The Arms Brothel

JONATHAN POWER

November 20, 1992|By JONATHAN POWER

London. -- Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher initiated the policy of selling Saddam Hussein the materials of war, even nuclear war, in the hope of bolstering him against Iran -- and, in Britain's case, to save its machine-tool industry from extinction.

Now as the scandal on both sides of the Atlantic begins to see the full light of day, it's being hung around the neck of the hapless John Major, who was a bit player. Nevertheless, he is likely to be forced to resign, once the judicial inquiry just announced makes its report.

There will be nothing to grieve about. One only wishes the dirt had surfaced earlier, in time to stop the build-up of Mr. Hussein's war machine, and in time to make Messrs. Reagan and Bush and Mrs. Thatcher suffer the punishment that Mr. Major alone will bear.

The arms-sales business is rotting the guts of Western society. America, Britain and France, in particular, have demonstrated, time and time again, that they will make any compromise if it means earning the foreign exchange and maintaining the industries and jobs that arms exports provide. The defense invariably is that arms sales are necessary, either for legitimate self-defense or to maintain a regional military balance. In Mr. Hussein's case it was to use Iraq to keep Iran, regarded as a proselytizing, pushy, power-hungry nation, in its place.

Yet if Iran was ever a threat to Western interests in the Middle East, it is even more so today. It remains the one outstanding militant opponent to a Middle East peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Nevertheless, the West has indulged in a binge of selling Iran ''dual-use'' equipment -- high-tech items that can be turned relatively easily from civilian to military application. Only very recently has new legislation in the U.S. made it possible to block ''dual-use,'' advanced-technology exports to Iran.

The effort to bring Europe and Japan into line appears to have got nowhere. Iran is doing everything Iraq did without either serious inhibition or constraint -- developing a modern armory, including submarines (bought from Russia), well-equipped airfields in every corner of the country, chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

The balance-of-power argument just doesn't wash. It is sometimes a makeweight, but the bigger reason is short-term profiteering. It was Lord Owen, now Europe's mediator in Yugoslavia, then Britain's foreign secretary, who during the 1970s oil-price boom described to me with his customary frankness the paramount motivation for Western arms sales to the Middle East: ''It is recycling petrodollars. How else could we get them back so easily?''

To his credit, Owen's earlier experience did not stop him arguing before the U.N. Security Council last week (along with Cy Vance, the former U.S. Secretary of State and now the U.N.'s Yugoslavia mediator) against lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia. Critics say the embargo puts the beleaguered Muslims at a disadvantage in the face of the better armed (but also embargoed) Serbs and Croats.

All the evidence suggests that arms sales don't bring peace or stability, they merely ratchet up the degree of violence. A recent study of 10 major conflicts, carried out by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, shows convincingly that arms sales exacerbate political instability, rather than anchor or secure it. If outside powers wish to contribute to regional conflict resolution and peace making, the better course is to embargo those they fear as troublemakers, rather than aid their supposed victims with a muscle-building exercise.

Belatedly, this obvious rubric is now being applied to ex-Yugoslavia and to Iraq. But why not to Iran?

Will Bill Clinton try to do what Jimmy Carter started but failed to complete, an international negotiation among the major arms sellers on limits? Zbigniew Brzezinski, Mr. Carter's national-security adviser, torpedoed these talks from within, just the Soviet Union was responding, because he didn't want America's hands tied in the Middle East.

If Mr. Clinton, the only Western leader with unsoiled hands, doesn't give this visible priority, the arms merchants will assume, as they correctly have after every previous scandal, that the West's bookkeepers need them too much to give their business much more than a slap on the wrist.

Perhaps Lenin was right: If you give the capitalists enough rope they will hang themselves. If the demise of Prime Minister Major's government doesn't concentrate minds, then perhaps the arrival the first Iranian nuclear suitcase bomb in a New York railroad station will do it.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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