A Realistic Path to Mideast Arms Control President Bush's Proposal Is a Good First Step, but Needs Some Modifications to Clear the Region's Political Hurdles

Article excerpt

PRESIDENT Bush proposed in his recent speech at the Air Force Academy to control missiles, weapons of mass destruction, and conventional weapons in the Middle East. While idealistic, the Bush plan is an important first step; it sets a positive diplomatic framework for further United States arms-control efforts. But, like proposals by previous American presidents, it could founder on the shoals of Arab-Israeli political hostility.

Past American initiatives have had very limited success. A 1950 agreement among the United States, France, and Britain to restrain arms sales was derailed by Soviet aid to Egypt and escalating regional tensions. Attempts by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to halt an Israeli-Egyptian nuclear weapon and missile competition produced little but an Egyptian pledge not to build nuclear weapons. In the 1970s, the arms-control component of President Nixon's peace initiative ran aground because of Israel's continued presence in occupied territories.

Just as past efforts were derailed by political tensions in the Middle East, the Bush plan's success or failure may depend on changes in the region after the Gulf war. There are positive new trends, including US-Soviet cooperation. A political solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, however, remains elusive. While some countries, such as Israel and Egypt, may be open to limited arms control, overall progress could be stymied by deadlock on broader political issues.

Under these difficult circumstances, the Bush administration should play to its strong suit, building international support for Middle East arms control, particularly among important weapons suppliers. Arms-control diplomacy in the Middle East should be realistic, focusing on small steps - for example, measures to build confidence - and reasonable tradeoffs among the region's major adversaries. Elements:

- A conventional-arms supplier group. The Bush package essentially adopts an earlier initiative by Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney that the five major weapons suppliers - the US, France, Britain, the Soviet Union, and China - control weapons sales.

The Western countries face domestic pressures to support industries hurt by the end of the cold war through weapons exports. The Soviet Union and China desperately need to sell weapons for hard currency. But export controls with teeth would limit sales of items - like advanced combat aircraft and armored vehicles - that are large money earners.

A supplier group will work only with strong American leadership. Unfortunately, Defense Secretary Cheney's recent trip to the Middle East, when he discussed arms control and simultaneously announced some limited arms sales, does not bode well for the future. The US should challenge other suppliers to join a temporary moratorium on sales while export guidelines are rapidly completed. This would signal a new American seriousness about preventing arms transfers.

- A ban on chemical weapons. Inventories are widespread; Syria, Iran, Israel, Egypt, and Libya have chemical weapons, and Saudi Arabia may have them.

The administration has already announced tighter US controls on chemical exports and has convinced the Australia Group, the chemical-exporters organization, to adopt similar standards. The Australia Group should be expanded to include other major industrialized countries, the Soviet Union and East Europe, and emerging suppliers such as India.

Rapid completion of the Geneva negotiations on a global chemical-weapons ban could give the US added diplomatic leverage. An international agreement may induce some countries - for example, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states - to join a ban immediately. This would be a first step toward a regional chemical-weapons free zone. However, Syria could be reluctant to agree to a chemical weapons ban without constraints on Israel's nuclear program; Israel may not join without Syria. …

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