October 8, 2002

October 8, 2002 | Commentary on Middle East

Let's not be Saddam's Shopping Mall

Talk about ironic.

Thanks to legislation sneaking through Congress, rogue leaders and military competitors around the world soon may wind up with a new source for many of the key components they need to build weapons of mass destruction: the United States.

The bill in question, the Export Administration Act, now before the House of Representatives, would significantly loosen export controls over so-called dual-use technologies -- manufacturing processes and other products with civilian and military uses. Perhaps the most well-known example is the aluminum tubing that has topped Saddam Hussein's shopping list in recent months. It's a product that can be used to make bicycles -- or nuclear weapons.

Some of these technologies can be obtained only from the United States. In those instances where other nations have such technology, we work with them to keep these processes and products out of the hands of rogue leaders.

The bill has received scant attention from a press and a public focused on high-profile Washington battles such as the Iraq policy resolution and the homeland security bill. Yet this under-the-radar legislation would allow U.S. companies to export products that could make it far easier for Saddam or similarly sinister leaders to build up their war-making capabilities. In essence, we'd be helping the very people we may well find ourselves fighting.

Supporters of the Export Administration Act say letting these products be exported reduces their costs to Americans and that they're intended for non-military uses only. Besides, they say, if we don't sell them, competitors in Germany or France will.

How pragmatic. But the fact is, we have no control over how products get used once they're sold overseas, and we can't control what other countries choose to export. As for the costs, let's face it: When it comes to our security, surely it's worth paying higher prices if it means keeping the Saddam Husseins of the world from developing even more powerful weapons of mass murder.

But, supporters reply, we can't sell these products to Saddam anyway, because our embargo against Iraq forbids it. Yet once these products leave the United States, what control do we have over how they may be used? Ask Siemens, the German firm that legally sold Saddam krytron electronic switches, which doctors use to break up kidney stones. Only when Saddam tried to order 120 more for "spare parts" did it occur to the firm that these switches also can be used to trigger nuclear devices.

In addition to loosening control over sensitive export items, the Export Administration Act would significantly diminish the authority of the State Department and Defense Department to decide which products shouldn't be exported. State and Defense always have taken the lead in this area precisely because these products, when exported without the appropriate safety controls, threaten American security. Experts in both departments often know of military uses that trade officials wouldn't conceive of.

The Export Administration Act was written before the Sept. 11 attacks, so it's not surprising to find that it now needs some serious revision. Export controls provide a critical first line of defense against weapons of mass destruction. In a post-9/11 world, these controls should not be administered by the Commerce Department, whose mission is to encourage trade.

Normally, of course, there's nothing wrong with trade. But many of the products for which Saddam has scoured the earth in recent years -- the aluminum tubes, the triggers, carbon fibers and other products useful for constructing nuclear weapons -- would be considered "mass market items" under the legislation and thus fit for export without restriction. That's simply unacceptable.

Congress needs to give American officials concerned with security, as well as those involved with trade, veto power over the export of militarily sensitive items. It also should restore vigorous enforcement of our export rules and work with our trading partners to prevent these technologies from falling into the wrong hands.

Will nations such as North Korea, China, Iraq and Iran keep trying to develop weapons of mass destruction? Yes, and we shouldn't do anything to make it easier for them to do so.

Lenin went to his grave believing one day the West would sell its adversaries the rope with which it would be hanged. Let's not prove him right.

Larry M. Wortzel is director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation. From 1984 to 1988, he worked in the office of the Secretary of Defense on issues involving counterintelligence and technology security.

About the Author

Larry M. Wortzel, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

Related Issues: Middle East

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