Washington Watch: Merchants of Death

When the new session of Congress opens next year, one of the Clinton administration's top priorities will be a bipartisan scam that could wind up costing taxpayers a quarter of a trillion dollars. That's the price tag some independent arms-control experts are calculating as the potential cost of NATO expansion.Don't count on Republican budget-cutting to block this project: Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott is working hand-in-glove with the Clinton White House to round up the votes to ratify the treaty organization's enlargement and rush it through with little public debate.NATO, in case you've forgotten, was originally formed to counter the supposed threat of an invasion of Western Europe by the Soviet Union. But the collapse of Communism and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact wiped out the rationale for its existence. So what's driving this invitation to an open-ended raid on the U.S. Treasury? The insatiable drive of the boondoggling U.S. arms industry for even greater profits.Basing its claims on historically inaccurate Pentagon estimates, the Clinton administration asserts that the price tag for NATO expansion will be no more than $35 billion over the next dozen years. Of that, it's promised, Americans will have to shell out a maximum $200 million annually. However, according to arms-control expert Bill Hartung of the World Policy Institute, "If the pace of NATO expansion isn't slowed soon, there could be up to a dozen new members added over the next decade and a half, causing NATO expansion costs to skyrocket to a total of $500 billion or more. The U.S. share, rather than the 6 percent to 15 percent advertised, is more likely to be one-third to one-half, or up to $250 billion."With the Clinton administration's concurrence, the arms lobby has also pushed through Congress several costly programs that don't figure in the Pentagon's underprojections, including a $15 billion arms export loan guarantee fund and a separate Central European Defense Loan Fund that has so far racked up loan commitments totaling $645 million. Those amounts come on top of the more than $10 billion in government loans for foreign arms purchases from U.S. companies that have already had to be written off in the 90s, according to the Federation of American Scientists. That dismal track record will be worsened if new legislation to loosen criteria for the loans, now being pushed hard by the arms lobby, sails through Congress as expected.Not only will NATO expansion prove an endless burden on U.S. taxpayers, it will generate a new arms race in Central and Eastern Europe -- one those still-impoverished countries can ill afford. American weapons contractors are already setting up joint ventures to turn former Easter Block nations into arms exporters -- Boeing/McDonnell Douglas in the Czech Republic, Lockheed-Martin in Poland, and Textron in Romania. As Hartin points out, "These partnership agreements could breathe new life into an Eastern European military sector that has (appropriately) been in decline since the end of the Cold War, forcing these nations to turn away from thoughts of converting military assets to civilian objectives and toward joining the already crowded field of countries seeking to profit from weapons exports to regions of tension."There is little organized opposition to this dangerous foolishness. The retirements of Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers and California Congressman Ron Dellums have deprived Democrats in Congress of their two most vocal and expert critics of wasteful military spending. The labor movement, which wants to protect union jobs in the military-industrial complex, supports NATO expansion. And the skein of organizations that once constituted a significant U.S. peace movement is in tatters.Arrayed in favor are the puissant lobbies of the arms industry -- after tobacco, the second-largest special-interest contributor to both parties -- and the telecommunications industry, which expects to profit handsomely from modernization of Central-East European military communications systems and their integration with the U.S. technology used by NATO. No wonder that the U.S. Committee to Expand NATO is headed by a Lockheed vice president (Lockheed execs gave $600,000 in soft money to the Democrats last year).Of the half-dozen putative Democratic candidates for president in 2000, only Paul Wellstone has made even tentative noises against NATO expansion. With the GOP in near-solid support, this signifies that, although the Cold War is over, both parties are still in the pockets of the greedy merchants of death.


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