Latin American Arms Race (2/98)

Twenty-one years ago, responding to concerns about human rights abuses in Latin America, President Carter banned the sale of attack jets and other high-tech items to governments in the region. Other suppliers eventually followed the US lead; as a result, Latin America currently has one of the world’s lowest levels of military technology. But last year, at the insistence of military contractors, the Pentagon, and members of congress who received aerospace PAC funds, the Clinton Administration abandoned this relatively successful moratorium and made plans to sell $1 billion in jet fighters to Chile.

In order to quell Argentina’s opposition, the follow-up granted that country Major Non-NATO (MNNA) status, which provides deep discounts on used defense articles and permits weapons co-production. Only six other nations have such status, none of them currently in Latin America. When Chile and Brazil complained, word went out that they, too, may soon get the same special deals. In the past, arms exports were justified as security measures. But since there aren’t any threats to US security in this hemisphere, the new rationale focuses instead on potential jobs and economic gains for US industry. After all, goes the argument, trade is increasing and most countries in the region are democratically-elected, anyway. If we don’t do it, someone else will. So, what’s the problem?

According to Thomas Cardamone, who directs the Conventional Arms Transfer Project for the Council for a Livable World, the problem is that the sale of advanced equipment to Chile may set in motion a destabilizing arms race that Latin America can ill afford. Obviously, the region should be spending any spare cash to upgrade its crumbling communication, water, and transportation systems. In addition, attack jets will have little impact on real "security threats" like drug trafficking and economic inequality. Although the new policy may bring a short-term boost in weapons exports, it will undermine Clinton’s stated long-term goal – strong, stable economies that make good trading partners. In short, it’s politically risky and economically short-sighted.

Twenty-seven leaders in this hemisphere, including those of Colombia, Mexico, and Canada, already support a two-year moratorium on the purchase and sale of attack jets. During this time, they hope to define the real threats and security needs. Although several large nations – Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Venezuela – haven’t yet signed on, interest in a new, post Cold-War approach is growing. Rather than charge ahead, Clinton should encourage the trend, and meanwhile promote a regional treaty that sets limits on military hardware. Prohibiting ground or night attack capability for jets, for example, would still allow for reasonable defense while decreasing the potential for offensive action. A useful model, says Cardamone, is the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty.

The US has taken some hopeful steps. For example, Clinton supports confidence- and security-building measures (CSBMs), including defensive positioning of forces and crisis management teams, to help resolve disputes and preempt crises. In addition, he’s pushing for public notification before the purchase of tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, aircraft, or attack helicopters.

But selling jets to Chile and offering cut-rate deals to Argentina and Brazil sends exactly the wrong message, fueling suspicion and provoking defensive responses. As the President’s own Advisory Board on Arms Proliferation Policy noted in 1996, an unwise arms sale is still unwise – no matter how many jobs are created. The Pitchman Cometh

After four decades of sanctimonious droning as a network news anchor and weekend pundit, David Brinkley returned to TV land recently – as a pitchman. It’s hard to say what was worse: the sight of Brinkley doing commercials for Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) during his former show, This Week, or the sanctimonious reaction of his peers.

The plan was to make the commercials look like Brinkley’s return to ABC as an expert about nutrition and agriculture. Very convincing. In his first outing, Brinkley reminded viewers that he’s always "brought you the news … straight and true." Still posing as a journalist, now in the direct service of his agribusiness sponsor, he pledged to "bring you information about food, the environment, agriculture." Just the facts, right? Perhaps unintentionally, the real message came through: The main difference between ADM and ABC is two letters.

Cokie Roberts attempted to distance the show from Brinkley’s corporate sermon, and other pundits condemned him as a sellout. But that only reinforced the hypocrisy, especially since many TV commentators make extra cash through endorsements and promotional speaking. Let’s be honest: Corporations frequently buy the services (and loyalty) of mainstream journalists. Brinkley’s spots are just more obvious.