WASHINGTON -- Arms experts gave limited praise to President Bush's proposal to curb arms shipments to the Middle East, but they said that it would not put an end to the kind of arms race that helped touch off the Persian Gulf war.
Jack Mendelsohn, executive director of the non-partisan Arms Control Association, said, "The president's efforts are encouraging, but they leave a lot of room for everyone, including the United States, to continue selling arms to the Middle East. The loopholes are big enough to drive an M-1 tank through."
Andrew Pierre, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggested that Bush "put his vision into practice and declare a moratorium, a pause, in our own sale of arms to the Middle East."
Bush proposed yesterday that the five major Security Council nations, the largest suppliers of arms to the Middle East, meet to agree on voluntary "guidelines on conventional arms exports." But the president added that the United States and others should continue "supporting the legitimate need of every state to defend itself.
"Every nation, including Iraq, has claimed that it buys arms to defend themselves," said Mendelsohn. The Soviets and the United States were primary suppliers of the major weapons Saddam Hussein used to invade Kuwait and threaten Israel.
According to Pierre and other sources, former Warsaw Pact member Czechoslovakia has 5,500 major weapons, including 1,500 tanks, it now wants to sell -- to Iran and Syria, among others. And its thriving arms industry, which employs 80,000 people, has an order from Syria for 250 tanks. Despite American pressure, the sales are pending.