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– Frank Klotz
former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
Clinton Ends 20-Year Ban On High-Tech Arms to Latin America
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Wade Boese

THE CLINTON administration on August 1 rescinded a 20 year old policy of restricting transfers of advanced U.S. weapons, such as combat aircraft, to Latin America, in favor of a more lenient policy of evaluating sales on a case by case basis. Although U.S. military contractors and a few Latin American states welcomed the decision, the predominant response from Latin America was one of criticism and skepticism.

Under the new guidelines, an interagency working group, to be chaired by the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs (although currently vacant, John Holum, director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), is expected to assume this position as a result of ACDA's consolidation into the State Department), will meet intermittently to review proposed arms sales and to reconcile arms sales with arms control objectives. U.S. officials insist that ultimate responsibility for restraint rests with Latin American countries, since arms purchases are domestic decisions. The administration is removing the restrictions to prevent U.S. firms from being "disadvantaged" in competition for sales in the region.

Lockheed Martin, vying for an estimated $500 million Chilean contract for approximately 20 combat aircraft, was an immediate beneficiary. The new policy permitted Lockheed to meet Chile's August 7 deadline for submission of a second set of technical specifications, which went beyond the level of information provided to Chile by Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas (manufacturer of the F/A 18) under Clinton's March authorization. (See ACT, April 1997.) Prospects for Lockheed's F 16, in the competition with aircraft such as the French Mirage 2000 5 and Russian MiG 29, would otherwise have been dim. A U.S. government official said the Chilean deadline was a "driving force" in the timing of the decision.

 

Opposition to Move

In anticipation of President Clinton's expected policy shift, congressional opponents of U.S. high tech arms sales to Latin America sought to counter the administration's move. On June 27, Senators Joseph Biden (D DE) and Christopher Dodd (D CT) introduced a bill to prohibit the sale of advanced aircraft to the region. On July 31, Representative Nita Lowey (D NY) along with 22 co sponsors introduced similar legislation in the House.

Both bills call for continued restraint to prevent the undermining of regional security. Representative Lowey issued a statement on the day of the policy reversal that the United States "must not allow McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed Martin to dictate our foreign policy."

Former President Jimmy Carter, who originally instituted the ban to limit sales to dictatorships and regimes with poor human rights records, expressed "deep disappointment" with the reversal and asked the administration to postpone any sales until the issue could be raised at the next Summit of the Americas in April 1998. Carter also advocated instituting a two year moratorium for both arms buyers and sellers, a proposal supported by the presidents of Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Government officials and commentators throughout Latin America questioned the motives of the decision, which they see as stemming more from U.S. economic than security concerns. Colombian President Ernesto Samper said the policy shift could spark an arms race. Despite its vocal criticism of lifting the ban in past months, Argentina's response was confined to an August 20 press statement that said states should avoid the "acquisition of sophisticated armaments that lack justification in the existing climate of peace and security."

The Clinton administration is considering granting "major non NATO ally status" to Argentina. Currently, states with this status¾Australia, Egypt, Israel, Japan, Jordan, New Zealand and South Korea¾have priority in requests for excess U.S. defense articles and have close military relations with Washington. President Clinton is expected to extend this status to Argentina during an October visit to the region.

Chilean officials have voiced opposition to the U.S. establishing a "special relationship" with Argentina, saying it could upset the balance of relations among Latin American states, but have not indicated whether such a policy change would influence Chile's choice of aircraft for its modernization program.

Regardless of which aircraft Chile opts for, Robert Pastor, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Program for the Carter Center, anticipates the new Clinton policy will result in "more fragile democracies, increased tensions, and less security and stability in the region."