September 24, 2008: Western
investigators are finding massive amounts of defense related corruption in the
Middle East and Africa. Old habits die hard, and corruption in defense
procurement is thousands of years old. At least according to surviving records
from ancient Egypt, China, India and Mesopotamia. What makes this culture of
payoffs and outright theft so pervasive is that weapons tend to be expensive,
traded in an atmosphere of secrecy, and rarely used. This makes it easier for
government officials and weapons manufacturers to take a little, or a lot, off
the top for themselves, and get away with it.
In the last few decades, Western nations have tried to put a halt to
these corrupt practices. The reformers have encountered strong resistance in
many parts of the world. China, India, Africa and the Middle East have been
reluctant to play fair. Saudi Arabia recently got British investigators to back
off by threatening to cut off cooperation on counter-terrorism efforts. Before
that, there was a major (but largely concealed) scandal when UN officials were
found to be taking bribes from Saddam Hussein, to ignore Iraqi plundering of
the Oil For Food program in the 1990s. Now South African officials are
rebuffing attempts to investigate bribery in the recent South African purchase
of Swedish Gripen jet fighters. There are other allegations of South African
corruption in weapons purchases, but the government there is not eager to
prosecute their own people.
It's widely known in India that defense purchasing, as well as
government weapons manufacturers, are awash in corruption of all kinds.
Attempts to stem the problem have met with much resistance, and progress has
been slow. China and Russia managed to keep their defense related corruption
problems quiet for a long time, but the introduction of market economies, and
more aggressive media, has made the matter more public. This has led to
increased efforts to eliminate the problem. But despite both countries having
authoritarian governments, the sticky fingered generals and officials have been
able to survive.
Even the West is not immune to the problem, despite their zeal for clean
government. The United States continues to unmask, and prosecute senior
officials for defense related corruption. Much of the bribery in developing
countries comes from European arms manufacturers seeking an edge in making
multi-billion dollar sales in developing countries. But at least the problem is
out in the open, more than it has been for a long time. But much more is being
spent on defense (over $1.3 trillion a year) than ever before. There's more to
steal, even if more of the thieves are being caught.