Middle East Arms Curbs

May 31, 1991

Can the nations that have armed the Middle East to the teeth, with billions of benefits for their own weapons manufacturers, now muster the political will and the moral chutzpah to slow the flow, if not turn off the spigot? This question haunts President Bush's proposal to freeze or ban weapons of mass destruction in the region and restrain the supply of conventional armaments.

Whether the United States can make any more headway in this field than in its frustrated efforts to deal with the Palestinian problem and Arab-Israeli tensions will depend initially on the outcome of Mr. Bush's call for an early meeting of the main Mideast arms suppliers: the Soviet Union, the U.S., France, China and Britain -- in that order.

These nations, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, bring a sorry record to this new arms control enterprise. It is hardware they have supplied that led Mr. Bush to declare "nowhere are the dangers of weapons proliferation more urgent than in the Middle East." Between 1979 and 1988, 41 percent of all sales from all suppliers worldwide went to the region. No wonder it was the scene of the Iran-Iraq war and the explosive Iraqi effort to seize Kuwait.

Wars do have a way of shaking conventional thinking. The issue now is whether the sobering experience of the Persian Gulf conflict will jolt both the suppliers and buyers of arms to reconsider where real security lies. The signs are mixed. On the supply side, the Bush administration announced in March it is considering $23 billion in arms sales to five Mideast nations. Other suppliers, seeking customers as the post-Cold War era curbs domestic demand for arms, are also eager sellers. On the demand side, Israel is committed to building up its missile defenses after having been hit by Iraqi Scuds. Arab allies of the U.S. have long shopping lists. There remains, too, Israel's reliance on a nuclear deterrent to Arab superiority in military manpower and conventional arms.

Several members of Congress, mainly Democrats, have called for a unilateral U.S. ban on conventional weapons sales to the region as a means of prodding other big suppliers into forming what might be called an arms control cartel. Instead, Mr. Bush contented himself with his appeal for a Big Five conference while citing "the legitimate need of every state to defend itself" -- a huge loophole in a minimalist approach.

He also described creation of a nuclear-free zone as an end goal when it more appropriately should stand near the head of the list. There are, of course, complications. Israel insists on state-to-state inspection of nuclear facilities as a means of obtaining greater Arab recognition while the Arabs seek U.N. oversight.

If these and other complications cannot be overcome when memories of the gulf war are fresh, there is little hope for peace over the longer run.

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