Arms or democracy, but not both

The four horsemen of the apocalypse

St. John the Divine identified, two millennia ago, four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as agents of the world’s destruction on Judgment Day; famine, disease, war and civil strife. Conflict, appropriately, has two horsemen.

Aggression and strife reduce or eliminate interactions between people that would have supplied the energy for their communities to make steady progress. The proliferation of weapons, supplied by the wealthiest countries, is also a root cause for oppression and terrorism, concentrated mainly in the most deprived regions on earth.

The heavy burden of conflict

The World Bank published in June 2003 Standardised Survey Bulletins on Ethiopia, Gambia, and Zambia that demonstrate the effects of instability, military coups, and excessive spending on weapons. Life expectancy in Zambia is down to 38 years, and between 1992 and 1998 poverty in Gambia increased from 34 to 47 percent.

The twentieth century has been particularly brutal. Although the two world wars have monopolised the attention of commentators, the wider picture is infinitely worse. Collapse of the Soviet Union and undisputed supremacy of the USA have not helped to diminish global friction; there were still some 27 ongoing major conflicts in 1996 (according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI).

There is a heavy price to pay for conflict at all stages. Preparations for conflict require obvious trade-offs between funds for military purposes and for basic needs. The so-called developing countries allocate about 2.4 percent of their collective GDP to defence. War, when it comes, causes costly dislocations and hardships. And when peace dawns finally ordinary people have to foot the bill for decades to come in foreign debts, care for the maimed and orphaned, further violence made possible by ready availability of weapons, and clearance of the lethal debris left behind.

Peppering the countryside with landmines is a chilling example. Popular because of their low prices at less than ten dollars a piece, but once laid they cost £300 to $1,000 each to clear. They kill or maim over 2000 people every month, women and children mainly (Sunday Times, 19 January 1997). Despite the global hand-ringing, UNICEF estimates that about ‘2.5 million new mines are laid each year, [and] de-mining lags far behind that of new mines still being placed.’ Angola alone has some two million, a painful reminder of wars that dragged on for twenty years.

Depleted uranium (DU) has now been added to the detritus of war that continues to afflict civil populations many years after hostilities have ended. In the latest war in the Gulf, about 2000 tonnes of DU were dropped on Iraq. It remains there to pollute vegetation, fish, and water resources.

Disruption to normal living conditions due to warfare and its after effects is on a scale that is not generally understood. As a result of the Gulf War and the sanctions against Iraq, for example, infant mortality rates doubled and there was a five-fold increase in under-5 child mortality. In the five years after August 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, 567,000 children died as a direct outcome of that episode and the ensuing sanctions (Lancet, 2 December 1995).

Inevitably, armed clashes turn civilians into refugees. UNHCR put the number of refugees in 1993 at seventeen million. Two years later they had increased to 23 million. Significantly, UNHCR estimated that over half the refugees were children. The Hutu massacre of one million Tutsis in 1994, forced another two million to flee Rwanda, mostly to Zaire.

The refugee problem has two dimensions. For a start, refugees are, by definition, unable to contribute to the well-being of the communities they leave behind. Perforce, their survival from day to day takes precedence over their nutrition, healthcare and learning needs. In effect, human development for those affected is arrested or reversed. This certainly was the case in Somalia and Ethiopia.

In addition, funds earmarked for aid have to be channelled instead into humanitarian assistance, ‘most of it due to war rather than natural disasters.’ According to UNICEF, allocations for this purpose increased from about two billion dollars in 1985 to nearly ten billion dollars in 1994, ‘reflecting the upsurge in conflicts that have had a devastating impact on civilians, especially children.’ During that period financing for humanitarian aid went up from five percent of total development assistance to sixteen percent.

Civil wars are particularly damaging, as events in Afghanistan demonstrate all too well. Hostilities started in 1973 and continue to this day. Afghanistan now comes at or near bottom on all indicators of human and economic development. Civil war requires ready supply of weapons, which several governments in the ‘advanced’ economies are all too willing to provide. Funding often comes from the sale of drugs to these ‘advanced’ countries, as was evident in Afghanistan and the Lebanon! The USA is involved in conflicts in many regions. Interestingly, America bombed, on 20 July 1998, ‘terrorist bases’ in Afghanistan built and funded previously by the CIA when they assisted Muslim ‘freedom fighters’ in their war against the then ruling faction. These ‘freedom fighters’ included Usama bin-Laden who later turned overnight into a ‘terrorist’.

The Lebanese civil war, from 1975 to 1992, displayed all the above features but also demonstrated the motives that lurk behind such events. Foreign players were much in evidence as always. The Israelis invaded The Lebanon in June 1982. They withdrew southwards to a zone controlled on their behalf by the South Lebanon Army, but continued to suffer heavy losses until they withdrew finally in 2000. Not to be outdone, America sent in the Marines and France dispatched troops to help the ‘Lebanese authorities’ to restore order. Almost inevitably, suicide bombers killed 241 Marines and 50 French soldiers in October 1983 and both countries pulled out shortly thereafter. Israel and America gained nothing as a result of their involvement, but their actions were a decisive factor in the emergence of Shiite groups such as Amal and Hezbollah that became a thorn in the flesh for both countries. Naturally, the Lebanese paid the heftiest price.

(Note added in May 2005: the Shiites are now the majority in The Lebanon. Now that the Syrians have withdrawn their forces, future events have become tense and highly unpredictable. This is especially the case for the Christians who are now the minority.)

The most decisive impact of conflict is its effect in slowing down, and frequently reversing the process of human development, especially the emergence of institutions and practices that lead in time to the adoption of democratic norms. Instead, complexity is lost, self-organisation becomes impossible, and thermodynamics’ second law gains the upper hand. The nation drifts into chaos and decay. Return to normality is not instantaneous; there are no shortcuts to evolution.

Surely people are against war

Not necessarily: elites on both sides of the fence have much to gain from instability. Conflict in general and buying of weapons in particular are ready means for domestic elites to accumulate personal wealth quickly. Real or imagined threat of conflict give repressive regimes what appear to be legitimate reasons for buying weapons, maintaining a large and well-paid army, and enforcing harsh military rule ‘until the emergency is over’. The emergency never ends of course; those in power make certain the status quo is retained for the longest possible time.

Those involved at the selling end are equally disinterested in reducing the threat of war. These comments are not made lightly. A holistic approach cannot be tolerated, and that is official. Clare Short, at the time British Secretary of State at the Department for International Development, suggested in a speech to the One World International Media Conference on 3 June 1998, that ‘money was not the problem’ in Sudan. She considered that ‘the problem was one of access, not resources…’ Both sides ‘should agree a ceasefire so that [existing] food could be moved in.’ She was roundly criticised for her comments by aid organisations and the media. In addition, members of the International Development Select Committee of the Houses of Parliament declared themselves ‘baffled’ by her views at a meeting in August 1998.

Domestic and foreign interests routinely use genuine local grievances to initiate strife. The Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria illustrate this feature well. They are not an isolated case. Two factions have fought an inconclusive civil war in Kashmir for more than half a century. Someone somewhere thinks it is worthwhile to fund that conflict, and the locals consider it their duty to help in the endeavour. The Basques in Spain and France are another case in point.

Arms sales in the name of peace

Conflict is impossible without weapons, but weapons are useless without conflict. The marketing of weapons and conflict is, therefore, a joint venture, and the business is considerable. Exports of weapons by the top 30 supplying countries were valued at about $22 billion in the mid-1990s (SIPRI). Significantly, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, with supposedly a keen interest in peacekeeping, are also the main suppliers of arms, accounting for more than four-fifths of weapons sold.

Recent shrinkage in global sales reflects in the main reductions in procurements by the leading powers due to the changed political climate in Europe. Competition is intensifying, as a result, to sell arms to the developing countries. There is no conspiracy to harm these nations. Selling arms and the promotion of instability are just a business that suits many influential individuals and groups.

The USA has unwaveringly supplied weapons to the developing world on a prodigious scale. At the same time, it has been vociferous in its condemnation of state oppression and international aggression. Linkage of arms sales to foreign policy, at the heart of the Kissinger doctrine, remains unchallenged. Significantly, US arms exports to the Persian Gulf rocketed by 2500 percent from 1970 to 1976. In 1992, largely as an outcome of the first Gulf war, the USA contracted to meet half the Middle East’s need for weapons (Foreign Affairs, May-June 1994). Seven of the top weapons buyers in the world are in that region, including the single largest buyer, Saudi Arabia, which has the perfect mix of attributes: abundant oil money, ready sources of conflict (including Israel and the Palestinians), and leaders willing to start a fight at the least provocation.

Biased distribution of conflict

As Ohlson demonstrated, of 170 major clashes from the end of World War II to 1988, 160 were in the developing countries; and two-thirds involved foreign powers. This remains the basic pattern today, but the hot spots are even more focused than that. Brezezinski, President Carter’s National Security Advisor, called the swathe that includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, the Gulf States, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Yemen ‘the Arc of Crises’. The Arc has endured over the decades many wars and famines. Despite plentiful resources, it is also home to some of the world’s most deprived nations and repressive regimes.

Why do they buy and sell weapons?

On first inspection, civilised nations would not be expected to participate in such a harmful and self-defeating trade. Why do they do it? The stock answer suggests that conflict is inevitable, that the availability of weapons is as likely to deter as to encourage conflict, and that countries seeking military hardware would always find eager suppliers. This scenario would be more convincing had it not been for the fact that producing countries market their wares most assiduously, and they offer in addition loans, credit guarantees, and deferred payments to help ease the burden on purchasers. So again, why do they do it?

Manufacturers often depict the trade as a critical component of the economy of the producing countries. This is a dubious standpoint. For instance, a 1992 study by the US Congressional Budget Office concluded that limits on the arms industry ‘would not significantly affect the vast majority of exporting industries’ in the USA. In addition, the market is important but not crucial when viewed in the context of total exports from the leading industrial nations. For example, although the Middle East is now the largest importer of weapons in the world and the USA is the biggest supplier of arms, the region does not feature as a major export destination for the USA. It is claimed that the industry is a vital generator of jobs. However, only 14 million jobs worldwide depended on the defence industry in 1994 and the number was expected to reduce to 10 million by 1998. One report stated uncompromisingly that the ‘arms trade actually creates unemployment…arms trade does not make economic sense- it is not and never has been genuinely profitable (New Internationalist, November 1994).

Weapon sales is not a purely commercial activity. For vendor states, the associated fringe benefits in arms transfer might be at least as important as other considerations. One such benefit relates to the acquisition of influence abroad. Long-term reliance of importing nations on the goodwill of exporting countries is of paramount importance. In accord with Game Theory, clients have to cooperate, while the suppliers retain the option to compete and acquire higher rewards.

Axiomatically, those working in the production and marketing of weapons do their best to manufacture and sell arms. Their personal fortunes are linked to the performance of the company that employs them. Directors and employees of Matrix Churchill, the British company that sold military equipment to Iraq in the late 1980s, were not involved in anything more sinister than that. The civil servants and ministers that helped them to circumvent the ‘administrative obstacles’ were also pursuing their diverse best interests.

The sale of weapons is an efficient conduit for siphoning moneys from public purses into private pockets, legally or otherwise. Inherent secrecy provides the perfect cover for this process. SIPRI highlighted the opportunities presented by the arms trade for corruption on a grand scale. Dictators whose hold on power is transitory are especially eager to participate in this system of wealth creation, and the middlemen, both honest and corrupt, also accumulate impressive fortunes. The commission paid to one group involved in Al Yamamah project by which Britain undertook to supply jet fighters, naval mine-hunters and ammunition to Saudi Arabia, at a cost of about $31 billion, was said to be $380 million (Sunday Times, 9 October 1994).

Curiously, the trade in weapons is riddled with contradictions. For instance, the arms sold often end up being used against their country of origin, as was the case in 1994 when American troops risked their lives to recapture US weapons supplies to the Somalis during the 1980s. Similarly, America bombed, on 20th July 1998, ‘terrorist bases’ in Afghanistan in reprisal for the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The CIA originally built the bases to help Muslim ‘freedom fighters’ as mentioned earlier.

So-called developing countries allocated about $125 billion annually for military purposes in the early 1990s. This high level of spending has abated but not by much. Despite the evidence, the elites in these nations (and the foreign interests that have influence over them) are not willing to recognise the simple fact that the arms trade brings nothing but trouble to themselves and their nations. The belief that money is being wasted surfaced during the Gulf crisis. Kuwait was overrun in three hours. Crushing defeat at the hands of the USA and its allies also shattered the inflated image of Iraq’s military power. This scenario was repeated in the most recent war in Iraq. Military spending does not bring security.

Marketing weapons and conflict

Commentators, including SIPRI, expect that efforts might well intensify to prop up sales of weapons. That would involve attempts to promote potential hostilities, particularly in trouble spots such as the ‘Arc of Crises’. The first Gulf war, referred to by one commentator as “the greatest arms sale show on earth”, was of course the ultimate example. During six weeks of war, the USA with the help of CNN exhibited its advanced weapons superiority over all, including its allies. Needless to say, that war and continuing skirmishes since then were a godsend to the arms industry. The USA and its allies were able to replenish stocks, and the Gulf States were cajoled into buying even more weapons than before. Currently, occupation of Iraq is costing the US taxpayer about $4.0 billion each month, mainly in the form of military expenditure. This must be welcome to those involved in the arms industry irrespective of the moral issues involved.

Marketing effort does not have to be blatant. The High Court in London delivered its judgement against the British Government over the Pergau dam affair. Court action was initiated by the World Development Movement, which had maintained that there was evidence of a link between aid given to Malaysia to build the dam and British arms sales to that country (The Observer, 13 November 1994). That example of aid-for-arms diplomacy was not an isolated incident.

Basically, it is a forgone conclusion that attempts would be made to initiate and maintain conflicts to retain a healthy trade in weapons against all the odds and to promote personal, corporate, and national interests. Ruthless sales drives could be expected to generate new eruptions, especially in target hot spots such as the ‘Arc of Crisis’. This would entail adoption of aggressive marketing techniques involving inducements and threats, as well as exploitation of ethnic and other sources of friction.

The above activity has two links to the topic of democracy. First, the emergence of real democracy (in which public opinion would have more tangible effect) in the producing countries is necessary to bring the trade in weapons under control. This does not seem likely at present. Weapons manufacturers in the USA are the largest contributors of campaign funds to candidates of the two main parties. Second, weapons and conflict are the biggest obstacles to the emergence of democracy in the ‘developing’ nations. In many cases the weapons purchased by governments are deployed (actively or as a threat) against their populations.

The USA as a destabilising force

The elites in the USA, and other so-called Western democracies are now the most effective destabilising forces on earth. The nations in these countries are sidelined and misled by spin and misinformation. Allowed full knowledge, most would not be happy with what is done in their name. The elites (a partnership in which business and government are indistinguishable) support despotic rulers, inhibit democracy when it threatens their interests, and use the arms trade as a means of control to enhance corporate profits and monopolise markets. In pursuing these aims, they create many problems for their own nations, including ready availability of drugs and increase in terrorist threats at home and abroad.

There are many examples of this form of antidemocratic behaviour. In the 1970s the CIA set up the Safari Club with funds from some of the Gulf States, as related by Heikal in Illusions of Triumph. The idea was simple: to circumvent congressional scrutiny. The Club’s resources were used to destabilise Mengistu in Ethiopia, fund Iran-Contra activities, generate unrest in Costa Rica, and in bankrolling Savimbi’s UNITA operations in Angola. The Club also funded the ‘freedom fighters’ in Afghanistan, including Usama bin-Laden.

Expressions such as ‘terrorism’ and ‘democracy’ have been roundly abused in pursuit of advantage and profit. The USA placed Iraq on the list of countries that supported terrorism in 1972. That lasted up to the start of the war with Iran in 1980, but then the USA became closer to the Iraqi regime, and eventually removed Iraq from the list in 1982. Evidently, the opportunities presented by the Iraq-Iran war were simply too appealing to be clouded by inconvenient side issues.

Another possibility was advanced to explain the radical change of mind: the USA enticed Saddam to attack Iran (Islamic revolution, American hostages, etc.) and removing Iraq from the list was the carrot. In eight years of war over 400,000 people died, 210,000 were taken prisoner, and $390 billion was spent in the course of that conflict. There were no discernible gains for either side. Once the conflict started every effort was made to keep it going. According to Heikal, no less than fifty countries participated in meeting the demand for weapons. Twenty-eight, led by the permanent members of the UN Security Council, supplied both sides.

Rumsfeld, the present US Defence Secretary who was one of the leading architects for the most recent war on Iraq and ‘its weapons of mass destruction’, was sent by president Reagan to Baghdad as a special envoy in December 1983 to offer help to Iraq in its war against Iran. The Reagan administration allowed the Iraqis to buy a wide variety of ‘dual use’ equipment and materials from American suppliers. The “shopping list included…chemical-analysis equipment for the Iraq Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC), and, most unsettling, numerous shipments of “bacteria/ fungi/ protozoa” to the IAEC (Newsweek 23 September 2002).

To be fair, the USA is not alone in these practices. When Algeria was on the verge of electing an Islamic government in 1992 steps were taken by France to provoke a military takeover that has resulted in many thousands of deaths at the hands of ‘extremist terror groups’ unhappy with the military government. Inevitably, one has to ask whether the present situation in Algeria is better than an elected Islamic state.