Sunday, September 23, 2007

Immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush declared that the rest of the world had to decide whether it was with us or against us. But it turns out that in the new world order, you can be both -- and make a boatload of money in the process.

Take Viktor Bout, a Russian air-transport magnate and the world's premier gray- market arms provider. Every year, warlords, gangsters, militiamen and terrorists kill tens of thousands of people in wars that are only sporadically reported to the outside world. They do their butchery using weapons obtained and delivered, to all sides of these conflicts, by Bout and his ilk. These are the real weapons of mass destruction in the post-Cold War world, taking lives and shattering communities from the slums of Baghdad to the jungles of Colombia, from the streets of Beirut to the impoverished diamond-mining hamlets of West Africa.

No ideology and few moral considerations guide Bout. His new class of global entrepreneurs operates under virtually no international constraints, reaping hundreds of millions of dollars for themselves and corrupt officials in what's left of the military and intelligence services of the former Soviet bloc, whose vast, uncontrolled arsenals are the source of most of the lethal cargo. While the conduct of private contractors such as Blackwater USA -- the American security company back in the news last week after its officers were involved in a deadly Baghdad shootout -- come under some scrutiny and government control, not even such minimal accountability is required of the world's foremost weapons merchants.

These arms entrepreneurs almost always escape international sanctions because they don't work for any one state but have proved useful to many. Worse, much of what they do is not illegal, and the penalties for breaking the few laws that may apply are minuscule and entirely unenforceable.

Consider a July report from the Government Accountability Office that tens of thousands of weapons purchased by the U.S. military and destined for delivery to Iraq remain unaccounted for. Actually, they're not just "unaccounted for." Bout may have swiped some of them. According to a 2006 Amnesty International report, Aerocom, a Moldovan-registered company linked to Bout, obtained a U.S. military contract in 2004 to fly 200,000 AK-47 assault rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition from Bosnia to Iraq. The day before the first Aerocom flight that August, the Moldovan government canceled its air-operations certificate, making any flights illegal. Bout was already on a U.N. and Treasury Department blacklist and was wanted by Interpol; Aerocom had been publicly cited in U.N. reports for illicit weapons trafficking. The flights took off nonetheless, but there are no records showing that they ever actually landed in Iraq. In other words: An international outlaw using unlicensed aircraft took control of U.S. government-purchased weapons -- which then disappeared.


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