Arms and the Men

A review of Andrew Feinstein’s The Shadow World.

Originally appeared in The Daily.

The premise of Andrew Feinstein’s book “The Shadow World” is that humanity owes much of its war and misery to a dark cabal of arms dealers, corrupt politicians and defense contractors. This cabal runs on money (lots of it), cocaine and influence. Its major players are total amoralists, millionaires virtually to a man, and responsible for looting the treasury of nearly every developed country and spilling the innocent blood of every undeveloped one. Law enforcement nips at the feet of these men, yet most of them remain not only free to enjoy their network of mansions and kept women, but also toasted as statesmen and royalty.

There is something to this. Feinstein surveys several continents’ worth of arms deals, all of which have been reported before and at much greater depth. The most famous of them, called the Yamamah deal, was inked between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, and it is so large that no one is entirely sure what has been sold, and for what price, and in what quantity. What is known is that the defense contractor BAE scored many tens of billions of dollars’ worth of contracts out of the scheme — and allegedly greased the tracks for its approval by lavishing Saudi royals with enough private jets, mistresses and top-shelf booze to make your average hip-hop mogul want to join an abbey.

Out of this deal, the Saudis received large numbers of high-end aircraft, far beyond their military needs. The British, in return, got thousands of defense industry jobs. But most of all, Feinstein says, the profit went to the whole cast of disreputable characters that hovered beneath the politicians’ and Saudis’ tables, waiting for crumbs. Yamamah, which means “dove” in Arabic, was known as the “Who’s ya mama?” deal for the dubious involvement of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s miscreant son Mark, who denies receiving 12 million pounds for help in securing maternal approval but looks by the evidence to be as crooked as a British smile.

Feinstein, a former South African parliamentarian, tours a very sordid horizon of places where similarly fishy deals have gone down, for private benefit and at taxpayer expense. His own African National Congress government, which he was forced to leave after annoying his party leaders by inquiring into shady arms buys, stands accused of paying millions for military expenditures that were essentially useless (and this at a time when the government was skimping on anti-retrovirals and urging its citizens to cure their AIDS patients with garlic and yams). In the United States, the late, hilariously corrupt Rep. John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, gets his turn in the unflattering spotlight for steering defense money to contractors connected to him, and among nonstate actors, the canny Soviet relic Viktor Bout — whose Ukrainian planes ferried guns to nearly every war zone in two decades — is one of the few who ends up in prison.

How terrible are these people? When they see two sides hoping to massacre each other, their instinct is to arm them both. During the Rwandan genocide, when half a million people were killed in just 100 days, the dealers were eagerly sending in guns. There would be remarkably few tears at most of these dealers’ funerals (perhaps mostly from a few defense-industry executives and a lot of very expensive, newly jobless hookers).

But what’s most alarming, perhaps, is not that Feinstein’s book is right but that it is wrong. The arms dealers may constitute a shadow world, but the root of all evil is something with a deeper and firmer purchase on the topsoil of human nature. The vast majority of the Rwandan dead (whose genocide takes up too brief a chapter in this desultory book) were slain with machetes, not with the arms dealers’ “mountains” of guns. This is surely evidence that vast crimes take place even without million-dollar arms sales, and that the gun salesmen — though sleazy beyond description — bear somewhat less responsibility than we’d like. The absence of guns won’t mean that in the next war, Tutsis and Hutus will slap each other harmlessly with open palms. Nor will tighter defense-industry regulation mean that in Transparency International’s next corruption index, Saudi Arabia will share a bracket with Norway and Canada. These hopes are almost as forlorn with guns as without.


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