WASHINGTON. — Washington -- The revelation that a North Korean ship bearing Scud-C missiles was able to evade American surveillance in the Persian Gulf is embarrassing to the American military. Far more significant, however, is the fact that the U.S. would not have stopped those missiles had the ship been found. As a result, North Korea and others may now believe that they are free to ship any and all arms to the Middle East with impunity.
The sad truth is that there may be no effective way to prevent renegade states from subverting efforts at arms control apart from forcefully restricting the flow of arms -- a course virtually certain to bring international opprobrium. The United States eschewed such a course last week. But it may have to revisit this decision in the future if faced with the prospective spread of even more devastating weapons of mass destruction.
Until now, American attempts to control the Mideast arms race have concentrated on three avenues: embargoing arms sales to Iraq, pursuing a Middle East Arms Control Initiative, and bringing Arabs and Israelis together to discuss regional security.
These efforts continue. But despite arms-control rhetoric, most Middle Eastern states have been buying as many arms as their budgets permit. Syria has committed up to $2 billion for force expansion and modernization. Iran has purchased advanced fighter aircraft and missiles. Saudi Arabia wants to buy 75 F-15 aircraft. Nuclear-technology programs are reportedly under way in Iran, Algeria and Syria.
Moreover, outside arms suppliers are fueling the armaments race in the Middle East. The United States itself has announced the sale of more than $6 billion in arms transfers to the region in the 10 months since President Bush announced his arms-control initiative.
It is obviously preferable to work through diplomatic means to prevent destabilizing arms sales. But diplomatic approaches cannot guarantee success. More than any diplomacy, the tacit American threat to board the North Korean ship, under authority of the U.N. embargo of Iraq, represented an important ratcheting-up of pressure. Not only did it provide increased exposure for the sale, but it signaled to all concerned that the United States may take more serious measures to derail destabilizing arms sales.
At the same time, the U.N. embargo provided insufficient rationale for stopping this sale. North Korea was well within its legal rights to sell advanced missiles to Syria, and the U.S. had no well established legal recourse to intercept it. Had it used force to prevent the sale, it would have violated international legal norms and have been accused of hypocrisy -- especially given the increase in American arms sales to the Middle East.
A U.S. decision to prevent the Scud-C sale would, therefore, have represented an unusual expansion of international law based on the determination that this sale was inherently harmful to American national interests or to regional stability. Intercepting Syrian-bound missiles would have been somewhat akin to the ''quarantine'' that the United States established on Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis and would have resembled British measures to halt the slave trade on the high seas in earlier times.
Clearly, an American policy to stop such arms sales by force would represent a new -- and probably risky -- approach to the post-Cold War international order. It would base arms control on the premise that potential aggressors will not be allowed to purchase certain dangerous categories of weapons, that states likely to act in an aggressive manner cannot use the cloak of international law and sovereignty to protect their ability to procure the means of aggression. It would require a normative, ++ precedent-making approach to international law and a willingness on the part of the United States to accept international condemnation in pursuit of assertive arms control.
President Bush has apparently rejected this course. But if not with this sale, then at some future point the United States will again face the fateful choice between the hope for a more stable balance of power in the Middle East and a status quo in international law that makes stabilizing arms-control regimes almost impossible.
Marvin Feuerwerger is a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as first secretary to the American embassy in Israel until 1989.