By Andrew Feinstein
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Last week’s conviction of Viktor Bout, the so-called Merchant of Death, was a rare moment of triumph in the fight against the illicit arms trade.
But it points to the fundamental hypocrisy at the heart of the global trade in weapons: Governments protect corrupt and dangerous arms dealers as long as they need them and then throw them behind bars when they are no longer useful.
Arms deals stretch across a continuum of legality and ethics from the formal trade to the gray and black markets. In practice, the boundaries between the three markets are fuzzy.
With bribery and corruption de rigueur — a Transparency International study estimated that the arms trade accounted for almost 40 percent of corruption in all global trade — there are very few arms transactions that do not involve illegality, most often through middlemen, agents or dealers like Mr. Bout.
Mr. Bout made fortunes providing “transport and logistical” services — an oft-used euphemism favored by arms dealers — to conflict zones around the world on behalf of governments, the United Nations, large listed companies and myriad covert operators.
His clients included, among others, the Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, the Northern Alliance and then the Taliban in Afghanistan, a number of the protagonists in the Balkans, the Angolan government and its mortal enemy the Unita rebel movement, and all sides in the complex conflict that continues to rage in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mr. Bout clearly lived out the credo of the arms merchant: “Sell to anyone who can pay.”
In 2003, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, the American military faced a major problem getting supplies into Baghdad, as planes came under fire and landing conditions became treacherous. The United States and its contractors turned to a range of air cargo suppliers.
One of the most consistently used was Irbis Air — an airline owned by Mr. Bout. From 2003 to 2004 alone, Irbis Air conducted hundreds of runs to Baghdad and other Iraqi airports, carrying everything from boots to bullets.
Irbis Air landed in Baghdad 92 times between January and May 2004, while also conducting deliveries elsewhere in Iraq. Mr. Bout earned $60 million between 2003 and 2005 — in addition to the free fuel that the United States military gave to regular cargo operators.
Mr. Bout’s client list in Iraq made for intriguing and damning reading: The United States Air Mobility Command, Federal Express, Fluor and KBR, among others. At the time Mr. Bout was supposedly wanted by the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., as well as being the subject of an Interpol arrest warrant.
Mr. Bout and his airlines were also on the verge of being placed on an American Treasury Asset Freeze list and the Foreign Assets Control list, which outlaws the use of certain contractors. The United States military’s Central Command asked for a week’s delay. It was granted, allowing Mr. Bout to deliver a final shipment of arms and ammunition.
Clearly, years later, Washington decided that Mr. Bout’s evils outweighed his benefits, and so began the sting operation that ultimately netted the Russian in 2008.
But as his cell door clanks shut, it is crucial to remember that there are many Viktor Bouts out there, some protected by their own governments, or the governments and intelligence agencies to whom they are useful.
Governments must impose greater transparency on the use of middlemen, agents and brokers, including public disclosure of what they are paid and the details of the specific work they have undertaken. Much of this could be addressed by passing a robust version of the International Arms Trade Treaty currently being negotiated at the United Nations.
Similarly, banning the use of so-called economic offsets in procurement decisions — promises by arms manufacturers to invest in the buying country’s economy — would close down a major route of bribe payments.
And finally, given the close and complex relationships between defense contractors and arms dealers and governments and intelligence agencies, any party participating in arms deals should be banned from making political contributions — a practice that fuels corruption.
These changes require political will, which will materialize only if taxpayers who unwittingly bankroll the arms trade make clear to their elected representatives that current practices are unacceptable.
Until then, the arms trade will remain hidden behind a veil of national-security-imposed secrecy, continuing to undermine democratic accountability, the rule of law and sometimes even the very national security it is meant to bolster.