Controlling the Conventional Arms Race
US Military Sales to Iran Committee on Foreign Relations, US Senate
There are very many things to be said against Jimmy Carter’s defense advisers. The most important has to do with Vietnam. The people Carter has chosen were involved closely and resolutely in the prosecution of the Vietnam war. These men march through the pages of the Pentagon Papers. They form a group portrait of the forces in America which prolonged the war. They played their parts: Harold Brown, as secretary of the air force, describing bombing targets in 1968; James Schlesinger at RAND, inventing war games; Brzezinski, the academic, debating on television to defend the war; Cyrus Vance, the troubled moderate in the Department of Defense, surviving the 1960s. Not one of the people who influence Carter’s defense policy stood in any public way for opposition to Kennedy’s and Johnson’s war.
But in one specific respect, the new men are different. They come into office committed to ending at least part of America’s involvement in the worldwide arms race, and in the worldwide boom in military spending. They are committed, in particular, to limiting the export of US arms. Carter himself said during the election campaign that he favored international agreements to limit arms sales, and that “I would not hesitate as president to assess unilateral reduction of arms sales overseas.”
An agreement to reduce international arms sales is possibly the most important objective that Mr. Carter could achieve. In 1976, as the newest Defense Department figures show, all the increase in US arms sales came from sales to developing countries, oil-exporting countries excluded. The most destitute countries—Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen, Pakistan—are important US customers, and the list of clients grows each year. If an agreement to reduce such commerce were the prelude to a lasting international commitment to disarmament—including nuclear disarmament by the US and the Soviet Union—Carter’s government would be honored for many years to come.
Yet even the first steps will be enormously difficult. For the problem of arms sales is not a technical question, nor does it have to do only with foreign policies. It is not, as Carter suggested during the campaign, a matter of “making decisions on individual countries [so as to] effectuate our adopted foreign policy.” The origins of the US arms boom are to be found, rather, in the deepest changes in US economic relations with other countries, in the Nixon/Ford years and before; and in deep changes, too, in the US domestic defense industry.
The arms trade problem goes to the issue of disarmament itself. Throughout the postwar period, and in every civilized country, governments have come into power promising peace and a civil society: an end to the madness of militarism. Yet again and again, their protestations have been forgotten, thrown off as beyond hope. The Carter government, if it is serious about limiting arms trade, will have to find out why these earlier promises failed. It will have to look beyond the sorrows of disarmament to the military and economic power which outlives so many people’s hopes.
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