NEW YORK — WOULDN'T IT BE ironic if the resounding defeat of Iraq, led by the high-tech forces of the U.S., resulted in a Third World newly armed to the teeth with smart bombs, ballistic and cruise missiles, helicopter gunships, Patriot-style interceptors and radar-invisible aircraft?
That would make wars between Third World rivals more likely, if one thought it had gained aqualitative advantage over another. Such wars would certainly be more lethal and destructive, and might be more likely to draw in forces from industrialized nations guarding their interests or promoting weaponry.
Even without wars, the increased cost of arms buildups and rivalries among nations that could ill afford such weaponry would divert resources that could better be spent to encourage economic growth and fight endemic poverty.
Yet, just such a Third World race for the latest and best in lethal devices seems in prospect -- even encouraged, by the Bush administration's inexplicable decision to aid U.S. military contractors in promoting overseas sales of their hardware.
The war itself, of course, has done the most to stir interest in the acquisition of high-tech weapons. Even the most backward and isolated national leader can hardly be unaware today that Iraq's vaunted army -- said to be the world's fourth-largest -- was quickly blown to pieces by the advanced armaments the U.S. and its allies used so effectively.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan, for one, drew the obvious lesson. "To undermine the science, technology, research and modern advances in defense is disastrous," he said in a speech in which he emphasized the need to make Pakistan "an impregnable fortress." If Pakistan goes that way, can India be far behind? Or vice versa?
The U.S. director of naval intelligence, Adm. T.A. Brooks, has said that at least 40 nations are seeking radar-evading "stealth" technologies, and that by the end of the century nine more states will join the six that already deploy reconnaissance satellites. Numerous countries now have the ability to build cruise missiles and their guidance systems.
Israel is acquiring submarines from Germany. France does an active arms-export business. China and others have ballistic missile programs, and the Chinese are willing to sell. The Soviet Union, in need of hard currencies, continues to make available advanced jets and other weapons to Third World countries.
But name-calling does little good, for Uncle Sam himself is one of the world's biggest arms merchants -- peddling $10.8 billion in conventional arms in 1989, second only to Moscow's $11.7 billion. Thus these two accounted for $22.5 billion in such sales out of a world total of $31.8 billion.
Now the Bush administration has informed Congress that it wants to sell high-tech weapons worth $18 billion -- including F-16s, Patriot missiles, M-1 tanks and multiple rocket launchers -- to five Persian Gulf allies. With such weapons going to Arab nations, Israel's defense worries are bound to increase; and Israel already is one of the largest recipients of the Pentagon's grants and low-interest loans for foreign nations' arms purchases.
The administration also is siding with arms contractors who have been lobbying for restoration of government authority -- unavailable since the late 1970s -- to underwrite up to $1 billion in arms sales abroad. The proposal, if approved by Congress, would permit the Export-Import Bank to guarantee commercial bank loans made to overseas buyers of U.S.-made arms.
Administration spokesmen insist there's no conflict with its stated aim of limiting arms sales to the Third World. The guarantees, they say, would be available only to the NATO allies, Japan, Israel and Australia, unless -- a very big unless -- the president found it in the national interest to include other nations.
Those spokesmen must be kidding. Only a few years ago, President Reagan found it in the national interest to sell arms to Iran. U.S. weapons sold to legally authorized countries, moreover, often have been resold to unauthorized third parties.
Any way you look at it, the Bush proposal would encourage the proliferation of weapons -- including high-tech weapons, perhaps ultimately to Third World nations.
How can that help Bush build that stable new world order to which he pays such ardent lip service?