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Gates Pushes Arms Export Fixes

UPDATED: Link To Gates Speech; He Calls For New Export Legislation

Higher walls around fewer things. That is the "new" approach on arms exports that Deputy Defense Secretary Bill Lynn advocated last week before a gathering organized by the Aerospace Industries Association. Lynn knew his audience. AIA, pushed hard by the big primes who depend for much of their profits on foreign sales, has nagged and worried and cajoled every administration since I started covering defense in 1997 to get them to loosen the slow and negative grip that the State Department has had on arms export licenses.

And Lynn's boss, Robert Gates, is scheduled to deliver a Tuesday address on the topic to the Business Executives for National Security and, in a major departure from past Pentagon efforts, he will call for new legislation to fix the problem.

Gates will tell his audience that a super restrictive bureaucratic system that treats everything as a threat in fact undermines u.s. security in a variety of ways. A more rational system will enhance U.S. security by concentrating on those technologies that truly need to be restricted.

AIA sent out a press release touting the event. For much of the last decade I covered arms exports, detailing the struggle between the White House, State Department and Defense Department. Usually, the Pentagon wanted State to lighten up and treat America's allies -- and possible business partners -- with the respect one usually accords to those willing to die with us.

I attribute much of this administration's turnaround to two factors: the crucial role our allies have played for so long and for which they have received so relatively little in return over the years and the administration's need for them in Afghanistan; and the influence of John Hamre and his CSIS mafia. Hamre made the most masterful and effective run at changing the export control system when he was deputy defense secretary. He and Dave Oliver and Jim Bodner outfoxed State at just about every turn but the enormous weight of the legislation that governs arms exports eventually overcame all the fancy policy moves by industry and the Pentagon. However, the Political-Military bureaucracy at State also recognized that it could do its job more efficiently and with more concern for the needs of the business community. And it did, speeding the time it took for a license to get processed and letting companies where the license was in the process.

But the fundament of the law did not change. It requires the State Department to assume that it will say no to all arms export license applications. And the Munitions List, which details what is subject to an export license, still includes huge numbers of parts, assemblies and technologies. Industry has long argued that much equipment on the list can and should be removed.

Now the Obama administration -- and presumably Gates-- is returning to the arguments that Hamre made almost a decade ago. Focus on the really important and rare technologies that make America's military so powerful and unique. Don't waste your time and resources trying to control things that don't really need controlling. Take the resources freed by the narrower focus and use them to really control what matters. It's a compelling argument but few in Congress have ever wanted to take the risk attendant with changing the law, which must be done if the system is to change much. The folks at AIA have been remarkably upbeat about the prospects for real change over the last six months. But Congress will have to exercise political courage and act on an issue that won't have much of an upside for members and could come back and bite them on the butt, though it might well help the country.

Perhaps the most telling effect of the arms export license process over the last decade has been the stark and steep decline in our international market share of the commercial satellite business. Once Republicans succeeded in punishing a major Democratic fundraiser who led a space company by moving commercial satellites to the Munitions List -- the only equipment placed there by law -- the industry faltered and America lost its commanding edge. If America is to retain what was once its commanding strategic edge it must renounce the Cold War approach embodied by the arms export process as it stands today. Changing the system to allow easier trade with NATO and other close allies will help us sell more equipment. That will increase our influence and make our companies more competitive. And focusing on fewer, more important technologies will actually allow those who do the important job of ensuring bad guys don't get access to our technology to0 do their job more effectively.

I don't often riff like this on a policy issue, but it is one I am far too familiar with and about which I feel strongly. Let's hope Gates does his usually persuasive job in his speech and begins the thankless but important job of convincing lawmakers that they must ply their trade yet again, this time in the interests of both America and its friends, and change the laws governing the exports of U.S arms weapons.

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