White Elephants

The king of Siam knew how to deal with domestic opponents: he would present them with a white elephant.

White elephants are rare in nature, and therefore sacred. Being sacred, they may not be put to work. But even a sacred elephant does eat, and eat a lot. Enough to turn a rich man into a pauper.

My late friend, General Matti Peled, one time Quartermaster General of the army, pointed out the similarity between this elephant and many of our gifts from the President of the United States.

According to the stipulations of the grant, most of it must be spent in the United States. Let’s assume that Israel needs Merkava tanks, made in Israel. Or anti-missile systems, also made in Israel. Instead of acquiring these in Israel, the Israeli army buys American airplanes, which it does not need.

A state-of-the-art military airplane is an immensely expensive object. True, we get it for nothing. But like the white elephant, the airplane is very costly to maintain. It needs pilots, whose training costs a fortune. It needs airfields. All these expenses add up to much more than the price of the airplane itself.

But which army can refuse such a wonderful present?

THE MIDDLE EAST is now being invaded by a herd of white elephants.

This week it became known that President Bush is about to supply Saudi Arabia with huge quantities of the most advanced weapons. The price tag is 20 billion (20,000,000,000) dollars.

Ostensibly, the arms are needed to strengthen Saudi Arabia against the Great Satan: Iran. In Saudi eyes, this is now the great danger.

How did this happen? For centuries, Iraq served as a wall between Shiite Persian Iran and the Sunni Arab Middle East. When President Bush toppled the Sunni regime in Iraq, the whole region was opened up to the Shiite power. In Iraq itself, a Shiite government was installed, and Shiite militias roam at will. The Shiite Hizbullah is growing in power in Lebanon, and Iran is extending its long arm to all the Shiites in the region.

Allah, in his infinite wisdom, has seen to it that almost all the huge Middle East oil reserves are located in Shiite areas: in Iran, in the South of Iraq and the Shiite areas of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf principalities. If these reserves slip away from US control, it will cause a drastic change in the balance of power, not only in the region but in the entire world.

Therefore, the strengthening of Saudi Arabia – ruled by conservative Sunnis – makes a lot of sense from the American point of view. However, the arms deal is quite irrelevant to this.

The Saudis do not need weapons. They have an instrument that is much more effective than any number of airplanes and tanks: an inexhaustible supply of dollars. They use it to finance friends, buy influence and bribe leaders.

On the other side, Saudi Arabia is unable to maintain the weapons that are flowing to it. It does not have enough pilots for the airplanes it is buying, nor crews for the tanks. The new weaponry will collect sand in the desert, like all the expensive weapons it has bought in the past.

So what is the sense in buying more weapons to the tune of 20 billions?

Well, the Saudis are selling oil to the Americans for dollars. A lot of oil, a lot of dollars. The United States, with a huge gap in its balance of trade, cannot afford to lose these billions. So, in order to make it possible for the US to carry this burden, the Saudis must give back at least a part of the money. How? Quite simple: they buy American arms that they don’t need.

This is a merry-go-round that benefits all. Especially the Saudi princes. Saudi Arabia is blessed with a great abundance of these – some 9000 (nine thousand) princes, all belonging to the House of Saud. A prince has a lot of wives, a wife has a lot of offspring. Some of them are arms dealers, who automatically receive fat commissions from the arms billions. (It is easy to work it out: a mere one percent of 20 billions amounts to 200 million. And they would laugh at a commission of one percent.)

The princes have, therefore, a vested interest in this convenient arrangement.

THIS IS where Israel enters the picture.

Every arms deal made by the White House needs the assent of Congress. In Congress, the “friends of Israel” – the Jewish and the Evangelist lobbies – rule supreme. Any senator or congressman can forget about being reelected if he offends one of these lobbies.

When Israel raises its voice against an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, the White House has a problem. The more so since there is a certain logic to the Israeli objection: the Saudi airbase in Tabuk is but a few minutes flying time from the Israeli port of Eilat.

What to do? Easy: give us a present of weapons, in order to maintain “the balance of power” and our “qualitative superiority over all the Arab armies combined”.

So, together with the 20 billion deal with the Saudis, President Bush decreed that the American yearly grant of military assistance to Israel should be raised from 2.4 billion to 3 billion. This means that in the coming ten years, Israel will receive arms to the value of 30 billion dollars.

Apart from the small part of the grant that Israel is allowed to spend elsewhere, this huge sum must be spent in the United States. From the economic point of view, the gift to Israel is really an immense boost to the American arms industry. It will enrich the arms producers, who are so dear to Bush’s heart. It will also show the American public how their wise president creates a lot of nice new jobs for them.

THAT, OF course, is not the end of the story.

It would be unacceptable to “strengthen” the rulers of Saudi Arabia in such an impressive way, without giving something to the other kings, presidents and emirs who cooperate with the Americans. Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf emirs expect their share, too.

The new arms deals will, therefore, amount to 40, 50 and God knows how many more billions of dollars.

That’s not bad for the arms producers, who helped Bush get elected and continue to support him. Not bad for the arms merchants, the princes and all the others who profit, the corrupt regimes that rule the Middle East (and, in this respect at least, Israel has succeeded in becoming an integral part of the region.)

ALL THIS could be amusing, were it not for the dark side of these circular deals.

When I was a child, I was taught that one of the most despicable human types is the arms merchant. He is quite different from all other kinds of trader, because his merchandise is death. His riches are drenched with blood. The title “arms merchant” was, at that time, a stinging insult, one of the worst. A person would not introduce himself as such any more than he would admit to being a hired killer.

Times have changed. The arms dealer is now a respectable person. He can be a celebrity, an object of adulation for the gutter press, a friend of politicians, a generous host of members of the government.

Weapons have their own life. They strive to realize their potential. Their mission is to kill. A general whose arsenals are full tends to fantasize about “war this summer” or “war this winter”.

The killing potential of weapons is getting “better” all the time, and their producers need testing grounds. Some days ago, one of our generals revealed on television that under an American-Israeli agreement, the Israeli army is obliged to report to the American military establishment on the effectiveness of all kinds of arms. For example: the accuracy of “smart” bombs and the performance of airplanes, missiles, drones, tanks and all the other instruments of destruction in our wars.

Every “targeted killing” in Gaza or use of fragmentation bombs in Lebanon serves also as a test. The leveling of a neighborhood in Beirut, the death of women and children as “collateral damage”, the ongoing amputation of limbs by fragmentation bombs in South Lebanon – all these are statistical facts that are important for American arms manufacturers to know, so they can improve their merchandise.

A deal is a deal, and goods are goods.

IN THE same week that these huge arms deals were announced, Ehud Olmert spoke about a dialogue (unlimited in time) about the (nonbinding) principles for a final status agreement. Condoleezza was again buzzing around the region’s capitals, smiling and talking, embracing and talking.

Saudi Arabia is hinting that perhaps-perhaps it may be ready to sit with Israel at the table of the “peace meeting” that may take place in the autumn. This is also intended to make it easier for Congress (meaning: the pro-Israeli lobby) to confirm the arms deal.

Bush’s people have announced for the umpteenth time that a “window of opportunity” is now open. (Not a “gate of opportunity”, not a “door of opportunity” but a window. As if windows were for walking through rather then looking through.)

All this activity somehow reminds me of another story about the white elephant:

An American billionaire had set his mind on acquiring a white elephant, in order to impress his peers. But it is strictly forbidden to export white elephants from Thailand, because they are so rare.

A shrewd operator promised to get him a white elephant, and even told him how he would go about it: he would paint the elephant gray before smuggling him out.

And indeed, at the promised time a crate arrived, and out walked a gray elephant. When the gray paint was scrubbed off, a white elephant was revealed. But with a bit more scrubbing, the white paint also came off, and underneath – the elephant was gray.

Uri Avnery is a peace activist, journalist, and writer. Read other articles by Uri, or visit Uri's website.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Wes S said on August 6th, 2007 at 4:00pm #

    Uri, I just love your work. Useful and funny at the same time. Congratulations on another great article.

  2. Al said on August 6th, 2007 at 6:52pm #

    Just another American war crime.