The World's Armorer


Mountain View, California. -- Commerce Secretary Ron Brown has become an aggressive advocate of overseas arms sales as a way to counter widening trade deficits and mild cuts in Pentagon spending.

His rationale, in part, is the Clinton administration's emphasis on ''dual-use'' technologies -- those with both military and civilian applications -- as a strategy for defense ''conversion.'' As the dividing line between military and commercial technologies becomes ever more blurred, the Commerce Department becomes more involved in arms sales.

Mr. Brown has made trips to Saudi Arabia and France to pitch defense products, and has stated that his goal is ''to ensure that U.S. industries, including defense companies, . . . are poised to take advantage of appropriate business opportunities worldwide.''

The Commerce Department's aggressive support for overseas arms sales is just one part of a full-court press by the administration to expand on the U.S. role as the world's largest arms dealer.

The Pentagon plans to sell off billions of dollars worth of slightly used military equipment at cut-rate prices and use the money to buy new and improved weapons systems.

The State Department has instructed American embassies to hawk more U.S. weapons overseas; this summer, U.S. companies will participate for the first time in Eurosatory, the world's largest arms bazaar.

President Clinton has approved a new Export Administration Act that will significantly roll back restrictions on the export of sensitive technologies, including those that could be used to build ballistic missiles and other weapons.

The strategy has already chalked up results: Last year, the United States accounted for nearly 60 percent of all arms sales to Third World countries, more than all other nations combined. Overall, U.S. arms sales in 1993 were more than $31 billion, compared with just more than $12 billion in 1991.

Not to be outdone, Congress recently passed legislation that would increase the amount in loan guarantees -- now roughly $7 billion per year -- for arms exports.

The bill's defense-industry backers originally tried to get the program funded with some of the $20 billion President Clinton has earmarked for defense conversion over the next five years. The increase is still without funding; Mr. Clinton chose not to seek money for it this year, but administration officials have hinted that he is likely to do so next year.

The fixation on overseas arms sales reflects a harsh dual reality: After decades of lavish federal funding, military technology is one of our most exportable commodities; conversely, many defense firms, especially the aerospace behemoths, are ill-equipped for the competitive commercial marketplace. For these dinosaurs, selling abroad is their best hope for survival.

But the dangers of increased arms traffic far outweigh the benefits of retaining defense jobs. Such sales only serve to escalate regional arms races, posing greater threats to both American and global security.

Government assurances that weapons will be sold only to ''friendly'' nations ignore the fact that doing so inevitably provokes the potential adversaries of those countries to engage in their own arms buildups. And our continued domination of the world weapons market seriously undermines our attempts to discourage others' sales to troublesome countries.

The most ironic aspect of all this is that the economic justifications don't hold much water. While a few defense companies will prosper, the taxpayer-supported subsidies greatly detract from the benefits to the nation as a whole.

So do the now-standard ''offset'' agreements, in which defense firms shift some work -- jobs that Americans would have done -- to purchasing countries to help defray the costs of the weapons. We also lose some of our technological edge in these transfers. The Pentagon then demands higher defense spending in order to regain the edge and counter the threats to American security created by those very same arms sales.

This self-sustaining racket conspires to keep the bulk of our national wealth tied up in bloated defense budgets and away from the domestic technologies in which we so desperately need to invest, such as renewable energy development, mass transit and environmental restoration.

The effect on developing nations is even worse. When impoverished nations spend their scarce resources on weapons -- which they are doing at an alarming rate, thanks to Uncle Sam -- their people go without food, clean water or medical care. Often those weapons are used against the people when they attempt to express their grievances; 90 percent of all U.S. arms sales are to non-elected governments and dictatorships, yet in polls, Americans are nearly unanimous in their opposition to selling weapons to such regimes.

Clearly, the pursuit of more arms sales abroad is a cynical policy and a costly substitute for genuine defense conversion. The Commerce Department has a key role to play in helping arms makers find new civilian products and missions, not merely new customers to take up the slack in Pentagon spending.

It should focus more on its commendable Advanced Technology Program, which assists businesses in developing new, strictly commercial technology, rather than on propping up an outsized and outmoded military-industrial base by arming the world to the teeth.

Bruce Allen is director of communications for the Center for Economic Conversion in Mountain View, California. Michael Closson is the center's executive director. They wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

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