"Suppose you were a visitor from another planet and you came to Earth and you saw that more money is spent on devising better ways of killing people than on devising better ways of keeping them alive. You would think you had walked into a kind of lunatic asylum."
That was National Public Radio's way a while ago of leading into a discussion of the "International Arms Bazaar." It was prompted by two vivid case histories: the Israelis and the Syrians using Lebanon as a proving ground for U.S. and Soviet weapons, even while Britain and Argentina were using the Falkland/Malvinas Islands as a proving ground for British weaponry--on both sides--as well as the latest hot tickets from French arms merchants.
Lunacy is not too strong a word for last summer's hot warfare--or for the international arms traffic and the black market that feeds insurrections and guerrilla warfare around the globe. It doesn't stir emotions in the same way as the nuclear arms race. In fact, the nicely publicized display of high-tech weaponry last summer has been a boon for the estimated $100 billion-a-year international arms business and a spur to the conventional arms race.
Technology accelerates it; ideological rivalries, sectarian blood feuds, territorial disputes and ancient animosities make the market; those who fill it have profits and jobs to think about.
All too true, you say; so what else is new? But two headlines in The Post the other day set me to wondering what it would take--how much more lunacy--before what we love to call the civilized world might respond to the folly of it.
"French Jets Seen Giving Iraq New Capability Against Iran," the headline read, over a story reporting the acquisition by Iraq of five French Super Etendard jet, the platform of choice for Exocet air-to-sea missiles already in Iraqi hands.
"Iraq Says It Will Escalate Attacks on Petroleum Centers Inside Iran" said the headline over a story quoting Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz: "In every month from now Iraq will be able to cause some damage to the Iranian economic institutions in the depth of Iran and in the (Persian) gulf."
Between the stories was a map of the Persian Gulf region, showing a bit of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and the vital Iranian oil port on Khark Island at the head of the gulf. Iraq has already had a whack at these facilities with Exocets launched from French-made helicopters, but for this purpose the Super Etendards are far superior.
Hence the fears of some experts that the Iraqis could disable Kharg Island's oil port--or at least pose the sort of threat to gulf shipping that would give insurance companies, and thus shipping companies, serious second thoughts about plying that waterway. Iran would not be the only loser: the gulf is the industrial jugular for Western Oil consumers. But the Exocets would have to penetrate Iranian air defenses that feature, interestingly, American-made Hawk missiles left over from the U.S. military- aid program in the days of the shah.
The question then would be what Iran would do in retaliation. We are talking, after all, about a stalemated war in which economic attrition is a main weapon on both sides. We are also dealing with antagonists who have amply demonstrated a certain mindless frenzy over almost three years of heavy bloodshed. So it is by no means excluded that Iran would strike back-- and not just against Iraq and its oil facilities.
One logical target would be Saudi Arabia, whose generous financial backing has probably been decisive in keeping Iraq in the war. Once again, Iran would be using weapons made in America, probably F4s. And Saudi security would then rest wholly on the availability of--you guessed it-- American AWACS, the early-warning reconnaisance planes. Their sale to Saudi Arabia, along with U.S.-made F15s the AWACS would summon to battle, caused a row in Congress two years ago.
So maybe this is just the sort of "scenario" policy-makers are paid to conjure up. The French doubt the Iraqis could put their new French armaments to such use with much success. Besides, the $1.4 billion in aid that France has furnished Iraq over the past three years is really only intended to keep Iran from winning--just as the military aid America's other great ally, Israel, is giving to Iran is designed to keep Iraq from winning.
That's also about the way the United States is playing it: professing neutrality, in the interest of fine-tuning a standoff. But at least one authority on the region rates it "a distinct possibility" that one side or the other, reeling from economic exhaustion, will try for a desperate knockout punch, with consequences that could find U.S. arms pitted against French arms--or even against U.S. arms--in an exchange that could leave the West's strategic oil sources in shambles.
The mere possibility is not something you would want to have to explain to that visitor from another planet.