If you’re just easing back into the grind of the working week, and were looking for some nice non-partisan analysis of current events, I can prevent you from making a horrible mistake. If you wanted to avoid holier-than-thou preaching about the arrest and disposition of alleged arms dealer Viktor Bout, garnished with the usual rubbish about how apoplectic with fury Russia is that its nefarious aims have been blocked once again by the glittering and righteous sword of American foreign policy – don’t go here.
If you’ve guessed that La Russophobe has rolled out another predictably reality-challenged piece of venomous nonsense, you’re right. Oh, it’s not so much that Bout is a good guy who’s being railroaded by a corrupt system – he probably is a bad guy who’s made a pile of money selling the sinews of war to anyone who’s got the money. The issue – and what makes me wonder why on earth the United States is so eager to try him on its own soil (with the attendant media attention and sensationalism that will bring) – is that Bout and his country of origin are a very distant second in the often-clandestine business of supplying foreign powers with the means to kill each other. Why is that important? I’ll tell you.
In his Report to Congress released September 2009 (warning – PDF file), International Security Specialist Richard Grimmett highlighted what those who keep abreast of current events already knew: the United States is the world’s largest dealer in weapons and armaments, by a significant margin. For example, the American share of global weapons sales (pg. 27) grew from 38.9% during the period 2001-2004 to 42.6% between 2005-2008. What is less well-known is that Russia’s share of arms trafficking in the world shrank from 17.6% to 16.3% in the same two periods. The American share of arms transfer agreements to Developing Countries (pg. 28) ballooned from 30.2% in 2007 to a mind-boggling 70.2% only a year later. Russia’s share dropped from 25.2% in 2007 to only 7.8% in 2008. Mr. Grimmett points out that there is considerable potential liquidity in the latter figures, since not all these agreements have been concluded, and there is still the possibility that some may be modified or cancelled. Nonetheless, the report paints a pretty clear picture of a United States that is aggressively pursuing a monopoly on world weapons trade.
Is this so bad? Not necessarily. It’s not illegal, usually. Developing countries will want to outfit their militaries; some are countries rich in natural resources such as oil, and have plenty of money. Arms trade agreements may well lead to broader trade between the United States and these countries. U.S. arms technology has an excellent reputation, and customers will buy from a suppplier who offers a good, reliable product. Russia is an arms marketer for all the same reasons.
However, as La Russophobe points out, the traffic in arms isn’t always so simple as an I’ve-got-’em, you-want-’em transaction. Sometimes arms marketers like to indulge a little hobby – influencing the outcome of a military conflict by cutting an ally a great deal, for example, to load the dice against his opponent. Selling him weapons that are prohibited by international agreements or even your own end-user regulations. Bout, for instance – the cretin – is said to have sometimes sold weapons to both sides in a conflict. Wow.
Well, the world’s biggest arms dealer has done that, too. It’s important to recognize here that when we talk about the U.S. as an arms dealer, we’re not talking about a network of shady bad actors in dark glasses, trailing a retinue of bodyguards. Not unless you think that describes the government, because that’s who it is. During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1990), the United States sold Iraq weapons including cluster bombs (through a Chilean front company) and chemical and biological precursors such as anthrax and bubonic plague virus, although Iraq was known to be using chemical weapons in defiance of international conventions. After the war, inspectors found equipment made by Union Carbide and Honeywell that had been adapted to military use. Bell Helicopter/Textron entered into negotiations to sell helicopters to Iraq that were “not to be configured in any way for military use”, although the buyer was the Iraqi Defense Ministry – come on.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government officially adopted a posture of discouraging arms exports to Iran, through a diplomatic initiative designated “Operation Staunch”. Under this banner, the U.S. government advised other countries not to sell weapons to Iran, ostensibly in the hope of forcing a negotiated settlement to end the war. This seems a noble enough goal, and it had the effect of creating an urgent appetite in Iran for weapons…..which the U.S. government was happy to satisfy. Under the auspices of the scandal which became known as the Iran-Contra Affair, the United States government sold weapons to Iran, and used the funds realized to support anti-government forces known as the Sandanistas in Nicaragua.
Surely, though, the principals in this hypocritical about-face were severely punished, right? Not so much. Colonel Oliver North was fired, although it looked a lot more like a resignation. Oh, there were some criminal convictions – North, Poindexter; Reagan’s Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. North and Poindexter’s convictions were vacated on appeal because of immunity agreements, and Weinberger was pardoned by President Bush (senior) in 1992. Nobody went to jail. Nobody even had to write 200 times, “I will not be a party to arms deals that place American-made weapons in the hands of ideological enemies”. Quite the smackdown – I hope you all learned your lesson. If that came across as sarcastic, it was deliberate.
Viktor Bout is likely a bad guy who’s done bad things. He likely should face trial for them. But the notion that the Kremlin is “seething”, or is worried about what Bout might reveal, is laughable. No less a luminary than Robert Amsterdam, one of the two “Great Roberts” in Russia blogging according to La Russophobe, agrees that unconstrained blabbing by Bout is likely to make Washington even more uncomfortable than Russia. If he’s going to talk out loud about dirty deeds done dirt cheap during a trial in the U.S., his revelations are likely to fall on some sympathetic ears. The press, or at least some of it, will rake up all the muck about American arms deals again. Any discussion in detail that is thereby provoked could hardly conclude other than that the United States says one thing and does another, and feels perfectly free to sell weapons -either right out of the box or through a front company – to nations that it has condemned as state sponsors of terrorism. Someone might point out that Bout might be a shady character, but at least he’s not pretending to be anything other than a greedy criminal. It might even come up that just because a blacklisted nation gets its hands on Russian-made arms doesn’t mean Russia sold them – sometimes it’s arms dealers from countries the United States considers its “special friends”. I have to say I don’t see an upside for anyone, except maybe Bout, who will get to stay in a nicer jail.
Update: As pointed out by Carpenter117 in comments, one of Bout’s customers was the U.S. government. From pg. 44; “The U.S. military and the thousands of private contractors hired to restore Iraq’s shattered infrastructure needed supplies for their mission. By the summer, Antonovs were roaring into Baghdad’s cratered airport, ferrying everything from tents and video players to armored cars and refurbished Kalashnikovs.
But to their embarrassment, U.S. officials later learned that many of the Russian planes were operated by companies and crews working for Viktor Bout. His planes were flying Federal Express shipments for the U.S. Air Force, tents for the U.S. Army, and oil field equipment and personnel for KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary.
In the months that followed, Bout’s flagship firm flew hundreds of sorties in and out of Baghdad, earning millions of dollars from U.S. taxpayers….Air Force officials reacted quickly, revoking the fuel allowance and persuading Federal Express to sever its contract. But the U.S. Army and other defense agencies insisted they had no responsibility to scrutinize second-tier subcontractors. Bout’s flights for KBR continued well into late 2005, and even expanded to include flights into Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.”