The Arms Peddlers Pack Their Sample Cases

March 15, 1991|By JONATHAN POWER | JONATHAN POWER,Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

LONDON — London. There's a dangerous myth gathering speed -- that the Iraq war has demonstrated the wonder of high-tech war: speedy defeat of the enemy and allied casualties you can almost count on one hand.

This is an extraordinarily superficial interpretation. The allies overwhelmed Iraq with numbers, organization and, yes, the advantages of newer technology. But when technology is balanced on both sides as in the Iran-Iraq war, even though it was superior to anything deployed in World War II it led to military stalemate, a war of attrition and horrendous casualties on both sides.

A greater danger than allied cocksureness is that the war may give arms-sales interests a new sales pitch.

''Arms sales are the thermometer, not the disease,'' the British government's chief of arms sales said a while ago, arguing that new weapons don't make wars more likely and even can carry us forward to a new age of knights and chivalry, when civilians were spared most of the savagery of the conflict. This is rubbish. If war ever does break out between Israel and the Muslim nations it will be, given the present armories, a quite terrifying and totally destructive affair.

The arms salesmen may be momentarily embarrassed by the fact that many of the weapons used by Iraq against their countrymen were Western in origin, but they will not stay embarrassed long. Indeed they could well become even more aggressive and unprincipled. France and China, among others, have long sold weapons to both parties to a conflict, but most sellers, Western and Soviet-bloc, were constrained by political alignment to sell to only one side. Now that the Cold War is over is that all sellers are free to sell to all sides.

The secretary of State, James Baker, acknowledged a couple of months ago the American mistake of providing economic and military support to Iraq the last few years, but he has lately stilled his contrition. Britain's Prime Minister John Major raised the subject with the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, in Moscow this month, but the reply was that Iraq would need defensive arms to ensure a military balance in the region, and while the Soviet Union was against selling weapons of mass destruction Mr. Gorbachev couldn't promise not to re-arm Iraq with conventional arms.

Of course. The Soviet military-industrial complex is already suffering severe cutbacks because of the deals made over disarmament in Europe. The Western arms industry is in a similar predicament. The new arming of Saudi Arabia by the U.S., now in full spate despite the total vanquishing of Iraq, has been described rather accurately as ''the defense-industry relief act of 1990.''

The trouble with the Middle East is that some of America's friends are also Israel's enemies, and that some of Israel's enemies hate each other as much as they do Israel. When you have not one but several overlapping arms races it takes more than the average amount of self-discipline in the arms-export business before either the West or Moscow can make a credible political offering toward regional arms control. And it requires self-discipline over one's own military posture. Examples do have to be set.

Who, for instance, is going to persuade Israel to give up its 100 nuclear weapons? Britain and France, which insist on continuing to possess nuclear weapons, even though they accept the American nuclear umbrella and live today in a far less dangerous corner of the planet? The U.S. which is pouring new arms into Saudi Arabia and has refused to use its leverage to persuade the Saudis to give up their long-range Chinese-made rockets, whose only practical use is to carry (presumably Pakistani-made) nuclear weapons?

It will take immense political courage to prevent another whirl in the arms-sales merry-go-round. Settling the Palestinian question would help, but will be painfully slow. Arms sales are not just the thermometer, they are a contributing part of the disease and they need surgical attention at once.

The Security Council should vote a 6-month freeze on all further arms sales to the region. No more to the Muslim nations. No more to Israel. The status quo is not a bad balance to exist in while the Palestine negotiations proceed. Iraq is devastated, Iran not as powerful as it was, Syria financially hard-pressed. Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia all have sufficient military power for the day. If the negotiations fail, then the question of military balance could be looked at collectively by the Security Council.

The United Nations' machinery is not primarily for fighting wars but for preventing them. Stopping the unceasing flow of arms to the Middle East could be an important contribution to peace.

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