It’s been a good year for all of us Cold War kids for whom Ronald Reagan is like an absentee grandfather and the late 80s episodes of G.I. Joe now look like blurry but prescient maps of our geopolitical adulthoods. Whether it’s by mistake or by the misinformed metaphysical will of our youth, we exchanged a fear of Mother Russia for the fear of a real Cobra Commander some years ago. When the clean lines of the old bi-lateral origami unfolded it revealed a new world map that’s now so bent and creased it’s difficult to understand without overdosing on TV news motion graphics and frenetically written tweets. But 2010 was kind and gave us a couple little reminders of the good old days when all the bad guys were Russian.
It started with the arrest of 11 “deep cover” Russian spies who were hiding in the American suburbs decoding Starbucks recipes and ripping Glee DVDs. Compared to the soul snapping strength of the terrorism narrative in America, this was a warm chestnut - the Russians were back to sample the fat of our land, not to blow it up. And that’s what was so great about the Soviets, they played a game with us that had comprehensible goals, structure and symmetry - they wore were red and we were blue. They drank vodka and thought capitalism was corrupt while we drank Coke also thought capitalism was corrupt but still much better than driving a Lada. They had birthmarks and gold teeth and we had Solid Gold and an AIDS panic. As paradigms go, it was a major winner.
The follow up to this Cold War reunion is now emerging. Victor Bout is a big husky Russian, born in a place that ends with “stan”, he sells AK47s for a living, he’s got a tractor size moustache and he’s being extradited by Thailand to the U.S. Like the spy story there is a familiarity in this material that’s reassuring. If you haven’t heard of him, Bout has been one of the busiest arms dealers in the world for quite a while. The short version of his story goes – the Soviet Union collapsed, all kinds of military hardware was laying around, he got some cash together and bought a couple military cargo airplanes for cheap (he was an Air Force officer) and started making money flying cargo for various parties, and his business grew and grew. He’s one of the guys they based the Nick Cage movie Lord of War on and he’s been sexy since way back in 1993 when the NY Times magazine ran this amazing profile on him. His work was also alluded to in the problematic but very successful documentary film Darwin’s Nightmare. Basically, he’s a global bad guy and American justice finally caught up to him.
But there’s a rub - Bout’s cargo aircraft businesses were running full steam to service our war in Iraq. I know because I saw, heard and felt the distinct engine whine of his big Russian cargo airplanes everyday and every night during my 21-month bivouac at the Baghdad Airport. It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out, everyday at least a dozen Russian built cargo aircraft landed and took off, the Iraqi army trains on and carries AK47s and they’re rebuilding their military, which means they’re buying and we were rushed to bring in MRAPs as quickly as possible. The biggest of the Russian cargo planes, the biggest airplane I’ve ever seen, sat in a special safe area called the “hot pad” because it had “something explosive” inside. But don’t take my word for it:
From The Guardian, Adam Roberts, Sunday 21 December 2008:
From Africa he is accused of moving on, establishing a hub for his privateairline in the Middle East, from where he became involved in flying goods to Afghanistan and later to America-run Iraq. Ironically, as one part of the American government was attempting to have Bout detained for his alleged nefarious dealings, another part of the American government was using Bout's services to fly goods to its soldiers in Baghdad.
So really, this narrative is not a cloak and dagger Cold War redux. Pull back the curtain and what you’ll see is another sad chapter from a decade that history books should call The American Malfunction. There are intensely varying opinions on how the Malfunction started, but it seems like just about everyone agrees that we went off the tracks. To sum up our handling of Bout: we identified him for committing war crimes in Africa, set out to construct a legal framework through international treaties to make it legally possible to arrest him, then did extensive business with his front companies through our own proxies (private war corps), then we set a trap for him in Thailand and now we’re extraditing him back to the U.S. for war crimes. Got it.