Newsreal: Purveyor of catastrophe

Khomeini, Saddam, the killing of the Kurds, war after war in the Middle East -- all brought to you by the U.S. arms trade. Maybe it's time for Washington to rethink its policy.

Published December 5, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Even without America's signature, the treaty to ban the use of land mines, signed in Ottawa on Wednesday, is a crowning achievement for a worldwide grass-roots group, the Nobel Peace prize-winning International Campaign to Ban land mines. However, the U.S. has said it will stop using land mines everywhere except in Korea, and will come up with a plan to replace land mines there by 2006. Many analysts expect that continuing moral pressure will ultimately force the U.S. to sign the treaty.

Could the same pressure from ordinary people be applied to a much larger threat to lives and peace -- the continuing deployment of large weapons systems, mostly by the United States, and particularly in the Middle East? This is a question posed by John Tirman in his new book, "Spoils of War: The Human Cost of America's Arms Trade" (Free Press).

Tirman is executive director of the Winston Foundation, a Washington organization that funds peace projects around the globe. He writes that the Middle East conflict is the direct result of U.S. arms sales to the region. He notes that such sales to Iran in the 1970s encouraged the Shah to view all internal problems "as nails that required a hammer" -- an attitude that led to the Iranian revolution in 1979. Tirman argues that U.S. weapons sales to Israel, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have fostered similar mind-sets among their leaders, resulting in human rights abuses, corruption and policies that have undermined the very security that the weapons were meant to protect.

Salon spoke with Tirman about the continuing effect of U.S. arms sales in the post-Cold War world and what can be done to get Washington to change course.

You suggest that the chief reason Saddam Hussein is such an international menace is U.S. arms policies.

Our problems with Iraq today are the direct result of them. After the Shah of Iran's fall in 1979, the United States, in a panic, began to sell weaponry to Iraq. It wasn't much, although we gave Iraq military assistance in less direct ways. One was real-time military intelligence during its war with Iran; when warplanes were taking off from bases in Iran, Iraq would learn it immediately from U.S. satellites. Another was $5 billion in U.S. agricultural credits, which Iraq used to buy weapons. The third was political credibility, which the U.S. gave Iraq by taking it off the list of countries that support terrorism and then recognizing it diplomatically. All this made it easier for Iraq to buy weapons from various vendors. There were also covert shipments from the U.S. of dual-use items, like trucks, some helicopters and computers through Jordan. A company in Rockville, Md., sold Iraq biological weapons agents.

We repeated the same mistakes we had made earlier with Iran.

The Iranian revolution was, in my view, the result of the militarization of the Shah's regime, the corruption, the diversion of resources, the pro-Western vassalage. All the things that can be described as part of the U.S. arms trade. Now we're making the same mistake in countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. And that is something that you don't read in the media coverage of the current crisis with Iraq. No one has gone back to look at the roots of this crisis. It's as if history began on Aug. 2, 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. It didn't.

Some would say the destabilization has been caused by America's total support of Israel.

We should reexamine our arms sales to Israel. They have encouraged Israel to see all of its problems as security problems and not political problems that can have political solutions. I think we've done Israel a disservice by selling them so many weapons.

But why shouldn't America arm its allies in the Middle East?

It's wrong because there have been so many debacles associated with the policy. Iran and Iraq are the two biggest foreign policy disasters since Vietnam. Then there's Turkey, which has become a human rights catastrophe in its treatment of the Kurds, and there's Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which are teetering on the brink of their own catastrophes. Then there's Pakistan, where human rights abuses are uncontrolled, and Afghanistan, where the forces we supported against the Russians have returned the country to the 15th century. That, to me, is a failed policy.

Washington policy makers would say it was an attempt to achieve various balances of power in the region.

The policy was to find moderate pro-Western regimes and basically bribe them with weapons to do our bidding and protect our oil interests in the region. You can say that the policy aimed at a balance of power in the Persian Gulf, or that it aimed at "dual containment" of Iraq and Iran. But it's essentially the same policy: We arm our friends in the region to help us protect our economic interests. And it just keeps backfiring.

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How is the U.S. responsible for the Turkish oppression of the Kurds?

U.S. weapons sales encourage the Turkish leadership to see a solution only in
military terms. In southeast Turkey, entire villages are being destroyed and
huge numbers of people are being displaced. Refugees have
flooded the larger cities, where they can't find work. As a consequence,
they've been marginalized. And who helps them? Nobody helps them except for
Rafah, the Islamic Party. They help them in the same way that the old
Democratic Party machine helped immigrants in the United States during the
19th century, building their loyalty for generations. In Turkey, it's exactly
the same. Rafah's well-organized social welfare policy has been able to
win the loyalty of the Kurds, who are now a major element in Turkey's Islamic

Even as we patrol "no-fly zones" to protect the Kurds in Iraq against Saddam Hussein.

The relationship between Ankara and Washington is
first and foremost a military one. The U.S. saw Turkey as
part of the bulwark against the Soviet Union and now sees
it as a foothold in the Middle East. Everything the Turkish military has done
against the Kurds has been endorsed, either explicitly or implicitly, by the
U.S. government. As one defense official put it to me, "We need the
bases in Turkey more than we need the Kurds." Basically that sums up the
situation there.

In the same way that we needed the Shah more than the Iranian people.

Right. The
weapons that we sold to the Shah weren't used against the Soviet Union;
they were used for other purposes, including against his own people. It's
the same general pattern that's unraveling in Turkey. And the costs for Turkey
have been enormous. We're talking about 28,000 dead, some 200,000 wounded and
2 million homeless in the southeast; millions of dollars wasted; an economy
in ruins; a staggering national debt and falling foreign investment. I'd call
that a catastrophe. And it could get worse. The Islamicists could rise
again, and there could be an ugly confrontation with the military and no way
of knowing what the outcome would be.

How about Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Arabia follows the same policy pattern: Find the moderate
Islamic regime to do our bidding, supply it with weapons and hold our
breath and hope for the best. We are now in the process of holding our
breath. In Saudi Arabia, there are human rights abuses, Islamic terrorism, a
lot of concern about the stability of the regime and who would come in if it
falls. It's a real house of cards.

You think the regime is that shaky?

It's very fragile. They're deeply in debt. They've overspent on weapons. I don't see how the House of Saud can
maintain itself like this indefinitely. If and when it goes down, it will go
down in a way that Washington will consider catastrophic. Either someone
will come to power that we don't like, or there will be enormous disruption to
our oil supplies. Almost certainly, something bad will happen. The only thing
we don't know is when.

Couldn't the U.S. use its arms sales to bring about more enlightened policies in these countries?

This is one of the great fallacies -- that we have to keep selling them
weapons to maintain our influence. Turkey, which was supposed to be one of the pillars of "dual containment" of Iran and Iraq, has basically thumbed its nose at the policy.
They're trading with Iran, and they want very much to resume trade with Iraq.
Turkey is one of the most outspoken proponents of lifting the oil embargo on
Iraq. It supported Saddam when he made his military incursion into
northern Iraq last year. In the current crisis with Iraq over the U.N.
weapons inspections, Turkey publicly stated that it does not support U.S.
military action. They want Saddam in power, and they want Saddam to have
control over the north. So what good has all our weapons largess done for
us so far? The answer is not very much. The same fallacy applies to Saudi
Arabia and our other allies in the Gulf. Remarkably, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait
wanted no part of U.S. military action against Iraq. When you think about it,
when you think that Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia, that's

How would you change U.S. policy?

You start with establishing a moral international standard, a code of
conduct, for countries to whom you are going to sell weapons. There's a proposed standard now in the United States and Europe which is a pretty good place to start.
It says you don't sell weapons to non-democratic regimes or to
regimes that have exhibited a gross pattern of human rights abuses. Through
diplomacy and economic power, the U.S. would get other major weapons-selling
countries, especially Europe, to sign on to the standard.

That sounds wonderfully utopian. Is it realistic?

People always say it sounds utopian until you come up with counter-examples,
like the treaty to ban land mines. Only five years ago, such a treaty wasn't
even on the map. Now we have a treaty, which has been signed by most of the countries of the world, including Europe.
How did that happen? Well, it happened because there was a moral
outcry. And even though the United States is not signing the treaty, we don't
sell mines anymore, and we only use them in one arena -- Korea. That's a long way from where the United States was 10 years ago.

There's no reason you can't do this with other weapons. If, for example,
you implement a policy that says we won't sell weapons to
Saudi Arabia, the Saudis will have to find other solutions for their security.
Maybe they will sign a defense pact with the United States. Or maybe they
will build a regional security arrangement with other neighboring countries.
Or maybe they will open up and become more democratic.

Our policy until now has been catastrophic. We have to change the fundamentals.
And one of those fundamentals is the arms trade. If you can change one piece
of this relationship, then all the other pieces -- the question of oil
supplies, the Arab-Israeli conflict -- all look a little easier to resolve.
It's time to start somewhere.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Jonathan Broder

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Egyptian Protests Iran Iraq Land Mines Middle East