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NOT EASY TO PULL THE PLUG ON MIDDLE EAST ARMS SALES

After the Persian Gulf war, the United States wisely concluded that having such a volatile region bristling with weapons was not in the best interests of peace. President Bush called for the industrialized nations to reduce the flow of armaments into the Middle East.

Unfortunately, that has not happened. And the United States has been one of the leading suppliers of arms into the Middle East, with sales running into the billions of dollars.A study by the Congressional Budget Office concluded this week that putting some kind of binding limits on weapons going into the region could help cool tensions in the region.

The CBO report said such limits on weapon exports could reduce the armaments flow into the Middle East by 50 percent below the peak levels of the 1980s. The Middle East, with only 3 percent of the world's population, has been the site of nearly a third of all global weapons purchases in the past two decades.

Certainly, pumping armaments into an area known for conflict, terrorism, despotic regimes, guerrilla movements, ancient hatreds and violence is tantamount to sprinkling gasoline around a smoldering fire.

Yet the nations that make up the permanent United Nations Security Council - the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China - and that ought to be highly concerned, also account for 86 percent of sales in the global weapons market.

At a time when the Soviet Union has collapsed and the United States is designing future military needs to cope with medium-scale regional wars, it makes little sense for the United States to supply arms to one of the areas most likely to be the location of such wars.

Most people recognize this paradox, yet halting arms sales is not as easy as it sounds.

In the first place, exports from the U.S. weapons industry means American jobs. That's not a small consideration at a time when the U.S. economy is in recession. And there are political consequences.

A few weeks ago, Bush drew cheers in St. Louis when he announced the sale of 72 jet fighters to Saudi Arabia, a deal worth $9 billion and with an impact on 7,000 workers in the St. Louis area and 40,000 nationwide. Those numbers are hard to ignore for a president or Congress.

The kind of limits suggested in the CBO study would mean a $3 billion a year decrease for the American armaments industry - about 20 percent of the nation's total weapons exports. This would mean the loss of 75,000 jobs, with serious impact in certain regions dependent on the defense industry.

Another problem is that unless other weapons exporters agree on binding limits in the Middle East, no one country is going to drop out of the lucrative arms sales. Those remaining in the trade would simply step in and take up the slack.

Lawmakers responding to the CBO study said it is shortsighted for the United States to rely on arms exports to promote job security. No one can disagree. But politicians riding the arms export tiger may find it difficult to dismount without getting clawed in the process.

Reducing arms sales to the Middle East may not be politically feasible until the economy gets better. In the meantime, the Middle East cauldron continues to bubble dangerously as Iran leads the way with a massive armaments buildup.