Qatar ‘Row’ a “Family Issue”

White House press spokesman Sean Spicer made the comments during an off-camera briefing to journalists in Washington. [bbc]

So was World War I.

“The four countries that are part of that – we believe it’s a family issue and that they should work [it] out,” said Mr Spicer.

If you believe in state-craft and diplomacy, you have to understand that selling weapons is a political action that is going to have an effect on the politics of the purchasers. After all, they bought those weapons for some kind of political purpose, and they are now enabled to pursue those ends.

Before WWI there was a ‘gentleman’ by the name of Basil Zaharoff, who was an “international man of mystery” specializing in selling weapons to both sides of politically stressed areas. He had a great deal to do with the early propagation of Browning’s machine-guns, and Hiram Maxim’s machine-guns. One of the reasons WWI was so horrible was the addition of the machine-gun, as a defensive weapon against massed infantry attacks. Contrary to a lot of peoples’ opinions, European military commanders were not a bunch of idiots who didn’t understand the transformative effect that machine-guns were going to have, and who were surprised by the slaughter: they understood it and were actively engaged in preparing to make sure that it was lop-sided. Zaharoff’s activities had an unusual effect of re-levelling certain playing fields that looked like they were becoming lop-sided: he’d go to one side and demonstrate the horrific firepower of a machine-gun, then inform them that their prospective enemy had just bought a bunch. He just didn’t mention that he was the guy who had sold them.

Basil Zaharoff in Tintin

This is an old game, and the US has been one of the most effective players in that game (because its premier-priced gear is regularly put on display, smashing competitors around the world). The other great powers, France and Germany, also make a good business out of selling weapons to anyone that they can, constructing an invisible web of power behind the powers. It’s how you wind up with embarrassing situations like an Argentine-piloted French-made Mystere jet shooting a French-made Exocet anti-ship missile at the Royal Navy frigate Sheffield and sinking it.

Weapons dealers, like the US, bear some responsibility for the way their weapons are used. Of course, they try to deny it, and some – like the US – have laws allegedly restricting the sale of weapons to non-aggressive non-repressive regimes; that’s why it was a ‘scandal’ that the Reagan administration was trying to trade weapons for hostages from Iran. [iran contra on wikipedia] In case you haven’t already figured it out, that’s more like becoming a member of “Uncle Sam’s Frequent Shopper’s Club” than anything else – but it’s a serious issue: if you have a fleet of F-16s and the US decides to squeeze you by restricting the availability of parts, you’ll have to buy them for ruinous prices on the underground market. So, the US-made F-16s that the Saudis are using to drop bombs on the Yemenis, came with a committment to continue supplying a few billion dollars worth of parts and maintenance. The US base in Qatar came with committments, too. There are consequences to all of these transactions.

Violence, (oh no!) is golden. Ah!
Violence, (oh no!) is golden. Ah!

Pass another plate of shrapnel,
Sprinkle it with TNT,
Gotta have another grenade salad,
Split it with your enemy.
Gotta sell another Uzi,
Maybe couple 44 Mags,
Got a wife and a kid to support,
And a payment on the Jag.
Won’t you try this personal bazooka,
Make you feel like a man,
Show the little girls what’s what
By the size of the thunder in your hands. – John Fogerty

Europe, before WWI, had experienced a run-away arms race in the form of the industrial revolution. It’s hard for anyone alive today to realize the breadth and impact of industrialization on civilization, but just think for a moment at the societal stresses you’re going to get when you have superpowers that are transitioning from wooden sailing ships to coal-fired steel battleships, and the vast industrial capacity that is needed to keep them on a war-footing. It’s a fact that a wooden fighting ship against an iron ship is a slaughter: at Tsushima the Japanese conclusively demonstrated what a difference even a decade’s worth of advances in military technology can make.

George V and Nicholas II – inbred upper-class cosplayer twits with enviable tailors

Meanwhile, European powers – who were mostly cousins of the Saxe-Coburg family – George V of England, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, Queen Victoria, Alexander II of Russia – WWI was a family affair. It was the most dysfunctional family, ever.

Spicer’s comment shows how uneducated most Americans are about history. Spicer probably thinks that WWI was another European mess where the US had to rescue everyone from evil (in preparation for the next European mess, naturally) and that’s about the limit of his comprehension. Or he wouldn’t have dismissed the increasing tensions in The Middle East as a “family issue.” They are tensions that the US’ vacillating and incompetent diplomacy are stoking: we don’t need to do anything at all, just keep selling weapons and watch what happens.

In the run-up to WWI, British inventor Hiram Maxim made a great deal of money selling the machine-guns that later reaped the flower of European aristocracy and triggered Russia’s collapse into an entirely new form of totalitarianism. When Gavrilo Princip struck the match and lit the fuse, the ruling family of Europe’s playful secret diplomacy suddenly became frighteningly real and millions of people died for their pride in their “word.” The British were no more able to sit on the sidelines and watch Europe ‘work it out’ than the US will be if The Middle Eastern oil barons decide to fight – remember how Saddam Hussein’s adventure in Kuwait worked out? What will the US do if Qatar, which we’ve been making secret deals with for decades, gets into a war with Saudi Arabia, which we’ve been making secret deals with for decades?

Mr Spicer: do not encourage the ruling family of the arab world to “work it out.”

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Smithsonian has a good article on Basil Zaharoff [here] – he’s a fascinating character, who was into pretty much anything that would make him a load of money. I first encountered him as a character in a Tintin comic book when I was a kid, there was a fellow going around selling weapons to both sides and he had the same elegant belle epoque mustache and goatee.

If the relationship between industrial output and warfare, and militarization of Europe leading to WWI is interesting to you, let me encourage you to read David S. Landes’ The Unbound Prometheus, which is one of my recommended books. [stderr] It’s tough going at first but then you’ll find you’re wrapped up in it, like a novel. Landes compares and contrasts things like the growth-rate of steel production between Germany and Britain, and how disparities in industrial efficiency eventually forced the war to happen. The impact of the industrial revolution is incomprehensible to us today – and was incomprehensibly quick to those who lived through it. And it all ground to a stop in Flanders fields. It may seem odd to you that I characterize the industrial revolution as a runaway arms-race but if you read Landes, you’ll probably agree.

I have often wondered at the degree to which being good looking and well-dressed are enough of a signal for a con artist like Zaharoff to get by on. His superficial resemblance to Napoleon III and Alexander of Russia must have helped open doors.

BBC has a good overview of the relatedness between the European family prior to WWI [bbc]


  1. Siobhan says

    I eagerly await to see what spin is required to make people forget that this particular powder keg has a “made in USA” stamp on the rim.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Relevant cliché: cops fear domestic violence disputes more than street fights.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    The five biggest arms sellers in the world are the United States, Russia, France, China, and the United Kingdom.

    The UN Security Council is in charge of maintaining world peace. It has five permanent members: the United States, Russia, France, China, and the United Kingdom.

    Keen observers might notice a potential conflict of interest!

  4. says

    I eagerly await to see what spin is required to make people forget that this particular powder keg has a “made in USA” stamp on the rim.

    They already tried “terrorism” didn’t you notice?

    Yeah, it didn’t make me leap to my feet and start saluting, either. But everyone knows Al Jazeera is bad, because they’re a bunch of arabs. So: USA USA USA!

  5. komarov says

    […] some – like the US – have laws allegedly restricting the sale of weapons to non-aggressive non-repressive regimes; […]

    At first I read this as sales to nations that aren’t agressive or repressive being restricted. It didn’t seem wrong either. No guns for you unless you promise to trample on your neighbours or your own people. We want repeat customers. Reading on I’m not convinced I misread it at all.