeat such efforts in the past. But given mounting public concern over curbing gun-related violence at home, the bill could expand debate to the role of U.S. arms in blood-letting abroad.

And Congress would be forced to bear the heat of U.S. public opinion on the duplicity of condemning the world's dictators with one hand while arming them to the teeth with the other.


Jennifer Washburn is a research associate at the World Policy Institute at the New School in New York.

Pub Date: 7/23/96