Arms Deal under Fire: The Proposed Sale of Multibillion Dollar Advanced US Air-to-Air Missiles and Other Systems to Egypt and Jordan Is Causing Some Bad Dreams in Washington and Tel Aviv

Article excerpt

WHEN GEORGE W. BUSH started dishing out weapons to friendly Arab states, and anyone else that joined the Americans in the war against global terrorism, many in Congress were aghast. "God help us if Hosni Mubarak falls or gets shot, because every weapon we ever sold him will be used against us," one congressional aide famously wailed.

Bush's largesse was not welcomed in Israel either, particularly when it came to Egypt; Camp David peace treaty or no, US military aid to Cairo is a sore point with Israel. But, since it was a US reward for being the first Arab state to make peace with Israel, there isn't much the generals in Tel Aviv can do about it, except complain every time Washington sells President Mubarak a hot new weapons system.

Right now, Israel is trying to block the sale of advanced US air-to-air missiles and other systems to Egypt and Jordan, while the pro-Israel lobby tried in July to have the House of Representatives slash the $1.3bn in US military aid Egypt gets every year by $570m.

That move was stymied by some arm-twisting by national security advisor Condoleeza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell. He warned that cutting back military aid would damage relations with Cairo "at a very sensitive moment in the region". The big US defence contractors, of course, did all they could to steer Congress away from impeding their lucrative business in selling US financed weaponry to Cairo. Nonetheless, the debate brought out highly ambivalent feelings about Egypt. Congressman Tom Lantos, a California Democrat and a staunch supporter of Israel, was the driving force behind the amendment to the Foreign Aid Bill to switch military aid for Egypt to economic assistance. Washington has provided military aid totalling some $30bn since the 1979 peace treaty and Egypt has used this to modernise its forces, converting from Soviet-era equipment to US weaponry and doctrine.

Lantos noted: "It is clearly in the interest of the Egyptian people whose prime needs at the moment are in the educational and medical fields and not in additional high-tech weaponry ... The last thing this society needs is the ultimate in high-tech weaponry."

Israel's supporters in the House, led by Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican and the Jewish state's most fervent loyalist in Congress, used the debate to berate the Cairo government for tolerating "anti-Semitism", dragging its feet in the war against terrorism and failing to curb arms smuggling to Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

But at the bottom of this post-September 2001 shift in attitude in Washington spurred on by the Israelis, who do not want to see Arabs get the increasingly sophisticated weaponry they are now requesting from the US is the growing concern that Islamist extremists, or others hostile to the US, could take over in key Muslim countries.

It's a measure of the concern in Washington that the regimes in "friendly" countries, are under threat as never before. The way Americans view these regimes has undergone profound change since 9/11 and the sudden desire to turn them into respectable democracies has made these regimes feel even more threatened than they probably are by Islamic zealots.

Nonetheless, on 24 July, John Lehman, a member of the commission that investigated the 9/11 disaster and a secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan, warned that the threat of Islamists seizing power in Pakistan is real and "could fundamentally change the balance of security in the world".

The Saudis have bought tens of billions of dollars' worth of US weapons over the last three decades and Pakistan, once again a US ally, is the recipient of growing US military aid for its increasingly muscular campaign against Islamic extremists. But, just as Saudi Arabia is under threat from Osama bin Laden and his followers, Pakistan faces a growing internal threat from its Islamic hardliners who violently oppose his support for the Americans. …