Andrew J. Pierre, The Global Politics of Arms Sales (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982).

Paul Jabber, Not By War Alone: Security and Arms Control in the Middle East (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).

Steve Weissman and Herbert Krosney, The Islamic Bomb: The Nuclear Threat to Israel and the Middle East (New York: Times Books, 1981).

Social scientists and policymakers continue to produce countless books and speeches warning us about the grave perils of the arms race. Unfortunately, the urgency of their concern is not informed by any understanding of the historical and social forces underlying the spiral of arms production and sales. With the advent of nuclear weapons, the question of destruction is no longer confined to particular fronts or cities or even whole countries, but encompasses the whole world. The diffusion of nuclear weapons to Israel, India and other countries has increased the probability that nuclear weapons will be introduced into military conflicts. Given the wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors and between Iraq and Iran, along with the questionable stability of many of the small oil-producing countries of the Gulf, the Middle East seems to be a likely candidate for the introduction of nuclear weapons in future conflicts. The time is long overdue for understanding the arms race in the context of the broader process of social change in the region.

Andrew J. Pierre’s study provides a disturbing overview of the arming of the Third World during the last decade. While the book does not focus on the Middle East, it nevertheless contains a considerable amount of information about arms sales to the region. Methodologically, there is much similarity between Pierre’s work and J. C. Hurewitz’ Middle East Politics: The Military Dimension, published in 1969. Both were written under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations. They are largely descriptive, and concerned with the military and economic consequences of arms sales to Third World countries. Pierre attributes the vast increase in arms sales over the past decade to “the decline of other more traditional instruments of reassurance and diplomacy, such as alliances, the stationing of forces abroad by an ally and the credibility of the threat of direct intervention” and to the “global diffusion of power.” This in turn is ascribed to the rise of “regional influentials,” or surrogates for the superpowers. But he does not explain why these processes are occurring. As far as the Middle East is concerned, Pierre’s book represents only a statistical and factual updating of Hurewitz.

Paul Jabber does not leave the reader very sanguine about the possibilities for halting the proliferation of conventional and nuclear weapons in the Middle East. He focuses on the method suggested by Pierre and most other Western arms control advocates—the regulation of sales through cooperation by the major suppliers. Jabber offers a case study of the Tripartite Declaration on Security in the Middle East, issued by the United States, Great Britain and France in May 1950. This agreement, administered by a “Near East Coordinating Committee,” collapsed in 1955, when the French unilaterally made substantial arms sales to the Israelis. The Egyptians then turned to the Soviet Union for arms.

The fact that the French would not abide by the Tripartite Declaration points to the lack of feasibility of arms control policies based upon supplier constraints. Neither Jabber nor Pierre make the linkage between the breakdown of such arms control agreements and imperialism. Political and economic competition among advanced capitalist countries makes such agreements inherently unstable. Pierre correctly notes that arms sales represent a small proportion of the total exports of these countries, but he observes elsewhere that these sales have been crucial in relieving the European arms industry of excess capacity. Like its European counterpart, the United States defense industry has been plagued by financial difficulties. The recent development by the Northrop Corporation of the F-5G, a lightweight, low-maintenance and “inexpensive” fighter bomber specifically designed for Third World Markets, points to the need to exploit these markets.

Even when arms are sold at considerable discounts, or even given through outright grants, the sales retain a crucial economic dimension. It is no coincidence that Sadat’s “open door” policy was accompanied by substantial US arms shipments to Cairo. Arms to Egypt and Israel are connected to their roles as possible bases for the Rapid Deployment Force and their potential participation in direct military intervention in the Gulf. Arms provide political influence, Pierre argues, but he does not address the question of influence to what end. The nostalgia of Reagan and many of his supporters for the American imperium of an earlier era is itself rooted in economic interests, and the need to overwhelm the contradictions that afflict the US and the regimes it supports abroad.

Despite the obvious and growing gap between rich and poor within and among nations, neither of the authors suggest any connection between the spiral of arms sales and the contradictions of capitalist development. Arms frequently serve regimes more to suppress domestic political forces than to defend against hostile neighbors. The Syrian army’s assault on Hama in February 1982, compared to its noticeable reticence during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, is a case in point. For more insightful analyses of the historical forces behind the intensification of militarism in the Middle East, readers would do better to consult Fred Halliday’s Soviet Policy in the Arc of Crisis (Washington, 1981) and the essays edited by Leila Meo in US Strategy in the Gulf: Intervention Against Liberation (Belmont, MA, 1982).

The serious question of arms control and nuclear proliferation in the Middle East unfortunately receives glib treatment in the mistitled book, The Islamic Bomb. Herbert Krosney is an American film producer living in Jerusalem, and no novice at anti-Arab journalism. His 1979 television documentary, “The Russian Connection,” is the video equivalent of Claire Sterling’s The Terror Network. Steve Weissman, a former editor of Ramparts magazine, is a less likely collaborator in a project of this sort. Weissman and Krosney have a simple thesis, which they state without equivocation. The Middle East, they tell us, is “sadly unique in its potential for violent and irrational conflict.” Though wracked by instability, the region possesses a certain unity: “It is Islam…that gives life to that otherwise meaningless geographic abstraction that is the Middle East.” Having grasped this supposed essence, the authors attempt to elaborate their discovery: “By Western standards, with our generally secular values and our relative separation of church and state, Islam has always been hard to fit into any of our standard categories…. Unlike the pluralism that we claim to favor, Islam is holistic, a way of life in which prayer and politics are disturbingly intertwined.” The desire of Middle Easterners for large amounts of modern, especially nuclear, weapons is a product of the intersection of Islam with history. The authors tell us that “for more than half a millenium…the entire Islamic world has felt itself in decline, growing ever weaker within and suffering a growing impotence against the incursions of an outside world that despised, exploited and corrupted the Faithful.” The Muslim countries, in other words, seek nuclear weapons in order to “walk tall” in the world.

Israel’s reasons for seeking nuclear weapons are, not surprisingly, much more “rational”: to protect itself from these Arab countries advocating its destruction. Although fear of the Arab states’ potential for eventually matching Israel’s conventional military strength is certainly one motivation, the phenomenon might be better ascribed to the tremendous cost increases of conventional weapons, a matter which Pierre documents. Nuclear weapons are cost- effective, providing a much greater military capability at considerably less cost. Nuclear weapons development further allows countries like Israel and Pakistan to manipulate their major supplier of arms, the United States, by offering to hold back such development in exchange for a better deal on conventional weapons.

Psychological factors no doubt play a role in the proliferation of nuclear weapons and their potential use in combat. Zia ul Haq, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi are far from secure in their rule. Menachem Begin, however, is more dangerous. His readiness to resort to massive violence for political ends is apparent to the most casual follower of current events. No Arab states, nor any potential supplier like Pakistan, have nuclear weapons, at present. Weissman and Krosney demonstrate that Israel has possessed nuclear weapons since the late 1960s, when they collaborated with the French. More recently, Israel has utilized South African test sites to improve their “devices.” Throughout this period, Israel has pursued a policy of “deliberate ambiguity”—leaving open the possibility of using nuclear weapons as a form of “deterrence.” Now, high-ranking members of the Israeli defense and political establishment are advocating a strategy of going openly nuclear. Given these considerations, Weissman and Krosney would have been better advised to focus on the threat Israel’s nuclear weapons present to its Arab neighbors. With their penchant for flamboyant metaphors, a more apt title for this book would have been term the authors themselves use on page 106, “the Zionist bomb.”

Eric Davis

Israel Shahak, Israel’s Global Role: Weapons for Repression (Belmont, MA: Association of Arab American University Graduates, 1982).

This short book contains five articles of Israel Shahak published in Israel in April 1981, along with an excellent introduction by Noam Chomsky and several useful documents in appendices. Shahak looks at the growing Israeli arms industry role in supplying military and police forces of repressive regimes throughout the world. He briefly discusses ties to Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua under Somoza, South Africa, Iran and Taiwan. He shows clearly the continuity of Labor and Likud policy on this issue. This book is far from a definitive treatment, but it contains much excellent analysis, including Shahak’s keen eye for political deceit and hypocrisy.

Jim Paul

William M. Arkin, Research Guide to Current Military and Strategic Affairs (Washington: Institute for Policy Studies, 1981).

Military and strategic issues, with their aura of secrecy and obscure formulation, often seem all but impenetrable. This remarkable guide offers researchers a way to trace what happens in the name of “national security.” The guide provides access to thousands of sources, including Congressional and government reports, specialized publications, information offices and libraries. Arkin includes basic information on the organization of the US military and the force structure of major foreign powers as well. The book has chapters organized around analytical questions, such as “The Military Industrial Complex.” Far more information is available on military affairs than most of us realize, though not in the mass media. Arkin’s work should be useful to many researchers and activists, and is an essential library acquisition.

Jim Paul

How to cite this article:

James Paul, Eric Davis "The Middle East Arms Race," Middle East Report 111 (January 1983).

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