The Boutian Enterprise

Posted on December 21, 2009

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The 1990s were a time of civil conflicts in many regions of the world. Many of these conflicts have continued into the new millennium and some are still ongoing even as we speak. This paper argues that Viktor Bout, the most notorious gunrunner of all time managed to supply firearms to the conflict regions by masking his hideous operations behind a clever rhetoric that described him as an innocent international businessman who engaged in transportation. The paper shows the effects the few public utterances that Bout made had on his employees and clients. His utterances were thematic and sought to unify the rhetoric that came out of his complicated business enterprise. In the process, Bout managed to establish a reputation for himself among his clients as a very dependable businessman who delivered commissioned cargo at all costs. The paper also argues that it is partly because of the innocence of Bout’s rhetoric that he managed to remain out of the limelight and as such carried out his activities without attracting the attention of world intelligence services. Ultimately the paper points out that the Boutian story is a story that highlights the failure of international leadership and disregard for international security.


Now, you may ask how this is related to the aims of this blog?Like many places in Africa, North Kenya is an area that has been ravaged by gun-fighting for almost two decades. More information can be found here



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“There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That is, one firearm for every twelve people in the planet. The only question is, how do we arm the other eleven?” This is the astonishing admission by Nicolas Cage starring as a notorious arms smuggler in the movie Lord of War. If there is a gunrunner who took this statement to heart, it is Viktor Bout, a native of the former Soviet Union of whom little is known about his background. Bout’s weapons are known to have touched the hands of every fighting army. From the freedom fighters in Angola to the rebels in Sierra Leone, he supplied all without discretion. From the Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Taliban in Afghanistan, his only concern was whether they wrote the checks on time. In the movie Lord of War, it is even mentioned that he supplied every army but the Salvation Army. Viktor Bout’s gunrunning empire was expansive, organized and deeply covert. For over a decade, all the authorities had on Bout was an agreement that he was an international criminal of great threat to world peace but little hard evidence to pin him down.
In this paper, I am going to argue that Bout’s illicit gunrunning empire not only thrived because of its expansive and clandestine network but also because of his clever rhetoric to make himself appear just like any other businessman and the activities of his organization built on a false “transportation” rhetoric. Although there is little that has been said by Bout in public, we can form a portrait of him through the rhetoric that is used to describe him by those that knew him.
According to Douglas Farah’s and Stephen Braun’s Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible, “Bout represented a breed of Soviet-bloc entrepreneurs who rose from the ashes of the cold war…businessmen [that] had easy access to the massive inventories of weapons and ammunition that had been manufactured for decades to sustain a vast military that was suddenly shrinking” (Merchant of Death 8). With the fall of the Berlin wall, men like Bout found an opportunity: vast inventories of weapons spread all over the former Soviet bloc, disgruntled soldiers in dire need of a higher pay and authorities confused by a void left by the removal of the tight controlling arm of the Kremlin. The only missing piece of the jig-saw was clients willing to pay for these weapons.
At the time, Africa was a burning continent.  The Angolan, Sierra Leone and Liberian civil wars were top on the agenda of a list of conflicts that were becoming increasingly difficult to control. A ragtag army of guerilla freedom fighters was going head to head with the government of the brutal dictator Mobuto Sese Seko in the Congo. In the Middle East, the customary conflict between Israel and Palestine was ongoing, as well as the Gulf War between the United States and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The disintegrating factions of the former Soviet Union, Bosnia and Herzegovina were also experiencing their fare share of civil wars that defined the closing end of the 20th Century. In addition, many other untold conflicts raged on a planet engulfed by the uncertainty of the post cold war era and heightened by the successes of liberal capitalism. As a result the new era needed “a quintessential big-picture man who understood that organizations, not deals are the underpinnings of meteoric business success” (Merchant of Death 15). Viktor Bout was not only living the professed mantle of American Capitalism but was also “the top private supplier and transporter of killing implements in a world addicted to his products” (Merchant of Death 16). All these conflicts provided a genuine opportunity for any aspiring gunrunner like Viktor Bout and he rose to the challenge with gusto.
Besides the presence of conflicts, another big incentive that was at hand for Bout and his business was the incoherence of the international arms laws and international aircraft regulation system. “Hiding aircraft and companies was almost as easy as flying weapons into war zones,” (Merchant of Death 9) a loophole that Bout exploited to the fullest. Furthermore, “the Bout network excelled at avoiding international aviation scrutiny by registering planes in compliant nations such as Liberia” (Merchant of Death 9). As long as specific countries were willing to comply and trade with Bout’s network, the activities of the United Nations to put experts in the field and impose embargoes were almost futile. In fact Johan Peleman, a Belgian international arms deals investigator, claims that “the United Nations is only as powerful as U.N. member states allow it to be. And the United Nations, as such, cannot arrest people, has no subpoena rights or whatever. It’s up to the individual member states to act”1. As such, all the grounds work for any determined gunrunner was already in place. Viktor Bout was both determined and clever enough to exploit these loop holes.
Bout often claimed that he was just a businessman. Indeed a businessman he was, and for that matter, a very successful one. He also often claimed that he was being targeted because he was a successful Russian. The image coined by this rhetoric was very effective in winning him sympathy from the Russian politicians who not long ago had been quarrelling with the United States during the Cold War years. As a result, Bout had a safe haven in Moscow where no foreign country could prosecute him without the go ahead of the Kremlin. As long as Russia and Vladimir Putin “had no wish to see America put a Russian in the dock and portray him as Dr. Evil,”2 Bout’s business continued to be a success story.
 In addition, the support by Russia gave Bout’s “I am just a misunderstood businessman” tag more credence. In the eyes of some of his clients, he could as well be telling the truth. An Economist article, Flying Anything to Anybody echoes such uncertainty: “Americans did not object when his Antonov An-24 delivered goods for their soldiers in post-invasion Iraq. So what if he is also rumored to have ferried gun-toting and bearded men to and fro in the Middle East?”3 Bout had indeed succeeded in portraying himself as a misunderstood businessman.
To add further uncertainty to the already existing mystery, Bout excelled at another legal business that genuinely gave him credence in the eyes of his clients and sympathizers. During the 1990s conflicts like in Somalia and Congo, “donors wanted to get goods—personnel, tents, food, medicine and the like—to remote airstrips. Mr. Bout had big, rusty aeroplanes for hire to all comers.”4 On the surface, Bout and his “transportation” business were geared towards solving problems that afflicted stricken refugees in the third world countries. On a covert level however, Bout was using the transportation of humanitarian aid as a diversion for supplying illegal firearms to the region. In fact, Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun claim that Bout managed to supply humanitarian aid to refugees in Sudan while simultaneously arming the rebels causing the crisis in the region.  Any suspecting country or individual would therefore have had to dig deep beyond the veil of the “humanitarian” to reach the “merchant of death” layer of this enigmatic man.
Individuals often choose a certain career path because they are good at that particular area. In the movie Lord of War, which was modeled after events in Bout’s life, Nicolas Cage portrays him as an individual who chooses illegal gunrunning because “he was good at it.” He also portrays him as an arch-villain who believes that “it is in our nature [to fight], [because] earliest human skeletons had spear heads lodged in their ribcages.”5 If Bout was really concerned about going into business because he had a talent, as the movie portrays him, he could have chosen to do it legally. Bout was more than just talent. It was a combination of talent and blinding lust for money that drove him to some of the most remote regions of Africa where he had some of his best customers. In a way the movie might also have been kind in its portrayal of Bout. One might be forgiven for finding him/herself admiring the star criminal who stopped at nothing in his quest for success.
Under normal circumstances, a straight businessman cannot possibly justify his interaction and doing business with some of the most brutal men alive. Yet Bout had the former president and dictator of Liberia, Charles Taylor as a major client and an ally. He is also known to have traded with the man known as Mosquito: Sam Bockarie, the Sierra Leone hair-dresser turned battle commander who boasted that he could suck the life out of his enemies. He also traded with the Congo rebel Bemba and Jonas Savimbi of Angola.  Bout was successful with these dictators because he had a big reputation among them. According to an intelligence officer who had been tracking him, “he did the job, so people came back for more, and he kept delivering, no matter what the circumstances, no matter where he was called on” (Merchant of Death 23).
The man himself claimed that “when a client orders a certain kind of transport and pays the lease per hour, what is transported and how it is transported is regulated not by the owner of the transport but by the organization or person who undertakes to organize the transportation” (Merchant of Death 27). Bout abdicates himself of all responsibility of doing business with even the most vile of clients like the African dictators mentioned above based on regulations geared towards good intentions and privacy of cargo under transportation. It is also interesting to note that this sentence, being one of the few that Bout said in public, had a clear theme based on transportation. The instances of the word “transport” are repeated several times to convey a theme of transportation, which then portrays Bout as an innocent transporter. Also, in the words of his older brother, Sergei Bout, Viktor had no responsibility for what his planes transported:
Imagine a taxi driver who is supposed to give a lift to a customer who asks him to take him to a certain location. But suddenly this taxi driver asks the customer what is in your suitcase. It is not my bloody business what my customer has in his trunk. I am a taxi driver, I am a carrier. I don’t know what I carry. Maybe I carry a nuclear bomb. No one is informed me about it. (Merchant of Death 28)
The above words represent the rhetoric of men that had become skillful at skirting the edges of the International Aircraft Regulations and International Arms Transfers Laws to mask a hideous business that they championed. The International Arms Transfers Laws to some extent call for responsibility and a moral obligation to ensure that a firearms carrier delivers cargo to a legitimate Government. Clearly, a moral obligation is not expected from a man that does not care whether he carries a nuclear bomb in the trunk of his taxi or in his plane.
In addition, this rhetoric shows a steadfast support of Mr. Bout by his associates. Most of them knew him as a good man who had “a jovial, intelligent and shrewd personality.”6 The clarity of Bout’s themes is repeated in his brother’s words and the infrequency of his public utterances could also have contributed to the unity of message of the rhetoric that came out of his business network.
Bout is known to have employed impoverished ex-Soviet pilots who were ready to risk their lives for hard currency, and to send his aircrafts anywhere they wanted. The heights these pilots were willing to go for Mr. Bout is highlighted by the fact that they often “learnt to travel with a pot of washable emulsion paint, ready to daub new identification numbers on the fuselages of their planes.”7 As such, they were able to establish a reputation for Bout’s business as the agency that delivered the cargo at all costs. This reputation went a long way to making him a favorite of those warlords and dictators that wanted a businessman that would ensure that their war arsenal was at hand whenever it was needed.
  On some occasions, these pilots were genuinely unaware that the arms cargos they were carrying were illegal. In an interview with the PBS Frontline, one such pilot is surprised and saddened to realize that the arms he delivered to President Charles Taylor in Liberia had found their way into the hands of Sierra Leone rebels. “We were just thinking that, oh my God, that’s what happened with that thing”8 he exclaims. As a result, Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, saw its worst conflict with more than four thousand people dead, many women raped and thousands of children conscripted.  According to the Economist article Flying anything to anyone, such a scenario might arise due to the intensely complicated nature of Bouts business, where “it is set up [as] fast-changing firms with many fronts and names, providing air-logistics and weaponry to any client who could pay.”9
Even upon his arrest in a sting operation carried out by American and Thai agents in Bangkok, Bout and his sympathizers continue to argue that he is an innocent, misunderstood man. According to a website copyrighted to Viktor A. Bout (http://www.victorbout.com/home.htm), all the accusations against him are unsubstantiated and also claim that Johan Peleman is a corrupt Belgian Official who is out to create a name for himself at the expense of Bout and his business enterprise.
Yet the results of the core accusations leveled at Mr. Bout –illegal firearms trafficking– is there for everyone to see. The over five hundred and fifty million illicit firearms in worldwide circulation is a clear story of failure of international leadership. The mere fact that Bout is accused of having globe-trotted for over ten years selling illegal firearms to anyone that could pay is a story of negligence and disregard for international security. The inability of the United Nations to arrest Viktor Bout and the lack of cooperation between those countries that wanted to arrest him and Russia’s insistence on his innocence also beats the logic behind the creation of the United Security Council as a watchdog of International Security. At the same time, the ease with which Bout supplied weapons to countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East is a sad story of utter failure of leadership in these countries.
Part of the reason why Bout found it easy to supply weapons to the countries in West Africa was because most of them lacked legitimate governments. The arrest of Charles Taylor, his ongoing trial in the International criminal Court at The Hague and the subsequent election of legitimate governments in Liberia and Sierra Leone is a positive step in the eradication of illegal firearms. However, this is merely like a grain of sand on a beach. Tighter control must be enacted on the entire process of International firearms transfers even if the deals are legal. The selling government or individuals must be bound by regulations that require them to know exactly who they are dealing with. The problem of middlemen must also be checked by uniform international laws that all countries should subscribe to.
  All the above would be futile if greater responsibility is not placed on the individuals to recognize the clever rhetoric that illegal firearms dealers use to mask their hideous activities. In this sense, the media should assume a position of greater responsibility to educate the public about such flawed rhetoric.
  Works Cited and Consulted
a)Farah, Douglas. Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wily & Sons Inc. 2007.
b)Reyneke, Eunice. Small arms and light weapons in Africa: Illicit proliferation, circulation and trafficking. Pretoria: Thorold’s Africa Books, 2000.
c)Thachuk, Kimberly. Transnational Threats: Smuggling and Trafficking in Arms, Drugs, and Human Life. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Security International, 2007.
d)Bourne, Mike. Arming Conflict: The Proliferation of Small Arms. New York: Macmillan, 2007.
e)“Sierra Leone: Gunrunners.” Frontline.  2002. PBS. May. 2002< http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/sierraleone/&gt;.
f)“Interview with Johan Peleman.” Frontline. 2002. PBS. May. 2002 < http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/sierraleone/peleman.html&gt;.
g)“Flying Anything to Anybody.” Economist. 2009. Vol. 389 Issue 8611, p89-92, 3p < http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=35855506&site=ehost-live&gt;.
h)“Air America.” New Republic. 2006, Vol. 234 Issue 2, p11-13, 3p, 1 color < http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=19443174&site=ehost-live&gt;.
i)Lord of War – a movie written and directed by Andrew Niccol and starred by Nicolas Cage.


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