Both presidential candidates have begun talking up the need to curb U.S. gun sales. President Clinton, with much fanfare, yesterday announced a program that would greatly expand a computer tracking system aimed at firearms dealers who sell guns to juveniles. On the same day, Bob Dole, in a speech in Richmond, Va., appeared to back off from his opposition to the assault weapons ban passed two years ago.
But Clinton and Dole are studiously avoiding a larger issue -- America's role as the world's number one arms dealer, and its contribution to the frightening spread of conventional weapons worldwide.
That could change next week when Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) introduces a "Code of Conduct" bill to rein in the massive amount of U.S. arms that are being sold overseas without any Congressional debate, hearings or even a vote.
While many Americans are appalled at the virtually uninterrupted flow of guns to domestic drug gangs and right wing militia groups, they might be equally shocked to discover that over the last decade, the U.S. has sold $42 billion worth of weapons to 45 countries involved in ethnic and territorial conflicts. A whopping 85 percent of U.S. weapons are sold to countries the State Department deems undemocratic, such as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. Turkey has used U.S. F-16 fighter planes and Cobra helicopters to bomb and depopulate 3,000 Kurdish villages. In Panama, Somalia, Iraq and Haiti, U.S. troops have faced weapons either paid for or provided by their own government.
In a just-released report, the President's own Advisory Board on Arms Proliferation warned that without scrutiny and control, conventional weapons exports could "drastically undermine regional stability and hence U.S. national security," as well as "promoting arms races." So far, there is little scrutiny and even less control.
Current U.S. arms deals are conducted largely behind closed doors. Only when negotiations between the U.S. government and the purchasing country are near completion is any notification given to Congress, which has a mere 15 to 30 days to gain the necessary two-thirds majority in both houses to block the sale. In fact, the legislative process is so difficult and hurried that Congress has never successfully voted down any pending weapons sales.
The Code of Conduct, if passed, would change all that. It would automatically prohibit arms sales to any country that is deemed undemocratic, disregards the basic human rights of its citizens, engages in acts of aggression against other states or fails to register arms sales with the United Nations. Under the new law, the president could seek an exemption for a particular country that did not meet these criteria, but the exemption would still require Congressional approval.
Arms control opponents counter that if the U.S. doesn't sell weapons, other countries will, and that a loss of arms exports will cost jobs. Supporters respond that as the world's superpower, the U.S. is the only country that can lead the way toward multilateral arms control. Historically, whenever the U.S. has initiated worldwide arms control agreements, with antiballistic missiles and anti-personnel land mines, it has proved tremendously successful in getting other countries to follow.
And contrary to defense industry claims that cutbacks would hurt the U.S. economy, the Code of Conduct law could actually save taxpayers dollars. In 1995, government subsidies to promote, finance and sell weapons abroad amounted to $7.6 billion, according to a new report by William Hartung of the World Policy Institute. Because the international market is saturated with weapons, moreover, the arms industry offers purchasing countries special incentives -- offsets -- to encourage them to buy American. Today, thanks to these offsets, there are twice as many workers employed building the F-16 in Ankara, Turkey (2,000), as there are at Lockheed Martin's principle F-16 plant in Fort Worth, Texas (1,155).
It will take strong public pressure for the Code of Conduct bill to have any chance in the currently hawkish Congress. The defense industry has poured thousands of dollars into Congressional coffers to defeat such efforts in the past. But given mounting public concern over curbing gun-related violence at home, the bill could expand debate to the role of U.S. arms in bloodletting abroad. And the U.S. public might be inspired to ponder the duplicity of condemning the world's dictators with one hand while arming them to the teeth with the other.
Copyright © Pacific News Service
"So what I say, let's move, that we've moved beyond the debate, in my view, of banning assault weapons. Sounds good. It's a nice sound bite. You can say it on television and everybody thinks they're safe. But we've got to move beyond the sound bite, as somebody said. We've got to move beyond banning assault weapons, and instead of endlessly debating which guns to ban we ought to be emphasizing what works."
--Bob Dole, in Richmond, Va., on why (maybe) he no longer favors (maybe) repealing the assault weapons ban.
Yes, quite clear.
"You know how it is -- people who have a celebrity dad and are somehow injured by it? It's a hard thing to work through."
--Theater director Bob Smith, explaining Shakespeare's "Henry VI" to a senior citizen center in New York City. (From "Mortal Coil Less Constricting After 'Shakespeare With Bob,'" in Wednesday's
New York Times)