Posted inOpinion

Editorial: A Flicker of Light

It is hard not to be skeptical of the U.S. presidential policy directive to bring greater efficiency and transparency to the export licensing process. The changes, announced Jan. 22, certainly are better than nothing, but it will take much more substantive reform to relieve U.S. space companies – particularly component suppliers – of the unnecessary burden they have labored under since 1999, when Congress effectively reclassified just about everything related to space as a weapon system for export purposes.

The relatively modest nature and scope of U.S. President George W. Bush’s Export Control Directive is testimony to the longtime political intractability of this issue: It persists despite a near consensus among experts that the current rules are doing more harm than good to U.S. national security. But more-substantive change will have to await a new Congress and a new presidential administration.

This is not to say the directive is without significance. Indeed, given the almost complete lack of movement on this issue in almost a decade, this has to be viewed as an important, if tentative, step in the right direction.

First and foremost, the directive will bring more resources to the U.S. export licensing bureaucracy, which has been badly understaffed ever since the U.S. government launched its crackdown on overseas sales of sensitive technology. Critics have complained – not entirely without justification – that adding bureaucrats will not solve the fundamental problem of an all-too-inclusive list of items requiring U.S. State Department export licenses. But adding resources clearly is necessary and should provide some measure of relief.

The directive’s call for guidelines requiring the government to rule on export license requests within a 60-day period also is significant. Businesses simply cannot compete effectively when subjected to an unpredictable regulatory environment. There is a loophole, however: The directive says the review period can be extended if there is a “strong reason” or if congressional notification is required. Under current law, the notification requirement applies to all large communications satellites. It remains to be seen how other space-related technologies will fare under the new timeline: This is something Congress, administration officials and industry groups will need to monitor closely.

The same goes for the rest of the directive, whose impact, like so much else in the realm of policy, depends on the implementation. Perhaps its greatest potential is as a basis for the wider reform that most observers agree makes sense, especially at a time of heightened awareness that the U.S. space industrial base, particularly at the component supplier level, is under stress. While nobody can say for certain that export policy is responsible for this situation, it is clear that the rules have unnecessarily made life for these companies more difficult.

The primary problem is the blanket inclusion of space-related items on the U.S. Munitions List, a registry of militarily sensitive technologies – also known as weapons – subject to State Department licensing. Some of these items never belonged on the list; others have become so prevalent on the international commercial market that State’s strict controls serve only to erode the competitive position of U.S. suppliers while doing nothing to keep these capabilities out of the wrong hands.

Keeping readily available dual-use technologies on the Munitions List does nothing to enhance national security; in fact there is evidence that it actually undermines security by weakening the U.S. space industrial base and impeding cooperation with allies. What is needed is a mechanism for routinely reviewing the list and removing those items that no longer belong. Unfortunately, in an environment where U.S. politicians from both major parties are wary of being painted as weak on national security – this is an election year, in case anyone hadn’t noticed – arguments for common-sense reform tend to fall on deaf ears.

The Bush administration deserves credit for the first positive movement in some time on the export front; so does the Coalition for Security and Competitiveness, a group of trade associations that has been pressing hard for change. But make no mistake – this is only a beginning. The heaviest lifting will have to be done by a future government.