Strauss assails U.S. flexibility on arms sales

November 19, 1992|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Robert S. Strauss criticized his own government yesterday for a double standard on arms sales.

He said the policy of selling arms, especially in volatile regions, can only undermine efforts to dissuade Russia from selling its own weapons abroad.

His blunt comments highlighted an issue that is expected to confront the incoming Clinton administration as it struggles to balance the pressure on U.S. manufacturers created by a declining Pentagon budget against a need to control weapons sales worldwide.

The issue came to a head recently when the United States failed to prevent Russia's sale of two diesel submarines to Iran, one of which already has arrived in the Persian Gulf.

Russia defended the sale as necessary to provide hard currency. Its officials also claimed that the submarine sale would not seriously affect the regional power balance -- using the same argument made by U.S. officials to justify arms sales.

Mr. Strauss, who lobbied in Moscow against the sale, relayed the Russians' view of U.S. hypocrisy in remarks that made clear he thought they had a strong case.

"The Russians are getting tired" of hearing Americans try to tell them what they can and can't do when the American attitude is one of 'Don't do as I do, do as I say,' " Mr. Strauss said.

U.S. own arms sales to the Middle East undercut its argument, he said, in an obvious reference to President Bush's announcement during the campaign of a major sale of F-15 jets to Saudi Arabia. The sale helped preserve jobs in Missouri.

To suggest that it was politically necessary for Mr. Bush cuts no ice with Russian leaders facing constant political heat as a result of their country's desperate economic straits, he indicated.

The submarine sales may in fact have a positive benefit in focusing world attention on the need for greater international efforts by the seven leading industrialized democracies to control arms sales in a coordinated way, he said. He said the Group of Seven or some other world body "needs to sit down and deal with" the question.

Mr. Strauss was speaking on his last full day as ambassador before rejoining his high-profile Washington law firm.

He responded to a question about Russia's arms sales during a breakfast with reporters that featured a sweeping rundown of problems facing the former Soviet Union, concluding that they are "survivable . . . but only if the West gives them a hand."

The former Democratic national chairman said the United States has a selfish interest in Russia's success.

The choice is not between a strong or weak Russia, but between a strong Russia that is democratic and part of the civilized world or one that is not, he said.

It also offers "the damnedest market in the world," he said.

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