In the age of terrorism, the international arms bazaar is alive and well. While George W Bush myopically marches forward in his War on Terror, the rest of the world is quietly arming themselves and taking sides. Last week, America’s "strategic partner" and George W Bush’s soul mate Vladimir Putin inked a $3 billion arms deal with the always-entertaining Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Washington protested feebly as Moscow counted the money.
In a multi-year deal, Venezuela will purchase 24 Russian Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets and 53 military helicopters. In addition, Venezuela will begin manufacturing Kalishnakov rifles under license from Russia. There are also reports that Venezuela plans to purchase surface-to-air missiles and a submarine from Russia in the future. This new deal comes on the heels of a deal signed with Russia last year for 100,000 AK-47s and 10 military helicopters. Like the current deal, the previous deal also faced feeble protests from the United States.
Russia isn’t alone in selling arms to the oil rich South American country. Last year even Spain got in on the act by selling Chavez naval patrol vessels and transport planes for "peaceful purposes". It goes without saying that the United States complained to Spain about the arms sale and was promptly ignored.
The United States has imposed a unilateral arms embargo on Venezuela to try to squeeze Mr. Chavez. Predictably, the arms embargo opened the door to the rest of the world to feast on Venezuela’s vast oil wealth. Venezuela is purchasing the Russian fighter jets to specifically replace American F-16s that it now possesses. With no spare parts available for the F-16s, it was only a matter of time before Venezuela found a more willing arms pusher.
Enter Vladimir Putin. Since taking office he has increased Russian arms exports by 70%. The revamped Russian arms export business brings much needed revenue into the Russian economy. While the United States busies itself by selling arms to allies in the War on Terror such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Pakistan, Vladimir Putin’s Russia picks up the slack by supplying arms to China, India, Venezuela, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Myanmar and the Palestinians. There is no ethics in the arms business. It is a profit-driven multi-billion dollar industry that has littered the 20th century with the deaths of millions. Now the same stellar record of death and conflict all over the Third World continues unabated in the 21st century. The wars and politics have changed, but the profit motive remains the same.
While each side accuses the other of arming countries that commit human rights abuses, the only sure result is a better-armed world. Russia, for its part, says that by selling arms to some states the United States might consider disreputable, it is violating no international embargoes or laws:
Russia says it abides strictly by international embargoes, and does not engage in trade with banned regimes. But rights groups criticize it for not unilaterally limiting itself.
The International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) says Russia has sold weapons to states whose forces have committed abuses. "In Russia’s export control system, there is virtually no reference to controlling arms exports for reasons connected with respect for international human rights and humanitarian law," the network of agencies said in a June briefing paper.
While the United States obsesses over the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction, it is the proliferation of small arms in the Third World that poses the greatest threat to the average citizen of the world. Not surprisingly, the Bush Administration opposes any treaty banning the trade in small arms because it may weaken its stance on the Second Amendment.
By itself, the Venezuelan arms deal does not pose an immediate national security risk to the United States. However, it does pose a long-term challenge to the stability of the region as Venezuela modernizes its armed forces and sets up its own arms manufacturing capability. Inevitably, if left unchecked, Venezuela will become an exporter of arms to other countries in the region. Given Chavez’s well-known distaste for the Bush Administration, the possibility of miscalculation exists both in Caracas and in Washington. Furthermore, with characters like Otto Reich and Elliot Abrams in the Bush Administration, any apparent provocation from Venezuela might trigger a neo-con fantasy war in South America. Having failed in 2002 to overthrow Chavez, the neo-cons in the Bush Administration would love to get another crack at him.
Now is the time for tough and nuanced diplomacy with Venezuela to diffuse what could become, without active diplomacy, a serious national security issue for the United States. However, I am not optimistic that the Bush Administration is capable of preemptive diplomacy. Its Doctrine of Preemption is strictly military. The irony of course is that by following its doctrine, the Bush Administration ignores the very diplomacy that would have prevented the need for preemptive war. Having proved its value in the Middle East, the Bush Administration is likely to bring its failed Doctrine to South America.
Here’s to hoping that time runs out on this Administration before a regional concern turns into a regional war.
[Cross posted at Taylor Marsh]