J BROOKS SPECTOR gets to think about the history of the merchants of death as he shares tea with South African whistleblower Andrew Feinstein. He gets an earful – and more – about the international arms trade and how it has corrupted governments around the globe in the name of profits for weapons that often don’t work, for countries that don’t need them.
There have almost certainly been arms dealers around ever since the first men figured out how to knap lethal arrow and spear points and other things out of flint and chert. Someone, somewhere, certainly was better than somebody else with the flaking of those items and, as really useful items they undoubtedly were traded for other valuable objects and food, among other things. And undoubtedly, somebody, even way back then, probably was concerned about the impact on their Edenic life from all that secretive trading in finely worked spear points – and the blandishments that went with the trade in those objects - as offsets and sweeteners.
There are those poignant lines in the Book of Isaiah that read, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”. Those words are emblazoned on a sculpture directly opposite the UN headquarters in New York.
Following the extraordinary destruction of human life in World War I and its immediate aftermath, arms dealers were tagged with the less-than-appreciative epithet “merchants of death” in a 1921 book by author team HC Engelbrecht and FC Hanighen. The companies were branded as nefarious profit-making enterprises that had made their ill-gotten gains from selling the arms that had stoked the militarism and then the conflict that had cost so many lives. Moreover, the arms makers and dealers’ relationships with the politicians that had made the decisions about war or peace had morally compromised them all. There were no raffish but chivalrous Rhett Butlers in that mob.
In America, as European and Asian conflicts began to rise again, the reputation of those merchants of death provoked a congressional investigation in 1934 under senator Gerald Nye. This investigation fed a popular sense that munitions makers had a financial stake in actually promoting warfare, along with even more profitable arms races. Nye’s committee caught the popular imagination of a public thoroughly disillusioned by the war and the squabbling that came afterwards – although it obviously didn’t stop the sale of weapons.
As the US Senate’s history of the committee explains, “The so-called ‘Senate Munitions Committee’ came into being because of widespread reports that manufacturers of armaments had unduly influenced the American decision to enter the war in 1917. These weapons’ suppliers had reaped enormous profits at the cost of more than 53,000 American battle deaths. As local conflicts reignited in Europe through the early 1930s, suggesting the possibility of a second world war, concern spread that these ‘merchants of death’ would again drag the United States into a struggle that was none of its business. The time had come for a full congressional inquiry.” And now, nearly ninety years later, there is another impassioned campaigner against the newest merchants of death.
I met Andrew Feinstein during his brief visit back in South Africa to publicise the South African release of his latest book, The Shadow World – Inside the global arms trade. Feinstein was a committed member of the ANC from his teenage years onward and, upon the establishment of an all-race political system, became an ANC member of Parliament. But then the arc of his life gained unexpected shadings as it became more complicated.
As a member of the parliamentary committee poking around the shady financial dealing associated with the country’s new arms purchases, Feinstein recounts how he encountered the overspending, waste and tendrils of fraud and backhanders that eventually became the hallmark of that arms deal. Along the way, Feinstein lost his innocence. Eventually he resigned his seat in Parliament (after getting a party-wide cold shoulder over his inquisitiveness) and retreated to the UK with his family. This set of experiences led to his widely read memoir, After the Party.
Feinstein makes it clear he still sees himself as a South African citizen – but perhaps one who must now be at a distance from home. He explains he even feels he is still a member of the ANC, but perhaps no longer completely in “good standing”. Nevertheless, he continues to hang on to his old green, gold and black membership card – and maybe that is not so surprising since he reminds me that the party was like “family” to him since his teens.
The Johannesburg weather is unusually cold and overcast when we meet in an Asian fusion restaurant for a bit of sushi and some comforting green tea – just right for the weather. Feinstein is back in South Africa for a series of literary events and media appearances, in between a research trip to Scandinavia and time in the US for interviews, including one scheduled with Noam Chomsky. Chomsky, of course, is the bête noire of America’s foreign-policy makers, the military that gives these policies their heft internationally, and the defence contractors that equip that military establishment.
Rather than a driven, obsessive look, Feinstein is a genial, even cheerful, man, seemingly without a care in the world. He wears a thin line of a beard on an unlined face and he has an infectious, broad smile. He’s wearing the kind of T-shirt an ageing rocker might have put on for a relaxed day, the morning after a late concert. This is not what a deeply angry, tenacious investigator – winnowing out the secrets of shady international gunrunners – would wear if this were a thriller starring Brad Pitt or Matt Damon paired with a world-weary Robert Redford.
Feinstein’s apparent contentment seems to rise to the surface as if it’s the hum of a psychic inner motor - energising a man doing precisely what he believes to be the right and moral thing to do with his life.
As we talk, Feinstein readily agrees his new book is, in many ways, the logical outgrowth of the first one. While that one was narrowly focused on the contamination from South Africa’s post-apartheid arms deals, this new volume moves outward to the world arms trade.
In response to the increasingly held view that the South African arms deal was this country’s original sin (he says he didn’t coin the original phrase, smiling), Feinstein argues perhaps it is more that since there were no real checks on the processes of procurement, it gave a clear signal that the door was open to the avaricious and greedy to help themselves wherever and whenever they could.
Feinstein notes the origins of the various arms deals predate the actual government changeover. Arms agents made their way to South Africa to build new contacts and those essential personal relations with the new kids on the block. We talk about the twisted relationships between BAE Systems, Joe Modise and his political advisor Fana Hlongwane (and the contagion into the political elite more broadly), and Feinstein adds - in what is almost a throwaway line - it seems that ultimately Modise was, himself, fleeced of most of the money he had apparently received in a series of complicated share transactions.
Feinstein has a special ire towards an arms dealer like John Breytenbach, or the UK’s BAE Systems. The latter, in particular had a loose-spending, buccaneering way as they cut a wide swathe across the Middle East and Africa, selling arms at high costs that came equipped with big incentive payments, commissions and simple, straight-up bribes. Curiously, even if he is deeply distressed by what they do to earn their money, Feinstein almost seems to have a bit of admiration for the brazen chutzpah of an Armenian-Lebanese arms dealer who says he will tell Feinstein much, much more, if Feinstein pays him for the interview – after all, his first teaser of an interview was a freebie.
The stories roll on. There was the 21-year-old man who made a fortune buying up Albanian-owned, Chinese-made weapons and ordnance with the “Made in China” filed off. The stuff was at least 40 years old, and the man then sold it to the Americans in his guise as a contractor with USAID – the American foreign aid organisation. Not surprisingly, the ordnance was no longer stable and some if it actually blew up in the hands of its would-be users. Or as Feinstein explains, it is the arms-dealer version of Japanologist Chalmers Johnson’s term “blowback” – the unintended consequences of a policy meant to do one thing, but that causes a very different and damaging result by virtue of that policy’s very adoption.
As he gets into this topic with anger mixed with enthusiasm, the antics and avarice of some of the wheeler-dealers he has been tracking summons up a vision of Milo Minderbinder, the profiteering US Army Air Force officer in Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch 22. Minderbinder and his fictional syndicate supply both Americans and Germans in World War Two - even subcontracting bombing runs to generate a need for contracts to carry out rebuilding work.
Feinstein shifts gears a bit, turning his attention towards the corrupting influence major defence contractors like Boeing have on the US political and governmental system - and the difficulties internal whistleblowers like A Ernest Fitzgerald faced within the US Department of Defence in trying to stop the cost overruns of the Lockheed C-5A.
Feinstein is particularly distressed by the thoroughly institutionalised revolving door that allows retired generals, colonels and civilian officials (essentially ignoring a two-year cooling-off period imposed by the Barack Obama administration) to become employees of these defence contractors, putting them to work at overseeing the same weapons systems they had been responsible for while they were in the government.
We then talk a bit about the modus operandi of the international arms dealer. The norm is that they are not selling the most advanced armament, but rather stuff that is a generation earlier. The real competition, therefore, is not in weighing the features of the items being offered, but rather how the brown envelope can be packaged to seal the deal.
We turn to this vexed question of offsets and Feinstein explains that the offsets never deliver on their promise of jobs and investment. Rather, they provide a way to keep the right person or persons happy over the deal. In short – there is really little chance that most of these deals can be honest. Feinstein adds that it is the nature of the arms-deal universe that any deal will have a visible side and a sub rosa world of fixers and agents jostling for influence - using whatever works to bring home the deal.
Asked about that sub rosa side of the South African arms deals, Feinstein says the estimate now is that the whole package probably will cost in the neighbourhood of $7-billion – with about $300-million or so siphoned off for individuals.
Did the country really need all these fighter jets and jet trainers, the corvettes, and the subs? Feinstein notes it would have made more sense and been cheaper if the country had gone with a single plane in which pilots could be trained on and then deployed operationally, but as the deal was being adjudicated, then-defense minister Joe Modise changed the terms of reference for the winning contract (minimising cost factors as a significant consideration) to allow for procurement of two plane models – and with the unedifying results now apparent. Unfortunately, this set the template for a future of politically sensitive contracts.
As Feinstein sees it now, the new South African government had several distinct phases. At the beginning, there were those expectations of a new world of possibility and a chance for real continental leadership. This was followed by a period in which the country fell under the spell of leadership by one bright, “big” man who unfortunately fell prey to his own inner demons. Now, the country inhabits the world that Thabo Mbeki created and the nation may be at a crucial, disjunctive break point. “Which way forward now?” he asks. Hmm…
Feinstein’s new book is one serious tome. The local edition weighs in with 550 pages of closely argued text and hundreds of footnotes directing the reader to well-known materials, as well as legislative testimony, hearings, studies and reports from around the world. Since it was first published in 2011, reviewers around the world have waged battle over its impact or likely effect – but not its facts.
While Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s reviewer, former CIA official Robert Baer, agreed with Feinstein that the unregulated international arms market deserves the castigation Feinstein gives it, the reviewer also wished “Feinstein had spent more time talking to policymakers about why they ignored corrupt arms deals and less time researching a laundry list of deals, many of which are well known. When I was in the CIA, I encountered hundreds of crooked arms deals, mostly originating in Russia and Eastern Europe. The CIA simply didn’t have the resources to pursue them…. But his optimism fails to consider how intractable and widespread arms-related corruption is. If someone as powerful as King Abdullah can’t put a stop to corruption in his own country, how can the West?”
On the other hand, Washington Post reviewer, MIT academic John Tirman argued, “That the world is awash in weapons is not news. But the way weapons large and small flow from the United States, Britain and other producers to the world’s villains is ever astonishing. In The Shadow World, Andrew Feinstein gives us a sweeping and troubling story of how this happens, who benefits, and what consequences follow.”
It is hard to criticise Feinstein for not having all the solutions or answers – governments, international organisations and men and women of global moral standing have been unable to reach those either. What this doorstopper of a volume does do is to provide enough evidence to keep any anti-weapons crusader equipped for practically any debate, colloquy or international conference.
The deeper problem, of course, is to find a way to end conflict so that the weapons no longer have allure. No conflict, no weapons - but perhaps that is against human nature. Albert Einstein was fond of warning, whenever he was asked what wonder weapons armies would use in World War Three: “Well, I don’t know about that war but I can tell you that World War Four will be fought with sticks and stones, bows and arrows.” DM
For more, buy Feinstein’s book or read some of the following:
- Austrian count who complained over prison underpants wins damages, says lawyer at the Telegraph (another arms dealer finally brought to book)
- “Merchants of Death”, the US Senate’s short history of the Nye Committee
- MERCHANTS OF DEATH (the original book that launched the term)
- Viktor Bout sentenced to 25 years in prison; Russian arms dealer known as “the Merchant of Death” convicted on terrorism charges resulting from a US sting operation in the Guardian (Bout is widely seen as the model for the Nicolas Cage film The Lord of War)
- Trapping the Lord of War: The Rise and Fall of Viktor Bout in Spiegel (English edition)
- An affront to justice in the Guardian
- Where is Gaddafi's vast arms stockpile? (Article by Andrew Feinstein)
- How the multibillion-dollar global arms market is built on graft in Business Week
- “The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade,” by Andrew Feinstein, review by John Tirman in the Washington Post
- Farewell to arms review in the Financial Times
- The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade by Andrew Feinstein, Reviewed by Lawrence D Freedman in Foreign Affairs
- Open Society Foundations panel discussion on the arms trade
- The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade, review by Chuck Spinney for Phi Beta Iota website
- Conversation with Andrew Feinstein on the Redi Thlabi Show
- BAE SYSTEMS - A Corporate Profile at Corporate Watch UK
- 'The Systems Company Innovating for a Safer World' (BAE SYSTEMS homepage)