LONDON — London. -- There were the ''Irangate'' arms deals, and there may or not have been an ''October Surprise,'' by which the Reagan campaign allegedly dickered with Iran on the timing of the release of American hostages in return for arms. We are beginning to hear of ''Saddamgate,'' the charge that President Bush, turned a blind eye to all sorts of goings on in Iraq, not least the diversion of U.S. agricultural credits to buy arms.
This is the way the arms bazaar is conducted today -- with a kind of single-minded, no-holds-barred, huckstering by any means necessary. As Lt. Gen. Teddy Allen, director of the Pentagon's defense assistance agency, said the other day, arms sales are ''the only growth industry in town.''
The Gulf War was supposed to have given everyone pause. As the allied troop build-up was under way in Saudi Arabia, in August 1990, Secretary of State James Baker said on television, ''I do think it's worth looking at, in the future, arms-sales practices and policies. . . . We should have been more concerned about this, perhaps going further back.'' He went on to argue that the confrontation with Iraq ''may provide a good lesson in that regard.''
What lesson? Within a month of this frank admission, the Bush Administration announced a record $20 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia.
The war won, Bush addressed a joint session of Congress on March 6 last year. Arms-sales controls, he said, were one of four key post-war goals. But within two weeks the administration announced that it had a new $1 billion plan to use the Export-Import Bank to subsidize foreign arms sales.
After years of sharing primacy with the Soviet Union, the U.S. is now uncontestably the world's top arms pusher. Still, on the matter of policy contradictions, it is probably overtaken by France. French arms sales allowed Saddam Hussein's forces to have a more advanced model of its fighter-bomber than did France's own forces in the Persian Gulf.
Britain's Prime Minister John Major has persuaded the U.N. to keep a register of arms sales -- the one ''do-good'' initiative that could be taken with the least impact on sales.
China has been criticized by the West for its unrestrained selling of missiles and technology. But in fact only China in the new Big Five talks on conventional arms sales has suggested concrete limits on the total volume of arms sales sold to regions like the Middle East.
In Cold War days the rationale for refusing to countenance limits was the competition from the Soviet Union. What argument can there be today? Iraq is defeated. The Middle East nations are engaged in peace talks. North Korea has agreed to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This is surely the time to agree on major controls.
Economic pressures appear to be driving arms sales forward. McDonnell Douglas, in its campaign to win approval for the sale of advanced F-15s to Saudi Arabia, published a glossy brochure and a video claiming the sale would create 40,000 new jobs, bring in $3 billion in tax revenue and benefit the economy of 45 states and 344 Congressional districts.
Nevertheless, there are one or two encouraging signs. Japan and Germany have both said they will reduce foreign aid to countries that are spending more on the military than deemed ''sufficient'' for defense purposes. If Washington, Paris and London are looking for a place to emulate this policy they could start with Thailand, a country that has never fought a war and is threatened by no outsiders but keeps an army of 12 divisions in place, for reasons all too apparent this past week.
Robert McNamara, the former U.S. defense secretary, has been lobbying for the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to make a country's level of military spending an explicit condition of receiving assistance. But at their joint annual meeting in Bangkok last October both institutions, while suggesting they will raise the issue in discussions with borrowers, said they wouldn't insist on it.
This must change. So too must state subsidies for arms sales. We were promised better if the Cold War ended. It has. We were promised serious review after the Gulf War. It has not happened. We have, in short, been badly deceived -- probably because arms sales make a lot of people rich.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.