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For people like John Tirman, Washington was a very different place 20 years ago. In his new book Spoils of War: The Human Cost of America’s Arms Trade, Winston Foundation for World Peace executive director Tirman nostalgically recalls the days under president Jimmy Carter, when “the youthful public interest community was feeling its oats,” with the bars around Dupont Circle filled nightly with Nader’s Raiders, budding environmentalists, andstill fueled by the “sustained burst of moral disgust” that had powered the anti-Vietnam War movement”a nascent grouping of leftists and liberals who accused the U.S. arms trade of posing a mortal threat to world peace.”
Today a Democrat again occupies the White House, but Tirman readily acknowledges that for D.C.’s human rights forces, the Clinton years have been little better than a fiasco. “Clinton’s record on human rights is…very spotty,” he says with a weary, halfhearted nod to politesse. “He’s fumbled the great opportunity after the Cold War to develop a new set of priorities.”
The reason is simple: cold cash. The State Department under Clinton has been little more than an adjunct to Commerce,
with Stinger missiles and Black Hawk helicopters hustled just
as energetically as Buicks and blue jeans. “There’s clearly been
a belief,” says Tirman, “that weapons exports would help reduce the trade imbalance.”
Tirman’s book aims to expose the folly of such a limited vision and to score some points for beleaguered activist forces. It spotlights what Tirman calls “a major human rights disaster” being fought with “the largest use of American weapons anywhere in the world”: Turkey’s ongoing battle against Turkish Kurds struggling for greater local autonomy. Though little covered in the U.S. media, the Turkish campaign has produced 28,000 deaths, mostly among the vastly outgunned Kurds (many of them civilians) and has also seen the use of machine gun-equipped American helicopters to methodically evacuate 3,000 Kurdish villages, creating
2 million refugees.
To Tirman, the need for loud objection to a policy that puts arms sales ahead of human rights shows the continued relevance of the international left, and he sees some daylight. He points to increasing support for a treaty to ban land mines and to the recent passage by the House of Representatives of a “code of conduct” limiting U.S. arms sales to nondemocratic regimes. Of course, he notes, the Clinton administration opposes both initiatives.