President Bush, seeking to buy votes, has recently approved massive sales of two of America's most advanced combat aircraft to two global trouble spots.
While the sales will grant a temporary reprieve to some worker-voters facing imminent pink slips, the dangerous consequences they unleash will last far longer than the jobs they save.
The sales -- 150 F-16 fighters to Taiwan and 72 F-15 "Strike Eagle" fighter bombers to Saudi Arabia -- signal Mr. Bush's abandonment of his post-gulf war commitment to curb destabilizing arms sales to the Middle East.
They also deal a death blow to the arms control discussions begun at that time among the five permanent members of the Security Council. Already, in response to the $5.8 billion Taiwan sale, China has announced it will not take part in the next meeting of the five.
The other members, who are also our major competitors in the arms market, must wonder what exactly we mean by "controlling" the Mideast arms race. Since the talks were initiated in May 1991, the United States has sold (including this $9 billion sale to Saudi Arabia) more than $22 billion of arms to the region.
Not only is the dollar volume of the Saudi sale alarming, but also the nature of the weapons involved. The Strike Eagle is primarily a ground-attack system -- one of the world's most capable -- and was used in hundreds of bombing missions by the U.S. Air Force against Iraq. Because it can carry 12 tons of laser-guided "smart" bombs and missiles more than 1,000 miles and deliver them with pinpoint precision, it has never before been exported to any country.
Iraq and Iran are cited as immediate threats to Saudi Arabia, necessitating that these aircraft be sold now. But there is less military threat from the two now than there has been in years.
Iraq's mischief-making capability was decimated by the war and is still being dismantled by the United Nations. Baghdad is subject to a very strict arms embargo, likely to remain in force for some time.
While Iran is alleged by the State Department to be in the midst of "a destabilizing arms build-up," it is replenishing its arsenal after an eight-year war with Iraq at a far less dramatic pace than Saudi Arabia is acquiring arms. Saudi Arabia received more than $54 billion of advanced American, British and French weapons in the past eight years, while Iran bought a comparatively scant $16 billion worth of third-rate weapons.
Forestalling the emergence of a heavily-armed Iran should be a priority of American, Saudi and Israeli foreign policies. But after this F-15 sale, Iran will certainly go shopping for compensatory arms, and will likely look to Russia for its supplies.
Russia has lately been offering its top-of-the-line equipment for sale at international "arms bazaars," most notably the Backfire strategic-range heavy bomber.
The United States has little credibility demanding that cash-starved Russia forgo lucrative sales to Iran when it has just made a $9 billion deal with Saudi Arabia.
Normally, a sale of such magnitude to an Arab country would encounter strong opposition from Israel and its friends in Congress. But Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, publicly acquiesced two weeks ago, signaling that the time was right for the president to send the sale to Congress. Taking its cue from Mr. Rabin, scarcely a peep has been heard from the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has scored a number of kills against arms sales to Arab states in the past.
Israel will undoubtedly be compensated for not raising a fuss; it is currently negotiating with the administration for enhanced military assistance.
Because Egypt's military aid is pegged to Israel's, their aid, too, will likely be upped. This means that the F-15 sale will end up directly costing the U.S. taxpayers money, while the Middle East arms race is further intensified.
Preserving jobs is an important national consideration, but the .. arms industry is going through an inevitable and necessary contraction. The only long-term solution is planning and financial assistance to promote conversion of defense to civilian industry. Instead of allowing reckless and provocative arms sales to go forward, Congress should block these sales and support conversion measures such as those contained in the defense authorization bill pending in the Senate.
Laura Lumpe edits the monthly Arms Sales Monitor published by the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. She wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.