Stoking the fires of Armageddon
Just what was US President George W. Bush thinking? His secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, went to meet the great oligarchs of the Middle East this week, and promised them more than US$60 billion worth of arms and ammunition, bombs, missiles and warships.
Mr Bush and Dr Rice, together with US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, are handing out multibillion-dollar weapons of death as if they were five-cent lollipops being given to children who have hoodwinked their teachers into thinking that they are good.
It is especially difficult to understand coming from a president who has enjoyed essential support from evangelical Christians and who professes to be a Christian himself. Given that evangelicals spend a lot of time speculating about the timing of the second coming of Christ and the exact site of Armageddon in the Middle East, these weapons sales are rather like some pyrotechnic acolyte of the Antichrist, lighting as many fires as possible to provoke, if not Armageddon, then the end of the world.
As a mainstream Catholic, I see this as a profoundly unchristian act. Christ spoke of love as his guiding commandment; love for God, for neighbours - and for enemies. These are weapons of hate, destruction and war. Love doesn't come into it for Mr Bush, US Vice-President Dick Cheney or Dr Rice. Instead, it is their misguided view of the tough, practical politics of the modern Middle East.
Here, too, they are wrong. They are wrong to imagine they will help to contain Iran and its nuclear ambitions; wrong to imagine that arms sales make the US safer; and wrong to think that Mr Bush's professed aims of bringing democracy and security to the Middle East will be in any way enhanced by this stupid action.
The only justification for the arms package is that it will help the US military industrial complex, whose spokesmen are already crowing about the extra income and jobs, which, they claim, would only have gone to the likes of China, France, Russia or Britain otherwise. What a sad, mad world.
If you look at the Middle East today - and the daily casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan - the last thing it needs is more weapons. Every day, scores of people are killed and maimed, families are shattered, homes destroyed and jobs lost, as a result of the existing piles of weaponry. Some have been supplied by Iran, but others are American which have now been turned on Americans.
The US claims that the weapons are for defensive purposes, but this seems to be a statement to reassure Israel, the biggest recipient, that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf states will not get weapons that can be used against it. But, in the wider Middle East, what is 'defensive' about a satellite-guided bomb, especially given the admission by Washington that the main intentions of the deal are to get the Arab allies to unite behind Iraq and oppose the nuclear ambitions of Iran?
Comments by US undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns are instructive. He denied the sales were to buy support for Iraq, but added: 'There are no formal quid pro quos in this, but it figures that we would want our friends to be supportive of Iraq.'
As far as Iran is concerned, he claimed that while 'the Iran element is one factor, it's not the overriding factor in why we're doing this'.
But, at the same time, Mr Burns put the possible threat from Iran in stark terms, declaring that, across the Middle East, 'there is a high degree of concern about Iran's quest to become a nuclear weapons power, but also about the fact that ... Iran has armed and funded most of the Middle East terrorist groups'.
Has the US state department forgotten its modern history - that the weapons which gave Saddam Hussein his wherewithal to fight against Shiite Iran were supplied by Washington, which then stood by when he turned his spare supplies on his own people? Some of those guns are now being used against American soldiers in Iraq, as are other weapons which were supplied to unreliable allies.
Comments about Iran have played right into the hands of Tehran's nuclear hawks. Even Iranians who don't like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or his politics, are saying that Mr Bush's decision shows how Washington is orchestrating other countries to gang up against it.
Instead of serving to dissuade Iran from going nuclear, the arms sales have sent a message that Mr Ahmadinejad may be right after all, and that the country has to be prepared to defend itself against an attack by Washington and its surrogates.
The announcement also saw Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, giving his approval for sales to Saudi Arabia. That must have set Osama bin Laden salivating in his redoubt - Israel and Saudi Arabia together as part of the gang of the Great Satan: what further proof is needed of the wickedness of the infidels?
When it comes to Washington's supposed wider ambitions of bringing democracy across the Middle East, it is hard to fathom what Mr Bush is thinking. Israel is the only democracy among those countries being supplied with these weapons.
If they are indeed defensive weapons, what is to stop them being turned on their own people to prop up a corrupt dictatorial regime, or being sold by corrupt powerbrokers to those who would turn them on America?
But what kind of warped mind believes that the cause of peace is served by selling arms on this scale, especially in a region where weapons and hatred are in such abundance?
The sale of weapons also raises awkward questions about the ugly side of American democracy. How can one man, however handsomely elected by popular vote, take a people to war on the basis of flawed evidence, and then further threaten the fragile peace with these arms sales?
The US Congress will have to approve these sales - and it is to be hoped that someone is thinking about principles of accountability and debates over policy before one man, and the hawks around him, can carry a mighty nation on a mad bout of deadly adventurism.
Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator