Weapons Business As Usual


May 02, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

Washington -- A lawyer I know, prefacing his remarks by

saying he was making no moral judgments - do they ever? said that the gulf war was a good thing, that it would be a real shot in the arm for American business. ''Why?'' said I.

''Weapons,'' he said. ''We've got the best in the world, and everybody saw that. They'll all want them. We've got something to sell now.''

President Bush agrees, making no moral judgments either, and is urging American arms manufacturers to cash in on the free advertising broadcast during the short war. Get out there and cut that trade deficit!

Perhaps we have found an economic cycle we can live with, a logical if lethal extension of supply-side economics: Sell arms to the lunatic leaders of small countries, then declare them a threat to world order and pulverize them with state-of-the-art weapons, creating new markets for the new stuff, including the resupply of the countries destroyed.

The world wants first-rate weapons: American weapons. Who are we to deprive them? This could be a fairness issue.

This is the white man's new burden. It will be the yellow man's, too, if the Japanese go back into the arms business. That seems a real possibility in terms of economics and Japan's long-range interest dealing with a militarily assertive United States. If you were running Japan, would you sit back while an economically frustrated United States was both the world's chief of police and chief arms supplier?

This is not all our fault. Many leaders of poorer or developing countries, both dictators and democrats, demand weaponry above all usually to aim at their nearest neighbors or their own people.

Pakistan can be used as a model here. Under dictators and democrats, with more than half its population illiterate, Pakistan has been spending something like one-quarter of its budgets on defense, with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and loans from the United States. Most of those dollars ended up right back in the United States, payment for jets and missiles and even components for nuclear weapon development we have pretended was not happening.

Can anything be done about the profitable proliferation of

military technology? Yes, if the United States and other rich countries really wanted to do something about it.

The rich countries' clubs, the lenders of last resort for poor countries, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, met here last week. The IMF and the bank provide loans for poor countries and, in return, demand ''economic reforms'' a euphemism for more free-market capitalism.

To get the credits, the borrowers have to meet IMF-dictated reforms. Usually that means both higher taxes and sharp reductions in government employment and vaguely socialist spending, especially for subsidies that promote domestic tranquillity, keeping down gasoline and food prices, or for free education or health care.

But the IMF has traditionally stayed away from dictating reductions in even the most irrational military spending. So there are many countries where governments are more willing to double bread and cooking-oil prices than they are to buy one less American tank to use in bread riots.

There is no secret about this. In the last month, Michel Camdessus, the managing director of the IMF, and Robert McNamara, the reformed American defense spender who served president of the World Bank, have brought up linkage between rich-country credits and defense spending in borrower nations.

Mr. McNamara argued that the need for weapons in poorer countries could be reduced by collective security agreements guaranteed by the United Nations and regional treaty organizations in other words, a new world order.

''Why shouldn't the arms-exporting countries impose on themselves a common discipline?'' said Mr. Camdessus. ''To be more precise, couldn't they study carefully the possibility of a ban on export credits for arms sales to the Middle East? . . . Think of the harmful consequences of excessive spending on arms for the budgets, balances of payments and the debt situation of many developing countries . . .''

They could if they wanted, but it would take the consent and leadership of the United States. First my friend the lawyer and President Bush have to decide whether they consider weapons as instruments of death or just a good business.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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