WASHINGTON -- One thing never changes in America's post-Cold War foreign policy, and that is the awesome power of the U.S. arms-exporting industries.
This month, a joint House-Senate conference committee quietly approved language that could open the way once again for American arms sales to India and Pakistan -- two nations covered by U.S. sanctions as the result of their nuclear weapons programs.
Never mind that the Indian subcontinent is one of the world's flash points. Never mind that India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests last year and that they nearly went to war this year over Kashmir.
Or that the Pakistani army last week toppled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government.
Neither Congress nor the executive branch will let anything stand in the way of arms sales for too long.
Over the past five years, no other nation comes close to the United States as an arms exporter.
American sales from 1994 to 1998 added up to $53.9 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which collects the statistics. In second place was Russia with $12.3 billion in sales over the five-year period, followed by France with $10.6 billion.
In fact, the sales for the arms exporting nations ranked from No. 2 through No. 15 on the list -- Russia, France, Britain, Germany, China, the Netherlands, Italy, Ukraine, Canada, Spain, Israel, the Czech Republic, Belarus and Belgium -- total $53.2 billion, not quite as much as the United States alone.
And there's no letup in sight. Right now, the United Arab Emirates is about to buy American F-16s, while Turkey may soon buy U.S. helicopters.
"For the next few years, we're going to average about $10 billion a year" in sales, says Thomas A. Cardamone Jr., who keeps track of arms sales for the Council for a Livable World Education Fund, a Washington nonprofit group.
Taiwan, hurriedly buying weaponry to defend against China's People's Liberation Army, ranked as the world's No. 1 customer over the past five years with $13.3 billion in imports, mostly from the United States and France. Saudi Arabia ranked second, followed by Turkey, Egypt and South Korea.
Needless to say, the billions of dollars these countries are spending on weapons systems could pay for lots of schools, hospitals and roads.
Of course, one can make an argument -- as American defense industries and the Pentagon do -- on behalf of any individual arms transaction. The sales are often said to be necessary to contain North Korea or Iraq, or to preserve the balance of power in the Middle East or across the Taiwan Strait. Sometimes these claims have merit.
Increasingly, however, the foreign-policy reasons for the U.S. arms sales are accompanied by economic arguments: We have to keep selling weapons overseas in order to keep American assembly lines running, to preserve our industrial base and to lower the unit costs of new weapons systems.
The U.S. government doesn't like it when Russia says it sells advanced weaponry to other countries, such as China, because it needs to give a boost to Russian defense industries. Yet American complaints ring hollow when we use similar justifications.
"This system amounts to military socialism," says Chalmers Johnson of the Japan Policy Research Institute. "Many of these arms sales are designed to keep people employed.
"We're not a force for spreading peace around the world today, we're a force for spreading arms."
America's pattern of arms sales has become so entrenched that it is self-perpetuating.
Oscar Arias, the former Costa Rican president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, has pointed out that the Pentagon first allowed the sale of F-16 warplanes around the world -- and then contended it needs to develop a next-generation fighter, the F-22, in order to maintain superiority over the planes America has exported.
The U.S. government and American defense industries, it seems, have come up with justifications for arms sales to cover every possible political contingency overseas -- even though these rationalizations seem to contradict one another.
We sell huge amounts of weaponry to Saudi Arabia on grounds that this highly undemocratic kingdom has to survive in a dangerous neighborhood, the Middle East.
Yet the Clinton administration recently opened the way for new American arms sales to Latin America, on grounds that the region is now made up of democratic governments and is, on the whole, safer than it used to be.
Thus, danger leads to American weapons sales, and so does tranquillity. Democratic governments qualify for our hardware, and so do repressive ones.
All in all, these pervasive U.S. arms sales have become one of the distinctive features of the American-dominated international system that has developed since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Jim Mann writes about foreign policy for the Los Angeles Times.