Arsenals Abroad: Proliferation In Disguise

The New York Times
July 18, 1994, p. A15

This week the House takes up a bill that would make it easier for terrorist nations to build nuclear weapons, chemical weapons and the missiles to deliver them. The fateful debate will focus on the sale of strategic technology — items like the high-tech furnaces, presses and machine tools that almost gave Saddam Hussein an atomic bomb.

The bill, whose chief sponsor is Representative Sam Gejdenson of Connecticut, would leave U.S. controls no stronger than those of Germany, Switzerland and Italy, the main suppliers of Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and missile plants. The stated goal is to protect American exporters from unfair competition; instead, the bill would end American leadership in export control.

Since World War II, U.S. strategy has been to adopt strong controls first and then persuade other countries to follow. Mr. Gejdenson’s bill would allow such unilateral controls only for six months — too short a time for diplomacy to work. The controls could be extended but only if the President determined, among other things, that “no other means” could stop proliferation.

The Pentagon and other national security agencies would be squeezed out of export regulation; power would shift to the Commerce Department, whose main job is to promote exports, not regulate them. Mr. Gejdenson also wants to shorten the time allowed to decide on export license applications from 120 days to 30 days — a step the Administration has said “would preclude meaningful review.”

The sponsors boast that the bill would be the strongest prohibition ever enacted against exports to countries like Iraq and North Korea. But U.S. regulations have barred sales to these countries for years. The problem is that by loosening controls on exports to everyone else, the bill makes it easier for terrorist nations to buy U.S. goods abroad.

To garner support, exporters and their Congressional allies are peddling a set of myths. The cold war is over, they say, so export controls are becoming obsolete. But regional tensions are growing and so are appetites for weapons of mass destruction. As James Woolsey, the Director of Central Intelligence, said at his confirmation hearings last year, “We have slain a large dragon, but we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes.”

Another myth is that dropping export controls would create jobs. Only $10 billion worth of high-technology products — less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the U.S. economy — even go through export licensing. And the total value of exports denied under the existing controls is about $700 million a year — less than half the price of a B-2 bomber. Gutting export controls would stimulate bomb making, not the U.S. economy.

Supporters say that too many exports are subject to controls. In fact, the Commerce Department has been steadily cutting back on the number of items it screens for export licenses; only a tenth as many items are controlled now as in 1989, and the department is cutting its staff. Export controls are but a shadow of what they were before the cold war; now the exporters want to get rid of the shadow.

Mr. Gejdenson’s measure would encourage the Commerce Department to drop items from the list of controlled products as soon as they were superseded by an improved version. But “obsolete” technology can still be deadly. After the Persian Gulf war, U.N. inspectors discovered that Iraq had nearly made an atomic bomb using calutrons, a primitive technology that the U.S. abandoned in the 1940’s. It is no consolation to be killed by a bomb made with obsolete equipment.

In April, the General Accounting Office reported that the Government had approved more than 1,500 nuclear-related exports from 1985 to 1992 to countries “involved or suspected of being involved in nuclear proliferation activities.” A military buyer in Pakistan got two high-tech grinding machines “capable of manufacturing critical nuclear weapon components,” even though the U.S. Government knew the buyer was involved in “the design, manufacture, or testing of nuclear weapons.”

Instead of fighting export controls, U.S. manufacturers should welcome them; they protect companies’ reputations by keeping dangerous goods out of the wrong hands. Which U.S. company would like to have seen its logo on the Russian- and German-supplied Scud missiles that hit Tel Aviv?

Officials at the United Nations have told us that they expect the embargo on Iraqi oil to be lifted next spring. The petrodollars will revive Mr. Hussein’s procurement network. If Representative Gejdenson’s bill passes, the companies whose products showed up in Iraqi bomb factories last time could see them there again. Mr. Gejdenson and his backers can then share the blame.