Jotman readers J-P and RM, noting my apparent indifference to the outcome of the trial of the notorious arms dealer Victor Bout in Thailand, have commented on the need for Victor Bout to be brought to justice, expressing dismay at the outcome of the trial (described in the previous post).
The statement that "Bout should face justice" is something that I completely agree with in principle.
Saddam Hussein was another person many of us thought should face justice.
Behind both cases a deeper question loomed: Whose justice? Are we talking about American justice or international justice? The basic question is the same, whether it is Saddam Hussein or Victor Bout we are talking about.
And the matter before the Thai court, of course, was whether or not to extradite Bout to the US -- where he would face American justice.
Should Bout have been extradited to the US, this might have seriously set back US-Russian relations at a time when Obama seems to want to set the relationship on a new course. At the very least, it would have put the new US administration in an awkward position. Therefore, whatever the US government might have being saying out loud (the tough talk), I wouldn't be surprised if, privately, the Obama Administration had not given the nod to the Thais that they need not extradite Bout.
Let's look at it another way: if, as Obama claims, the US government has too many important things on its plate to bother investigating Bush Administration war crimes, then surely the last thing the White House needs is a high-profile trial of a semi-retired Russian merchant: a trial sure to create diplomatic trouble with Moscow, complicating Obama's "fresh start" foreign policy agenda.
Recall that by 2008, the Bush Administration seemed hell-bent on roughing up Russia's feathers: NATO expansion, military advisers in Georgia, independence for Kosovo, missile defense for Eastern Europe, etc. The DEA's capture (the Russians claim "entrapment") of Victor Bout in Bangkok can viewed as part and parcel of a high-handed approach to dealing with Russia. By contrast, the Obama Administration has shown clear signs of wanting to turn over a new leaf. We saw that in early July with the Obama-Medvedev nuclear agreement.
So international justice for Bout, yes. I'm all for that. In fact, according to Oxfam, the UN is negotiating an "Arms Trade Treaty" that would "help regulate arms dealers and make it harder for them to break embargoes." Hopefully in the future, the likes of Victor Bout could be brought before an international court. I agree with the UK-based NGO that the urgent need for a treaty regulating the arms trade should be the enduring lesson of this week's acquittal of Victor Bout in Bangkok.
As they say "justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done." As the case before the Thai court concerned whether Bout should receive American justice, the question too few Americans asked back in 2003 needed to be asked again: justice toward what ends?
If the cost was going to be a setback in Russian-US relations, then I would say "getting Bout" was not worth it. Moreover, I think Obama's new approach deserves a fair go and warrants a clean slate.