Guns Don't Care Who Uses Them


October 10, 1992|By DANIEL BERGER

Whoever said, ''Guns don't kill, people do,'' was not thinking about nations. (Probably not about people, either.)

Starting with Tito's defiance of Stalin in the late 1940s, American policy was to see that Yugoslavia was armed for self-defense. Yugoslavia became an armed giant for its size, too intimidating for the masters of the Kremlin to want to take on. The policy worked. Helping Yugoslavia arm to the teeth was a successful peace-keeping measure as long as the Cold War lasted.

But now look. The artillery that deterred Brezhnev is destroying Sarajevo. The machine guns that barred Russians are destroying the young manhood of Muslim Bosnia in one prison camp atrocity after another.

Ostensibly the Yugoslav army is not involved. Its equipment is, in the hands of so-called Serbian militia within the republics of Bosnia and Croatia.

Look at Iraq. U.S. policy for years was to see that Iraq did not lose the war it started with Iran in 1980, that it was armed to deter Iran from moving across the Persian Gulf, that it was strengthened as a counterweight to Iran.

None of this was based on delusions about the character of Saddam Hussein's regime. It was power politics based on the larger danger seen in Iran's resources and revolutionary zeal.

Part of Iran's power, of course, had been built up by the U.S. when the shah ruled as our sturdy ally. When he fell, the weapons changed sides. Iraq's secular dictatorship appeared attractive as an instrument for holding them in check.

The mighty military machine we helped provide to deter Iran, Saddam Hussein used to invade Kuwait. Eventually, U.S. planes and tanks were called in to destroy much of it. But not all.

The surviving portion is used internally today to murder Iraqi Kurds -- to the extent the U.S. allows -- and Iraqi Shiite Muslims.

These operations may be atrocities and border on genocidal intent. But until recently it was U.S. policy, as well as Saddam Hussein's, to keep Iraq a unitary country.

Somalia was armed by Moscow as a client state. After the Ethiopian revolution, Moscow dropped Somalia for Ethiopia as a better prize. That made Somalia's dictatorship, which Washington had always denounced, available as a U.S. client. No improvement in character was required, only that Somalia become our counterweight to Soviet surrogates in Ethiopia.

In the Somalian revolution of 1991, the armed forces vanished. Their weapons went to rival clan militia and bandit gangs that are today the only government Somalia has. Fortunately, the more sophisticated stuff is believed to be in hopeless disrepair.

Nonetheless, the mortars and machine guns and armored vehicles that the Soviet Union provided and the United States supported are used today to enforce starvation of Somalis. These weapons shoot at relief ships and planes and hijack food trucks and extort ordinary people.

Throughout the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the U.S. armed Afghan insurgent exiles in Pakistan to fight the Communists and zTC Russians. Some did. The largest part of U.S. military aid went to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami (Party of Islam) to fight the Communists.

Mr. Hekmatyar held weaponry back from the fight against the Communists to use against his real enemy, the other Islamic rebel groups. He stayed out of the coalition interim regime that rules Kabul and uses his U.S. artillery to shell his fellow anti-Communist Afghans. The armaments we sent to save the Afghan nation are used today to dismember it and sow anarchy.

Most American security aid, it must be said, retains its purpose and is never fired in anger. But some escapes. Governments change or fall; generals sell to the highest bidder; U.S. interests change while the weapons' targeting does not.

While the regimes just mentioned would be as murderous in intent under any circumstance, the weapons they possess determine their policies. The post-Cold War world is as anarchic as the streets of American cities and the proliferation and escalation in hardware has the same effect in one setting as the other.

Whoever is elected president November 3 will face regions of chaos in which weapons proliferation, from sidearms to nuclear-tipped ICBMs, is the paramount problem.

And compounding it will be the world recession, which provokes weapons producers of all sorts to sell, sell, sell. Some of the producers particularly vulnerable to unemployment and therefore tempted to do the wrong thing are Russia, China, Slovakia and the United States. That's a rough bunch for any president to try to set straight.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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