The Arms Bazaar

Jonathan Power

December 14, 1990|By Jonathan Power

LONDON. — London.

SECRETARY OF STATE James Baker says that even if Iraq pulls out of Kuwait, the embargo must continue until Iraq goes along with some credible international monitoring and control of its chemical, biological and nuclear-arms industries and imposes some discipline on its acquisition of modern conventional forces.

This is an important point. The only thing wrong with it is that it should apply more broadly -- that is, to more than Iraq. The arms-sales business has reeked for so long that our political nostrils no longer sniff right from wrong.

Despite the scandals of recent years -- Muammar el Kadafi's chemical-weapons plant, Israel's and Pakistan's nuclear bombs, and now Saddam Hussein's try at everything -- there has been only a little tightening of the pressure on companies -- overwhelmingly German, but also British, American and Swiss -- that export these war technologies. Not one leader of a major exporting country has declared himself for a comprehensive treaty limiting the sales of arms.

One lone country, however, has made a start on its own -- Czechoslovakia. Earlier this year Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier announced that his country would pull out of the arms trade ''without taking into account what the pragmatists say.''

This is no token sacrifice; Czechoslovakia is not Ruritania. After the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia was the largest and most sophisticated communist-bloc arms sales- man. Until recently nearly half of the country's earnings of hard currency came from the arms trade. Apart from producing the notorious plastic explosive, Semtex, (and who knows what kind of raw materials for the chemical-weapons industry), half of the world's 10,000 military training planes were produced or assembled in Czechoslovakia.

Today, Aero Vodochody, the airplane factory near Prague, is half empty, its output dropping like a stone, and the famous tank factory in Martin has been ordered to convert to producing tractors.

Perhaps it needs someone of the moral depth of the ex-political ** prisoner, playwright-president Vaclav Havel, to place principle on his political agenda. Compare what's going on in Czechoslovakia with what is revealed in a new internal report written for British Aerospace, Britain's largest manufacturer of military aircraft. It observes bloodlessly that the company was ''totally unprepared'' for the ending of the Cold War and recommends survival by corporate restructuring, acquisition of civilian firms and ''increased arms exports.''

This is the cynical, amoral norm. Western governments and companies have abrogated all responsibility for arms sales for so long that selling abroad has become simple habit. It was not always so.

Before the first big oil-price rise of 1974, which induced the industrialized countries, capitalist and communist, to in effect recycle the oil billions through arms sales, there was a school of restraint that occasionally got the upper hand in policy making.

In 1950 the U.S., France and Britain agreed to limit arms sales to the Middle East in an attempt to lower tensions between the Arab states and Israel. It lasted five years, until the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia concluded a big arms deal with Egypt and France secretly signed an arms deal with Israel.

In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson proposed that the U.S. and the Soviet Union limit arms sales in the Middle East. The Soviet prime minister, Alexei Kosygin, responded with a secret letter supporting Mr. Johnson's plan. Both Washington and Moscow cut arms sales and, even more important, the steady modernization of weapons. President Anwar Sadat of Egypt noted at the time that a stalemate -- no peace,no war -- suited the superpowers and suspected, rightly, that there had been an agreement between them about the level of arms supplies. The agreement unraveled in 1972, partly because of the rise of Middle East tensions and partly because of the American decision to sell F-4 fighter-bombers to Israel.

With the end of the Cold War there is no excuse for not fashioning similar accords that are both more all-embracing and more permanent. Zones of potential conflict should be simply embargoed. There is no reason, other than the greed of the industrialized powers, why the Middle East ever need go through another spiral of the arms race.

Needless to say, this raises the question of why the West has not faced openly and honestly Israel's possession of nuclear weapons. It is going to have to. Otherwise, the Arab nations will always justify massive purchases of new armor and the development of countervailing weaponry.

If we can't see this then we are deservedly on the slippery slope that will one day lead to the arms sellers being themselves attacked with the chemical, biological and nuclear-tipped missiles sown by their own short-sightedness, folly and greed.


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