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Cover story

New battles brew over defense spending, arms sales

NCR Staff

The Nuclear Freeze Movement, once the lightning rod for debate over the East-West struggle, now seems as dated as a movie house newsreel.

Many missile silos, those dread symbols of a world strategy with the unfortunate, if accurate, acronym MAD (mutually assured destruction) lie dormant -- impotent, decommissioned holes in the earth. The only controversy they raise now is a mild debate in Congress over whether to declare some of them historic sites under the control of the National Park Service.

If the Cold War is a global museum piece, a logical assumption might be that the arms race, the frenzied and extravagantly expensive competition that was its fuel, has also fallen into disuse, stashed away in the geopolitical attic.

But new battles are brewing over defense spending and arms sales. The arms race has not been mothballed, just altered. Without a major competitor, the United States is in a race essentially with itself to keep developing new weapons systems and to provide weapons and munitions to the world.

The end of the Cold War era has prompted warnings by new groups opposed to what they see as a gross waste of national resources by the Pentagon. Other new organizations have also sprung up to call attention to the post-Cold War role of the United States as the world’s chief arms exporter.

The new voices are a post-Cold War phenomenon, an unlikely loose coalition of old-style social justice and peace activists and high-profile business and military leaders. Some who engage in anti-Pentagon rhetoric today are former Cold Warriors who, though inspired by strikingly different motives, have in mind the same end as the more traditional activists -- cutting the military budget and spending more on human needs.

“Does it sound outrageous to you that military spending for fiscal year 2000 will be almost $290 billion and all other domestic discretionary spending, such as education, job training, housing, Amtrak, medical research, environment, Head Start and many other worthwhile programs, will total $246 billion, the biggest disparity in modern times?” asked the Center for Defense Information in a recent mailing. The center, which believes in strong defense but opposes excessive weapons spending, has been monitoring defense issues for 27 years.

If such words sound like a faded mantra, many see them compelling in a new way in an era when we are supposed to be enjoying a “peace dividend” following the splintering of the old archrival Soviet Union.

Spending at a Cold War clip

The reality is that U.S. military spending continues at a near Cold War clip, currently about $280 billion a year, or more than half of all the discretionary spending -- the spending over which the president and Congress have direct control.

That $280 billion is 86 percent of the average $325 billion per year that was spent on the military during the Cold War years (1950-1989), according to the Council for a Livable World in Washington. What’s more, in the aftermath of the Cold War and without a Soviet Union to compete with, the United States has become the leading arms merchant in the world, selling the most sophisticated weapons in history to just about any country with the money to purchase them. And if some of those countries are short on cash (many of the clients are developing countries), the United States will advance them the money through generous subsidy programs.

While the traditional arms race may have disappeared in the early 1990s, what remained is the military industrial complex, that tangle of government and private industry that developed a ravenous appetite for government funds during the Cold War years and has yet to find an effective post-Cold War diet.

It is that continuing Cold War spending pace that inspired more than 450 business and former military leaders to launch a campaign seeking deep reductions in the military budget and sharp increases in the level of spending on education and other children’s issues.

The Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities began organizing two-and-a-half years ago, led by ice cream mogul Ben Cohen, a well-known liberal activist and cofounder of Ben & Jerry’s.

But the group’s cause has attracted such noted conservatives as Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration; Bruce Klatsky, chairman and CEO of Phillips-Van Heusen, the clothing manufacturer; retired Army Col. David H. Hackworth; retired Vice Admiral John J. Shanahan; and Ambassador Paul C. Warnke, former chief U.S. arms negotiator and assistant secretary of defense.

“The debate has certainly changed,” said Andrew Greenblatt, press secretary for the New York-based business leaders group. “Our organization is not an anti-military organization or a pacifist organization. During the Cold War a lot of our members supported increased defense spending. Our position is different from most of those other groups.”

Greenblatt sees the Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities as a sign of the shift occurring as the world’s focus turns from Cold War tensions to a global economy. “The winners and losers are not going to be determined by the size of our gunboats but by the level of education of our children.”

The language sounds surprisingly like a traditional liberal antiwar pitch. But while the business group works with an array of established social justice groups, its motivation is different. Greenblatt explained: If the defense industry suddenly decided to begin giving the U.S. government the best and latest weapons, many in the peace community would argue against such a move, he said, because they oppose the very idea of weapons. “We would say, ‘Sure, they should have those weapons.’ But if the tradeoff is between kids having health care or faster jets, we would pick health care over faster jets. But if the faster jets were available at no cost, sure, we would say take faster jets.”

That difference aside, the business group advocates three major points: that the federal government allocate $112 billion to reconstruct all the schools in the United States that need it; $7 billion a year for Head Start, a need-based federal program that has proven effective in elevating the reading and other academic scores of elementary school pupils; and $11 billion a year to provide basic health care coverage for the 11 million kids without health care.

Need for skilled workers

Certainly the business group would not deny a degree of altruism in their plan to rearrange the country’s spending priorities. But the hard-nosed pragmatic design is to assure, Greenblatt said, the kind of skilled workers, “the human resources that will be needed to compete effectively in the global economy in the next century.”

Providing future workers for the global economy may not have been a primary concern of dozens of Sisters of St. Francis who were among Iowa citizens who turned out in April to participate in a “U Slice the Pie Tour.” The tour is an interactive show that is part of the “Move Our Money” campaign sponsored by the Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities. Motives aside, the sisters and other Iowans, according to an article in Dubuque’s Telegraph Herald, divided up the federal budget pie in a way far different from the one moving through Congress: much more to education and human needs and far less to the Pentagon.

The “U Slice the Pie Tour” uses several actors and some outsized props to demonstrate what the business group sees as stark budget realities: While more than half the approximately $540 billion discretionary portion of the federal budget goes to the military, only 6 percent is allocated to education, 5 percent for health and 4 percent for the environment.

The $700,000 campaign, which began in Washington, is concentrating on Iowa because of early caucuses held there for the presidential race. The intent of the campaign, said Greenblatt, is to encourage at the community level the kind of discussion over national spending priorities that now occurs in relative obscurity in Washington.

Membership in the Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities costs $250. “These are the kind of people,” said Greenblatt, “who can afford more than $250 to join.” The top donation was $1 million, and the next highest donation was $250,000. About 60 percent of the group’s funds comes from donations, he said. The rest comes from foundations.

The effectiveness of the “Move Our Money” campaign remains to be seen. But the group has begun drawing considerable press attention. It was profiled in the June 13 New York Times business section, and on Aug. 2, the Los Angeles Times devoted its entire op-ed page to essays written by members of the group. The Los Angeles paper explained that the pieces were meant to foster debate over federal spending decisions. “While politicians in Washington are debating how to spend a surplus they hope will come over the next 15 years, they still have to pass next year’s budget. Current plans are to fund huge increases in Pentagon spending ... by cutting domestic programs,” the editors wrote in an introduction to the articles.

Writers included Shanahan, a former member of NATO headquarters in Brussels in the early 1970s, and Korb, both of whom argued for a diminished U.S. military presence in Europe and on the high seas, and a decrease in spending on Cold War era weapons.

“The Cold War is over, the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact are no more,” wrote Korb. “While we continue to face dangers in this world, there is no country today that poses anywhere near the threat to us that we faced just 10 years ago. So why does the Pentagon keep acting like nothing has changed and continue spending at near Cold War levels?”

Fifty years ago, wrote Shanahan, “The United States did the honorable thing: We sent our troops and weapons to the front lines, ready to repel any attack. Meanwhile, our allies invested in their schools, roads and factories (also with our help).

“After nearly 50 years of a tense peace,” argued Shanahan, the situation in Europe has changed drastically. “The Europeans have been able to invest so much in their economies that last year the European Union’s combined gross domestic product was more than $1 trillion greater than our own. And by relying on us for their defense, the Europeans have been able to invest far more in educating their children; their students now routinely outperform our own in upper-level reading and math tests.”

Shanahan calls for a sharp reduction in troop levels in Europe and in the billions “spent keeping aircraft carrier battle groups in every corner of the globe” and instead investing the money in the needs of U.S. children.

For the generals and the business figures who organized the “Move Our Money” campaign, the Cold War was the point of departure. The United States, they contend, won that war but has little to show for it when it comes to the defense budget.

Likewise, for such efforts as the Arms Sale Monitoring Project, an endeavor of the Federation of American Scientists, and the Conventional Arms Transfers Project, an undertaking of the Council for a Livable World, the end of the Cold War translated not into an unprecedented opening for peace, but rather the opening of new markets for U.S. arms sales.

Although the dollar figure for overseas arms trade has gone down, the United States is the largest arms dealer in the world.

Further, 1999 is shaping up to be a banner year for U.S. arms sales. With pending deals to both the United Arab Emirates -- UAE -- and Israel, some predict sales could approach $15 billion this year, far above the average of about $10 billion a year during the earlier Clinton years.

According to the Arms Sales Monitoring Project, weapons manufacturers, faced with drooping sales at the end of the Cold War, looked to foreign markets to keep Cold War era production lines open.

Weapons supply channels

Weapons flow through several supply channels to overseas customers. Most of the sales reported in government statistics -- the $10 billion a year -- are made through the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales program.

Direct commercial sales, another channel, are negotiated by U.S. companies and foreign buyers and are approved by the State Department. According to material published by the Arms Sales Monitoring Project, most of the arms exports during the Cold War occurred through the Pentagon. “But industry-direct shipments surpassed government-negotiated transfers in 1989 and have been valued at several billion dollars annually during the 1990s.”

Thomas A. Cardamone Jr., editor of Arms Trade News, published by the Council for a Livable World, said a further difficulty in tracking sales through the State Department is that once a license is given to a manufacturer to supply a foreign country, the department keeps no records. As a result, said Cardamone, who has been tracking such issues since 1993, it is difficult to determine exactly how many contracts are fulfilled or exactly where the weapons go after the license is approved.

Yet another venue for transferring armaments to foreign countries is the Pentagon EDA or “excess defense articles” program. The program is described by the Arms Sales Monitoring Project as “a giant garage sale” that the United States has been running throughout the 1990s to move its stock of dated weapons and spare parts.

Consequently, according to the project, the Pentagon since 1990 has offered free or at bargain basement prices approximately $8 billion of excess military equipment to foreign militaries, including nearly 4,000 heavy tanks, over 500 bombers, 125 attack helicopters and more than 300,000 pistols, rifles and machine guns.

Once a program reserved for only poorer nations, since the 1991 Gulf War, many Middle Eastern and North African states were included, according to the Monitoring Project. Later Central and Eastern European governments were added, and eventually South American and Caribbean countries became eligible for free weaponry to use in counter-narcotics efforts.

“Among the leading recipients of free weapons through this program in 1996 were Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Bahrain and Turkey -- all countries where serious political repression and/or human rights violations were reported.”

Uncontrolled arms flow

That list of clients points up a danger of the relatively uncontrolled flow of arms. Too often, the customers are governments that are well-known for their human rights abuses; some are even enemies of one another. And often the customers become enemies of the United States and end up using U.S. technology and weapons against U.S. troops. “U.S. forces have been deployed several times recently to combat former U.S. allies and recipients of U.S. weapons, technology and military training -- in Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti and Liberia. None of these states were democracies at the time of U.S. arms supply, and all had egregious human rights records,” according to the Monitoring Project.

Following the patterns of overseas arms sales also raises the question of how such sales might undermine regional stability in places like the Middle East.

Cardamone uses the example of a recent sale of F-16s to the UAE as exemplary of the state of arms sales at the end of the century.

The Pentagon recently approved the sale to the UAE of 80 fighters -- “more advanced than anything the U.S. Air Force flies,” according to Cardamone -- in an $8 billion deal that includes an advanced missile system.

In addition, the UAE (population, 2.4 million, the size of Kansas), will receive the “source codes” for the jet fighters. The codes, explained Cardamone, are the keys that unlock the electronic hi-tech secrets of the fighter.

According to Cardamone, the UAE was able to squeeze the codes out of the Americans by threatening to purchase the jets from the French who, they said, were willing to hand over the source codes to their planes.

“Why are we willing to sell them this stuff in a region that’s awash with weapons?” One answer is clearly money. “If you have the combination of countries ready to buy and other countries willing to sell almost any technology” what results is “the world’s most sophisticated equipment going to just about anybody in a spiral that’s difficult to stop. Each sale begets another sale. If you dangle a billion in front of somebody, that’s pretty hard to turn down.”

That’s the high end of the arms trade. At the other end, the world is experiencing “just a tremendous flow of small arms and light weapons throughout the globe that make their way from one insurgency to the next civil war to the next rebel movement,” Cardamone said. “They get sold and resold constantly.”

The Arms Trade News, said Cardamone, grew out of a post-Cold War, post-Gulf War period “when it looked as though there was an opportunity to make some gains in controlling conventional arms sales.” Prior to that, all of the arms control talk was about nuclear weapons, no one was looking at conventional weapons.

“Has the opportunity been missed?” he asked. “Yes.”

“Has the opportunity passed? No. There’s always an opportunity to do more.”

Contact Information

Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities
130 Williams St Ste 700
New York NY 10038
Phone: (212) 964-1109
Fax: (212) 571-3332
E-mail: thefolks@businessleaders.org

The Center for Defense Information
1779 Massachusetts Ave NW
Washington DC 20036
Phone: (202) 332-0600
Fax: (202) 462-4559
E-mail: Info@cdi.org

Arms Sales Monitoring Project
Federation of American Scientists

307 Massachusetts Ave NE
Washington DC 20002
Phone: (202) 675-1018
Fax: (202) 675-1010

Council for a Livable World
110 Maryland Ave NE
Washington DC 20002
Phone: (202) 546-0795
E-mail: cdavis@clw.org

National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 1999