Nobody’s perfect: is arms trade good or bad?
In 1993 John Le Carre, the famous British spy-novel writer, himself having spent some time in intelligence, released his first post-Cold War book, ‘The Night Manager’. It was depicting Good fighting Evil, British and American intelligence vs Dicky Rouper, ‘the worst man in the world’, a criminal British billionaire who traffics illegal arms and drugs. The situation was complicated by the corrupt factions within both US and UK intelligence circles trying to destroy the operation.
In the end (spoiler alert) there was a stalemate when, trying to save Jonathan Pine, their asset in Rouper’s organization, the intelligence agencies, being under pressure from their corrupt ‘colleagues’, have to trade him for letting Rouper get away, thus making the mission unaccomplished.
By the way, in the 2016 BBC six-part mini-series, produced as an adaption with Hugh Laurie as Dicky Rouper, the bad guy is brought to justice. Sorry for spoilers.
Dicky Rouper is a somehow complicated character but he should be judged as really, really bad for his arms to drugs trafficking. By the way, one of his points was that he was selling British arms helping British arms manufacturers and British economy in general. ‘Everybody’s doing that‘, was one of his arguments.
I’m 100 per cent confident that Le Carre has written his book based on some real-life knowledge.
So back to real life. In 2008 Viktor Bout, Russian arms dealer, with shady links to the Russian state, was arrested in Thailand and then finally deported to the US. He was taken to court and pleaded guilty on several charges, including a plot to kill American citizens and another plot to sell arms to the FARC, a Colombian guerilla group, which, in the US, was officially declared as a terrorist organization. He now serves a 25-year term in ADX Florence, a supermax federal prison in the Rockies. The Russian Foreign ministry has openly spoke out in his support. At the same time, when he was still in a Thai jail, the Russian state did nothing to extradite him to Russia, though that was possible at that point. Why?
This Bout guy apparently used to have some very top connections in Russia’s card house. He made a fantastic career, from a Soviet officer with combat experience in Africa in the late 80s, to a criminal arms dealer living a luxury life as a globe-trotter in the mid-90s. He seemed to be a man performing covert operations the Russian state actors couldn’t allow themselves to do.
Some observers were speculating about Bout’s involvement in illegal arms trade to a number of terrorist groups, including the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Some were questioning if Bout was a Russian arms company’s ‘Rosvoorugenie’, or secret agent.
In his defense in court, Bout declared that he was never selling arms but instead only providing transport services, including delivering military equipment to the US forces in Iraq in 2003, which is a proven fact. Some investigators were saying that probably, competing Russian arms traders got Americans involved to take him out of the game using his FARC connections as a green light for US agencies to start legal actions. Don’t worry, we won’t know the truth in the next 40 or so years.
He reminds me of Dicky Rouper: a high-voltage thriller deserves to be made out of Viktor Bout’s life. Interesting enough, his life has already left a trace in show business: Viktor Bout became a prototype for Nicolas Cage’s character, Yuri Orlov, Russian arms dealer, in the 2005 ‘Lord of War’ action movie.
OK, but what’s wrong with legal arms trade? The biggest producers such as US, Russia, UK, France, China, Israel are trying hard to outperform each other in this very competitive, very sensible – and, yes, very profitable – market. Economy is growing, jobs are created, technology is booming. Arms don’t just kill. Sometimes they stop the violence or prevent the war.
The only difference is that the legal actors sell weapons, officially at least, for money, not for drugs. But when it comes to sensible clients or non-conventional payments, you suddenly need a Dicky Rouper or a Viktor Bout.
So me thinks that arms trade is not a bad thing. It is something like selling prescribed medicines. Until there’s no Dicky Rouper selling suspicious pills to thugs just around the corner.
Call Me Names!
I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about international arms trafficking. Yes, I have the accent and attitude… I should deal, but alas I’m not terribly bright and miss out on all the good money making opportunities.
So like all fifth graders everywhere, I Googled it and wow. There are articles on how to become an international arms dealer. These articles cover things from where to buy guns to wholesale pricing. Did you know that an AK sells for a lousy $75? Some dealers even give them away as loss leaders.
It looks really simple, well except for that learning Arabic part. My UK friends inform me that I can’t speak English so I’m quite sure learning a foreign language is out. Another article says blonde hair, blue-eyed need not apply, you’ll stick out too much.
However, I’ve also learned that there are almost no laws, in any country, against being an arms dealer. Turns out all nations (yes, including yours) need arms dealers from time to time to assist in foreign policy objectives. Keep it small and it’s all good; start dealing tanks and you better be careful. If one of your tanks ends up on the wrong side and a third Government objects, they will come for you. Arms Dealers get into trouble for import—export laws, not for dealing guns.
Here’s another titbit I was surprised to learn, via The Independent: “Meanwhile statistics collated by UK Trade and Investment, a government body that promotes British exports abroad, show the UK has sold more arms than Russia, China, or France on average over the last 10 years. Only the United States is a bigger exporter.”
Here is where things become less clear-cut, at least for me. The way I read the article, The Independent makes no distinction between Lockheed/Martin selling F35s for the UK’s two new aircraft carriers and some guy selling AK47s to Boko Haram. I don’t have an issue with Russia selling its latest SU whatever to India. I do have an issue with killing children.
But exactly where the red line gets drawn is, well… grey. The Independent makes it clear that selling arms to Saudi Arabia is wrong. In Yankee slang: Them boys went to Yemen and stepped in a cowpie; now it’s all jacked-up and they can’t get out.
So the question is: should the UK and the US sell weapons to the Saudi’s? I truly don’t know. It is easy for me to see both sides of this; if the UK doesn’t hook em’ up, China will. Now, how many thousand blokes will lose their jobs so The Independent can pass some kind of moral judgement? Nobody at The Independent will lose their jobs so this is easy for them. And, not one single life will be saved. China will gladly step in and help their new friends, the Saudi’s. Oh, and that new base you just opened at Mina Salman? Yeah, the Chinese want to thank you for the £40m donation in Bahrain… so get the hell off our land!
How much did you want to pay for that litre of Petrol again?
Like I said, I can easily see both sides of this. No, I’m not pro-arms. Yes, I want to feel good about taking some moral stand, especially when it cost me nothing. My house isn’t the one that’s going to get repossessed. You are welcomed to call me names in the comments below.
Is Arms Trade good or bad?
It’s certainly a major cause of suffering around the world. It’s a major cause of human rights abuses. Many governments spend more on arms then they do on social development, and health.
It’s a massive, massive business. Which means massive corruption also accompanies arms sales, fuelling both conflict and poverty.
Did you know that “small arms” cause 90 per cent of civilian casualties? They are a huge problem that won’t go away. It’s easy to see why: long life, low maintainance, and cheap and easily available. (Did you know that in Uganda in 1999, you could buy an AK47 for the same price as a chicken?) Small arms are also portable and easily concealed, making illicit trafficking easier, and they can be operated by the 300,000 plus child soldiers in the world today.
And just this month, we learn that arms manufacturers are spending millions of pounds a year promoting their brands in Britain’s schools! And don’t think for one minute they are doing this because they care about education – this is “just a cynical attempt to improve their reputations and “normalise” their appalling business.” (Andrew Smith, Campaign Against Arms Trade).
So, let’s see how my own country is doing then. Let’s talk about Yemen, where bombing has caused the majority of civilian deaths. No, it’s not the British dropping the bombs, but they are making both the planes and those bombs. And selling them to our chief ally in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia. Look, I don’t care that a recent court ruling said that these sales are legally ok, Britain is effectively assisting mass murder.
So how does Britain justify these military exports? It says that states have the right to equip themselves for self-defence. Saudi Arabia?? It’s nothing about security, it’s more about making sure that the current regime doesn’t allow its own citizens to threaten the status quo.
Yes Britain has lost its imperial past. So if it wants to remain a major global player, it needs military strength. So it needs a military industry, and if that industry is to survive, it needs an arms trade with whoever, and wherever. And that’s the problem. It often goes where it shouldn’t.
What about the Arms Trade Treaty eh? Establishing common standards, doesn’t it, seeking to reduce the illicit arms trade? But I ask you, what use is a bit of paper with a load of good intentions written on it?
The arms trade is bigger than ever, and in an increasingly unstable world, it will only get bigger still, much of it in the wrong hands as usual.
I think I’ve answered the question.