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Scuds or Butter? The Political Economy of Arms Control in the Middle East.

After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and Saddam Husein's threat to "drown allied troops in rivers of blood," the major arms suppliers in the industrialized world, led by the United States, Great Britain, and France, belatedly discovered that the billions of dollars in weapons that they had sold to Middle Eastern despots could be turned against them. Arms control became the order of the day, and dozens of studies and conferences on this topic were held. In contrast to previous activity in this area, which focused exclusively (and ineffectively) on nuclear weapons, this time it was clear that arms control in the Middle East would have to begin with limits on conventional arsenals. In May 1991, the Bush administration issued a comprehensive Middle East arms control initiative that included, for the first time, proposals to limit conventional weapons.

Implementation of these proposals, however, will be extremely difficult. Every year, the states in the region spend vast sums to add to the masses of tanks, artillery, combat aircraft, tactical missiles, and related technology already at their disposal. Since the rapid rise in oil prices of the early 1970s, Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Saudi Arabia have spent hundreads of billions of dollars to purchase huge arsenals of conventional weapons.

Yahya Sadowski, a researcher at the Brookings Institution in Washington, argues that now economic factors within these states will force them to accept and even seek limitations. He claims that "the Arab world no longer possesses the economic resources that fuelled the arms races of the past. Declining oil prices, overpopulation, economic mismanagement, and foreign policy adventurism have wreaked havoc." The economies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan are in terrible shape, and the only way out is to cut military spending. Jordan has been forced to cancel contracts to purchase weapons and to downsize its army. Some Jordanians even speak about "the peace divided" they hope to receive following the conclusion of a treaty with Israel. And Sadowski is even more upbeat: "Not only would peace permit military expenditures to be diverted to civilian purposes, it would create an atmosphere of security in which investments and foreign economic assistance might grow."

Observing that the large arsenals have led not to impressive military achievements but to a succession of major defeats for Arab armies, including the spectacular collapse of the Iraqi military in 1991, Sadowski argues that "the ability of Arab officers to lay claim to the lion's share of the state budget has been undermined by their declining prestige." He cites evidence that in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, growing civilian demands have forced the military to reduce its share of the available resources.

In Iran, a high level of unemployment (over 25 percent in official reports but unofficially estimated to be much higher) and major problems in the economic infrastructure led to the preparation of a five-year development plan that called for the use of all the income generated by oil revenues for civilian needs. Even the rich oil producers, such as Saudi Arabia, have growing deficits in their annual budgets, caused, in large part, by the multibillion-dollar arms purchases. Thus, Sadowski concludes that in all these countries, "interest in arms control is growing."

The argument is logical, but the Middle East is not, and the evidence demonstrates that Sadowski has ignored the realities of the region. Despite its economic difficulties, between 1990 and 1992, Syria added 700 T-72 tanks (beyond the 4,000 already deployed), 48 MiG-29 and 24 Su-24 aircraft from Russia, and 150 Scud-C missiles from North Korea to its inventory. According to reliable reports from the United States as well as the Middle East, the $2 billion that Syria received from Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War was used to purchase even more tanks, along with 250 Bulgarian-made self-propelled artillery launchers, additional MiG-29s, Su-27s, and advanced air defense systems from Russia. Egypt also continues to purchase advanced weapons, despite the economic and social costs, and is close to completing construction of a factory to produce American Abrams M-1 tanks. In these states, the failures of the military and basic civilian needs have not produced major changes in economic priorities.

Among the major oil exporters, military spending and arms purchases not only have not slowed, but are increasing rapidly. Teheran, like Baghdad in the 1980s, has allocated billions of dollars for arms purchases and currently spends one-quarter of its gross national product on the military. The Iranian navy recently took delivery of the first of three Russian-made Kilo-class submarines, and other purchases include T-72 tanks, MiG-31 and Su-24 aircraft, as well as early warning and reconnaissance aircraft, self-propelled artillery, air defense systems, and, from North Korea, Scud-C missiles. These purchases hardly support the view that economic development has been given a higher priority than military acquisitions. Similarly, after the 1991 Gulf War, Saudi Arabia announced plans to double the size of its armed forces and to acquire the most sophisticated (and expensive) military equipment available. The major arms producers also have not lost their appetites, and with the end of the Cold War, the Middle East is the major remaining market for highly sophisticated and extremely expensive weapons. Each of the major producers (the United States, Great Britain, and France) has recently concluded multibillion-dollar deals to sell arms to at least one primary oil exporter. In the 1992 election campaign, George Bush sought to show that he could create jobs and reduce the trade deficit by announcing the sale of 72 advanced F-15 XP ground-attack combat aircraft to Saudi Arabia. By failing to act with restraint in curbing its own appetite for arms sales, the United States has lost the moral leverage it could have had in calling for restraint. Now, there is little the United States can do to prevent France, Britain, Russia, North Korea, and China from selling arms to Middle Eastern dictators.

In addition, if Sadowski's thesis were correct, the Arab states would have responded enthusiastically to the various arms control proposals that have been floated, particularly with respect to limits on highly expensive conventional weapons. However, these governments have uniformly rejected proposals for mutual restraints on conventional weapons, including an Israeli plan to freeze the number of major weapons platforms. Sadowski cites the Egyptian government's campaign to pressure Israel to give up its nuclear deterrent, but he fails to discuss Cairo's rejection of Israel's understandable demand for restraints on conventional weapons. Without limitations on the massive arsenals of tanks, artillery, and combat aircraft that provide the Arab states with the potential to overrun and destroy Israel, the government in Jerusalem cannot discuss limiting its nuclear deterrent and Middle East arms control will go nowhere.

Thus, despite the optimism and logic of economic necessity, the Arab states and Iran continue to spend billions of dollars on weapons and military technology. The suppliers, led by the United States, are no less eager to sell their latest and most expensive weapons to oil-rich Middle Eastern emirs and dictators. Only a major and unprecedented revolution in the behavior of the suppliers as well as the purchasers could reverse this situation, and there are no signs that such a revolution is about to happen. Domestic pressures to spend more for civilian development do not count for much in Egypt, Syria, Iran, or Saudi Arabia, while in the industrialized states, jobs and exports created from arms sales carry more clout than the moral and political arguments to end them. As a result, the prospect of arms control in the Middle East remains little more than a distant hope.
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Author:Steinberg, Gerald M.
Publication:Issues in Science and Technology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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