Peace Woes in the Arms Bazaar

September 10, 1993

What if they had a real peace party in the Middle East and everybody (or just about everybody) came? This would be a glorious occasion after almost a century of struggle for a secure Jewish state. The prospect of mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestinians is an event even transcending the opening of relations between Israel and Egypt. If Syria, Jordan and Lebanon join the festivities, this is the stuff of dreams.

But also of nightmares for the arms merchants of the world. Peddling armaments in the Middle East bazaar has been big, big business for years. And the United States, despite hypocritical declarations of good intentions, has been the biggest salesman of them all.

From the end of the gulf war in February 1991 to the end of 1992, U.S. arms sales to the volatile region rocketed to $30 billion. They continue. With the demise of the Soviet Union, no longer can such trafficking be justified as a counter-measure to the Communist threat. Nor can a defeated Saddam Hussein be considered a present danger. Yes, there is a continuing need to recycle petrodollars. But the gut reason is jobs, jobs, JOBS, JOBS.

In no part of the Third World do military expenditures come even close to the sums spent in the over-armed Middle East. Regional military expenditures in 1991 amounted to 13.9 percent of GNP, compared to 4.7 percent in the rest of the world. This is ten times the per capita expenditures in Latin America. Of the $8 billion Saudi Arabia spent in 1991, which was tops in the Third World, $5.6 billion went to the United States. Figuring into this mammoth total was the sale of 72 F-15 fighter bombers, a $9 billion contract endorsed by both presidential candidates in 1992.

Michael Hudson, a professor of Arab studies at Georgetown University, told Reuters news agency a year ago that the only things that could slow down this dangerous trend would be "a peace agreement or such a bad economic turndown that even the oil countries couldn't afford jets and missiles." Well, the peace agreement is on the horizon if not yet within reach. And even Saudi Arabia is reporting that its supposedly boundless riches have hit a wall because of lavish expenditures on arms and luxuries. Throughout the region there is a crying need to switch priorities from swords to plowshares.

If arms orders start to decline, this would add to the woes of a U.S. defense industry already reeling from cutbacks in Pentagon spending on U.S. forces. Foreign arms sales account for more than 15 percent of its total revenues. A congressional study estimated that an international agreement to limit arms transfers to the Middle East could cost U.S. arms-makers about $3 billion a year.

So President Clinton faces a dilemma. He is caught between domestic pressure to stimulate the U.S. economy and international pressure for arms control leadership by this country. He should lean to the latter, and may have little choice to do otherwise if peace takes off in the Middle East.

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