By Justin Marozzi
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The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade by Andrew Feinstein: review
‘The Shadow World’ is an incisive exposé of the weapons trade
If there is one book unlikely to appear on the Christmas reading lists of the former defence secretary Liam Fox and his self-professed adviser Adam Werritty, one suspects that this is it. The sorry case of Dr Fox and the mystery chum-cum-lobbyist amplifies what critics of the defence procurement industry – Feinstein prefers the racier “global arms trade” – have long argued. To put it mildly, and in a nutshell, it is not known for its transparency. Nor, for that matter, its ethics and integrity.
“I hope that you might ask whether we, the bankrollers, should not know more, far more, of this shadow world that affects the lives of us all,” Feinstein challenges the reader at the outset. “Whether we shouldn’t demand greater transparency and accountability from politicians, the military, intelligence agencies, investigators and prosecutors, manufacturers and dealers, who people this parallel universe.”
It is a measure of his incisive reporting, admirable research across several continents and sustained sense of outrage that by the end of this gripping volume many readers will agree with his central argument that a stiff dose of sunlight is the best disinfectant for this shadowy world.
There is an impressive historical sweep to the narrative. Feinstein, founder of Corruption Watch and one-time ANC Member of Parliament, gives an absorbing portrait of Basil Zaharoff, the world’s first flamboyantly high-living arms dealer, “godfather of the modern BAE”, a man who once boasted of starting wars in Africa so he could sell weapons to both sides.
Zaharoff was the model for George Bernard Shaw’s Andrew Undershaft, “a profiteer in mutilation and murder” in Major Barbara, and was famed both for the ubiquity and size of the bribes he paid to secure business.
Bribes are a depressingly constant feature of The Shadow World, whether it is the £40 billion Al Yamamah arms deal between BAE and Saudi Arabia, “arguably the most corrupt transaction in trading history”, or the illegal payments made by arms dealers like Ukrainian-Israeli Leonid Minin, who supplied Liberia with weapons worth millions of dollars in return for diamond and timber concessions. The cast of arms dealers like Minin is unsavoury but thoroughly riveting. They range from the superficially glamorous (Adnan Khashoggi) to the downright callous (Yoshio Kodama, “The Monster”, a Japanese war criminal) and the opportunistic (Viktor Bout, the “Merchant of Death”).
The United States and Britain occupy centre stage in this exposé, joined by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the author’s native South Africa, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. BAE Systems is the arch-villain of the piece, although the American giant Lockheed Martin, together with those US companies like KBR, Halliburton and Blackwater that work closely with the arms industry, run it close.
Feinstein is tough on Washington’s notorious “revolving door” of people and money between the public and private sector. He notes that, within a year of taking office, President George W Bush had given more than 30 arms industry executives and lobbyists senior positions in his administration.
Feinstein has little time for those who argue that the arms business plays a vital economic role. He claims the numbers of those who work in it are routinely exaggerated and that their jobs require significant state subsidies. The issue of corruption, which is never far from the surface and is able to flourish under the cover of national security, further dents the industry’s credentials. He cites one study that estimates that the arms trade accounts for over 40 per cent of corruption in all world trade.
If the US and Britain come in for swingeing attacks, the less developed world, where checks on the arms trade are weaker, does not emerge with great credit either. Feinstein notes that in the early days of South African democracy, the country spent $6 billion on weapons at a time when the president said it was too poor to purchase antiretroviral drugs required to keep almost six million living with HIV and Aids alive. Over 355,000 died, apparently needlessly, over the next five years. One could blame this on poor governance writ large rather than the arms industry per se. India, the developing world’s largest arms purchaser, is currently seeking to buy weapons worth $42 billion.
Occasionally, Feinstein lays it on a little thick, for instance when he refers to Margaret Thatcher’s “fundamentalist free market ideology”, undermining a powerful thesis with a criticism worthy of an angry teenager.
He holds out little hope for the forthcoming international Arms Trade Treaty. For the foreseeable future at least, his desire for a “coherently regulated, legitimately financed, effectively policed and transparent” arms industry seems a distant prospect indeed.