Weapon Policy Leaves Many Up in Arms


In Latin America, President Clinton has tried to play both sides of the arms sale game. As a result, he has managed to rile both sellers and buyers.

On Aug. 1, President Clinton lifted a 20-year-old ban on the sale of U.S. arms to Latin America. That disheartened arms control advocates in the United States.

About the same time, he secretly wrote to the most likely Latin American customer, Chilean President Eduardo Frei, urging him to hold off on buying any arms. That plea provoked Frei into a rage.

Clinton’s unleashing of American arms merchants to sell even while he tried to persuade the main Latin customer not to buy reflects the conflicting pressures that batter the president as he tries to work out U.S. arms policy.


American arms manufacturers for years had urged the administration to reverse the ban on arms sales to Latin America.

“They’re not strong enough to overrule the president,” said Robert Pastor, Latin America specialist at the Jimmy Carter Center in Atlanta. “If Latin America would say, ‘We don’t want an arms race,’ the president would say yes to that. But the arms lobbyists are strong enough to neutralize and confuse the policy process in the United States.”

The arms makers mobilized scores of members of Congress, many of whom had received large campaign contributions from the companies, to bombard the White House with pleas to lift the ban.

The congressional pressure came from members of both parties and included the voices of two of the most influential and respected experts on foreign affairs: Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar and Democratic Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, both of Indiana. Their voices strengthened the cause of the arms merchants.


In its most immediate effect, the policy meant that Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. could compete with European firms for a lucrative contract to supply two dozen modern jet fighters to Chile.

Pressure to keep a lid on arms sales in Latin America came from the U.S. arms control community. Former President Carter, who had imposed the ban in the first place, warned of a Latin American arms race.

Clinton, responding to this camp, said in his letter to Frei that “this is not a time to start an arms race, especially among traditional rivals in the region,” according to an administration official who paraphrased the letter. The president suggested that Frei might “want to pursue a voluntary restraint on arms purchases.”

Frei responded in no uncertain terms. “He didn’t pick up the phone and start screaming at us,” the administration official said. But through personal calls and intermediaries, he let the White House know that he thought the letter was offensive.


The embarrassed White House “officially withdrew” the letter, a diplomatic maneuver that meant Frei should ignore it. “We were telling him, ‘Let’s wipe the table clean,’ ” the official said. “ ‘Let’s start over.’ ”

That may have pacified Frei, but it did not have the same effect on the American arms control community.

“The issue,” Pastor said, “is whether the United States wants an arms race or whether it wants to initiate a system of arms control. The U.S. answer, so far, is yes to both.”