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U.S. Announces Big Saudi Arms Sale Days After Arms Control Conference

Only days after it hosted an international arms control conference here, the Bush administration notified Congress on Tuesday that it plans to sell Saudi Arabia $1.88 billion in arms and military support.

The Pentagon claims the proposed military package, which includes helicopters, missiles, rockets and small vehicles, is essentially defensive and would serve U.S. national security by shoring up an ally.

But the proposed sale appears to confirm the assessment by some analysts that the U.S. government is not serious about curbing arms to the region and is conducting business as usual. Some say that while this particular package may not be objectionable, they are concerned about the cumulative impact.

The administration has delayed responding to the Saudis’ request for 72 advanced F-15 jets, after being warned by members of Congress it would face stiff opposition.

Congress has 30 days to block the current sale; otherwise it will go through automatically.

A senior staffer for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over foreign arms sales, said he expected the committee would see the details of the sale for the first time on Wednesday. Until then, he said it would be impossible to determine whether the sale was troubling.

“If it’s fulfilling previous obligations, it’s no problem,” said the staffer, who asked not to be identified. “If it’s an introduction of 10,000 new gizmos, or a significant upgrade, it might be a problem.”

The administration’s announcement came just a few days after the world’s five largest arms exporters to the Middle East convened here last week to discuss limiting arms sales to the region.

By all accounts, they made little progress.

Many arms experts blame U.S. officials for not assigning the talks a higher foreign policy priority. Some argue the talks represent a squandered opportunity to foster stability in the volatile region and thereby strengthen the ongoing Arab-Israeli peace talks.

A ‘MINIMALIST AGENDA’?

The talks involved officials from the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China, which account for as much as 90 percent of the arms exports to the Middle East. They met May 28-29 at the State Department to try to hone an agreement to control the export of conventional arms.

The proposal was initiated by President Bush a year ago in the wake of the allied victory in the Persian Gulf.

But beyond the refinement of details on an already-agreed-to proposal to ban the transfer of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and technology, little new was accomplished.

Most significantly, China balked at a proposal requiring advance notification on weapons sales, the underpinning of the initiative.

The State Department had little to say about the meetings, in effect assigning it a low profile. Spokeswoman Phyllis Young said there has been “significant progress” in the last year, while “much remains to be done. These are difficult issues that never have been dealt with meaning-fully in the past,” she observed.

Analysts say they are not optimistic there will be any breakthroughs soon. Some said the talks are a meaningless exercise because they are not aimed at a reduction in arms. And they placed the blame with U.S. administration officials, who they say are paying lip service to the problem.

In fact, arms reduction to the region has never been a stated objective of the talks. The guidelines agreed to by the “big five” during talks in London last fall simply said they would avoid transfers of arms that would increase tension and instability in the region and that would not be used for legitimate defense and security needs.

For Lise Hartman, staff director of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on international operations, that means the talks are assigned a “minimalist agenda.”

“Meanwhile the massive inflow of dangerous advanced conventional armaments in the region continues,” she said. “That’s the farce.

“The dirty little secret of the U.S. and other arms-exporting countries is the talks are intended to deflect attention from the real issue,” which is “the huge volume of sales,” Hartman said.

‘DESIGNED TO SIDESTEP CERTAIN QUESTIONS’

The United States is the leader in arms sales to the region. Since Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the United States has sold more than $15 billion in weapons to Middle Eastern nations, according to Lee Feinstein, assistant director of research at the Arms Control Association.

“The administration has said it wants to reduce the arms flow,” said Feinstein, “but if it wanted to make it a foreign policy priority, and “there would be real progress.”

Alan Platt is a consultant on international and security affairs who testified last week in House hearings on a Middle East arms control report he authored for the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington arms control think tank.

Platt said then that the five-nation talks were at a “critical juncture” and could play “an important role in fostering greater stability in the region, thereby strengthening the peace talks that are now under way.”

He urged the administration to give the talks the “highest priority.” He warned that unless there was more urgency attached to them, there would be a return to “business as usual.”

This week Platt said the fact that the negotiations are in the hands of middle-level officials will ensure that little progress is made.

Feinstein charged the administration is sponsoring the talks “in the hopes that just having them will quiet its critics.”

But he said they remain useful as a framework for a more ambitious agenda. He said continued focus on the talks might force the players to “reckon” with the issues and make substantive progress.

“While the talks may have been designed to sidestep certain questions, sometimes negotiations have a momentum of their own,” he said.

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