Whatever the strategic — and humanitarian — considerations behind NATO/U.S. intervention in Libya, a larger force utterly indifferent to both, and seldom sufficiently newsworthy to merit mention, unites tyrant and rescuer and keeps the world tangled in an endless cycle of hellish violence far beyond the scope of the conflict that generates it.
I’m talking about the global arms trade, for which wars large and small, whatever their cause, whatever their “legitimacy,” are necessities without which the goods would not move. They’re also more than that, but not the sort of thing we salute or honor with granite statuary.
“This” — the Libyan no fly zone — “is turning into the best shop window for competing aircraft for years. More even than in Iraq in 2003,” said Francis Tusa, editor of the UK-based newsletter Defense Analysis, quoted in a recent Reuters article by Tim Hepher. For instance, enforcement of the no fly zone pitted two European-made jet fighters, the Typhoon and the Rafale, against one another for world leaders to view, and France, Tusa pointed out, “is particularly desperate to sell the Rafale.”
This is the generally unstated truth about Western intervention in the Middle East and anywhere else in the world. The headline-generating acts of murderous repression by dictators, whether we love or abhor them, are made possible by weaponry and equipment they purchased from us. And then, when the time comes, we may have to attack our former business partners with the same weaponry we sold them.
“When it comes to Libya,” Hepher wrote, “Paris was almost as eager to take on Gaddafi as it was to open up military ties after the EU lifted an arms embargo on the country in 2004. But France was not alone in wooing the country after Gaddafi renounced weapons of mass destruction.”
Every country with an armaments industry, including, of course, the United States, which claims 30 percent of the world market in arms sales, wooed Gaddafi when his pariah status was lifted seven years ago. One of the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, from December 2009, mentioned an offer to Gaddafi’s younger son Khamis to “travel around the United States to tour U.S. military installations,” according to the Reuters article.
And Libya is small potatoes compared to — no surprise — Saudi Arabia. Last year, according to Spiegel Online, the U.S. announced the largest arms export deal in history with the Saudis. The oil-rich kingdom will buy $60 billion worth of U.S. aircraft over the next five to ten years. “Money is no object,” the article informs us, “and the Saudi air force is to receive F-15 fighter-bombers, Apache attack helicopters, missiles, radar equipment and bombs. All together, according to the Wall Street Journal, the order is large enough to guarantee 77,000 jobs at Boeing.”
An economic gusher of such magnitude overwhelms what we usually think of as politics, let alone what we think of as morality or humanity. The stakes are too high for geopolitics to be, at its core, about anything but armaments, unrest and war, over and over in a vortex of death and wealth. This is not just an American problem but a global one. If the United States gets all human-rightsy about a particular country and refuses to sell weapons to it, someone else will. The solution to this is beyond the scope of the nation-state or any transnational institution that currently exists, which are all based on the eternal inevitability of war. And the most important war is always the next one.
According to Tom Gjelten, who reported on the arms trade last month for NPR, there’s a certain bizarre security in all this: “The risk that countries receiving American arms might someday turn them against the United States is somewhat mitigated by their continued dependence on U.S. firms for spare parts.”
Gjelten went on to say, in a tone of macabre amorality that is characteristic of so much geopolitical reporting: “Defense contractors, however, now have to worry about reduced demand for their products, if the United States pulls back on arms transfers to the Middle East or if Middle Eastern governments choose to spend less money on U.S. weaponry and more on social programs, in order to calm their restive populations.”
This is always the sticking point for me, the last straw of outrage — the arrogant pseudo-objectivity of war reportage. The business worries of defense contractors are neatly and deftly turned into the worries of everyman, but meanwhile, the monstrous absurdity of the whole system, which has just been laid bare, hovers without mention.
And suddenly I thought about Harry Lime, Graham Greene’s memorable villain in the 1949 movie The Third Man, played by Orson Welles. Riding above the mass of humanity in a Vienna Ferris wheel, he says to his friend, who has just asked if he ever thinks about his victims:
“Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax — the only way you can save money nowadays.”