In the full flush of victory after Operation Desert Storm, President Bush told a joint session of Congress: "It would be tragic if the nations of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf were now, in the wake of war, to embark on a new arms race."
Tragic it might be, but the race is on.
Iran is buying at least two newly built Russian attack submarines for the purpose of trying to control the Strait of Hormuz, the choke point in and out of the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia, in turn, wants to buy 24 McDonnell Douglas F-15E fighters to transform its air force into an outfit that could, presumably, take out those Iranian subs.
Note the symmetry: The United States and Russia, the world's biggest arms merchants, are doing a lot of business with Iran and Saudi Arabia, the world's two biggest arms purchasers. And none of the parties involved has the slightest interest in giving up this deadly business.
Officials in the various republics of the former Soviet Union are peddling conventional weaponry wherever there's a market that can come up with hard currency. They have minimal interest in their old ideological soft-currency backwaters. But the oil-rich Middle East beckons with that special allure that others in the game find irresistible. Arabs versus Israelis, Iranians versus Iraqis, the possibilities are endless -- and so are the order books.
The U.S. military-industrial complex is not in the chaotic tailspin of its erstwhile Soviet competitors. But with the Pentagon budget falling, American arms salesmen are prowling for customers -- and not just in the Middle East. Things are upside down in the Indian subcontinent. India reportedly is now so fearful of Soviet spare parts shortages that it may turn to the United States. Pakistan, somewhat cut off from U.S. weaponry because of its suspected nuclear arms program, is relying more heavily than ever on China and may turn to Russia and related republics.
Morality and friendship mean little in the arms trade. Lies and double-dealing and money-making mean a lot. Arms trafficking totaled $41.3 billion in 1990, according to U.S. sources, and there is no indication the dawn of the "New World Order" is going to slash that amount suddenly or drastically.
The international community remains more focused on trying to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. This may be wise considering the stakes involved. But the world is so littered with conventional arms of ever-increasing sophistication that violence and mayhem are a real and constant danger almost everywhere. No matter how discouraging the prospects may be, no matter how much hypocrisy it will generate, no matter how many billions in arms sales could be lost, civilized governments have an obligation to discipline themselves.
It would indeed be tragic if the end of the Cold War and the gulf war were to set off a whole series of arms races around this defiled and lovely planet.