The Clinton administration announced approval Friday of a conventional-arms sales policy that upholds the traditional view that such transfers are a legitimate foreign policy tool.
The announcement was immediately assailed by arms control groups, which favor strong restraints in U.S. weapons sales abroad.
President Clinton’s press secretary, Mike McCurry, said the policy “supports transfers that meet the continuing security needs of the United States, its friends and allies.”
At the same time, it restrains arms transfers that “may be destabilizing or threatening to regional peace and security,” he said.
McCurry said the United States would try to work with friends and allies to establish effective controls on the sale of arms and sensitive technologies to areas of tension and to potential aggressor states.
In the meantime, he said, the United States will “exercise unilateral restraint” in cases where “overriding national security or foreign policy interests require us to do so.”
A White House fact sheet said that in determining the merits of a proposed arms sale, the “impact on U.S. industry and the defense industrial base” will be taken into account.
Sarah Walkling of the Arms Control Association said she was upset that such criteria are now part of the administration’s stated policy.
“It’s always been an unspoken part of policy; now it’s in writing,” she said. “So it’s a step backward.”
The administration statement was released just hours after the Commerce Department reported that the United States had suffered its worse merchandise trade deficit in history.
Commerce Secretary Ron Brown had argued against a policy of arms sales restraint.
“You can’t allow the whole defense industry to evaporate,” he said last summer.
Joel Johnson, a vice president at the Aerospace Industries Association, said, “In general we think this is a policy with which industry will be quite comfortable.”
Johnson praised the administration as being more supportive of American weapons sales abroad than any of its predecessors.
The policy announcement disappointed David Eisenberg, senior research analyst at the liberal Center for Defense Information, who said, “We have seen the conclusion of the battle for the heart and mind of Clinton, and the victor is America’s private sector.”
Eric Newsom, of the State Department’s political-military affairs bureau, told reporters that U.S. arms sales policy will not be driven by commercial considerations.
“Our decisions will be made fundamentally on national security grounds,” he said.
“Once a decision has been made on national security grounds to approve a particular transfer, then it is important that U.S. defense firms receive the support of the United States government in seeking to make that sale.”