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Arms Sales Return to Haunt Us
27 October 2001
'Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range, The long numbers that rocket the mind; Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind; Unable to fear what is too strange.' Richard Wilbur, Advice to a Prophet
To some it might seem odd. Those are neither the politicians nor the diplomats. Politicians and diplomats think it makes perfectly good sense.
On Oct. 4, 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld traveled to a number of countries trying to assemble a coalition of middle-Eastern countries to support our war on the Taliban. One of the countries was Oman, a small country in the Persian Gulf. To obtain that country's cooperation Mr. Rumsfeld went out to a remote desert camp to meet the Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said. The United States hopes to use the country's air fields to stage strikes against the Taliban.
The Sultan was, as he has repeatedly been in the past, very cooperative. He agreed with Mr. Rumsfeld that the Muslim states must stand up to the terrorist threat. He agreed that his airfields could be used by American planes that would be used in the war against the Taliban.
Mr. Rumsfeld was delighted with the Sultan's response. He wanted to do more than say a simple thank you. By the end of the day the Pentagon announced a $1.1 billion arms sale to Oman including 12 F-16 fighters, more than 100 Amraam and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, 20 Harpoon anti ship missiles and radar equipment. According to the Pentagon, the sale "will strengthen Oman as a coalition partner." It probably will, at least for a while.
Four days before Mr. Rumsfeld went to Oman, Iran's defense minister went to Moscow to conclude talks on a large purchase by Iran of Russian arms. Iran reportedly hopes to purchase armored fighter planes, MIG-29 jets, S-300 air defense missiles and ground and sea weapons. The list sounds surprisingly similar to the kinds of things that Oman is going to buy from the United States.
That troubled the United States which does not like for Russia to sell arms to Iran because the United States has considered Iran to be one of the world's leading state sponsors of terrorism almost since the time it quit selling arms to Iran. (During the 1980s the United States sold Iran 12,000 anti-tank missiles, 235 Hawk missiles and 200 Phoenix air-to-air missiles costing more than $1 million each.) Oman, by contrast, does not support terrorism. Its present leader supports the fight against terrorism. That is why it is all right for us to sell arms to Oman but causes concern if Russia sells arms to Iran. Sales to Iran are not the United States' only concern. China is continuing to sell missiles and missile parts to Pakistan in violation of a non-proliferation agreement signed nearly a year ago. China likes arming Pakistan because Pakistan doesn't like India, a country with which China is having a border dispute. China hopes that by arming Pakistan it may some day derive some benefit in its argument with India. (Pakistan doesn't like India because India and Pakistan can't agree on what should be done with Kashmir.)
Mr. Bush hoped that as a result of his recent visit to Shanghai he would be able to announce that China had agreed to honor the non-proliferation agreement and would tell the United States what missile parts and missile-making technology it would ban from export to Pakistan. China refused to provide the list and in response the United States imposed sanctions which have the effect of blocking American companies from launching satellites on Chinese rockets.
Similar sanctions were imposed on Pakistan's National Development Complex, the entity that received the Chinese missile parts. The sanctions on Pakistan have been lifted out of gratitude for Pakistan's cooperation in the war in Afghanistan. The sanctions on China have not been lifted because the United States has nothing to be grateful for vis a vis China.
China does not understand why sanctions for the same violations should be treated differently in the two countries. Here's the reason. The United States fears that the technology being sold to Pakistan and other countries might fall into the hands of extremists. The United States knows how that can happen.
In 1988, one of the years in which the United States was supporting the Afghan rebels instead of bombing them we sold the rebels Stinger missiles to use against the Soviet sponsored forces in Afghanistan. The rebels needed money more than they needed missiles so they sold the missiles to Iran which, by then, we considered to be one of the leading supporters of terrorism. The Iranians couldn't make the missiles work and put them on the used missile market where they were bought by Qatar, a country that hoped to use them to defend itself against Bahrain. (Qatar needed them to defend itself against Bahrain because the United States had sold Bahrain 70 Stinger missiles to help it defend itself against Iran, a country that had been armed, in part, by the United States. Qatar feared Bahrain might forget that the Stingers it had were to be used against Iran and might use them against Qatar by accident. (When the missiles appeared in a parade in Qatar, the State Department sent a representative to demand the missiles' return to the United States. Qatar refused, having paid good money for the missiles.)
All of which simply goes to show that there's no telling where what you sell will end up and might cause you to wonder why you sell it in the first place. That's not a question those making the decisions ask themselves and it does little good for the rest of us to ask it. We can, however, wonder.