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Why Does America Dislike the World's Worst Arms Dealer? The Russians Simply Don't Understand.

The contretemps between Russia and the United States over Viktor “Merchant of Death” Bout has a surreal, theater-of-the-absurd quality, one that highlights the core philosophical divide between the two countries in just about everything. Russian officials are outragedthat notorious arms-dealer Bout was successfully extradited from Thailand this week and charged with terrorism offenses in Manhattan Federal Court. According to various reports, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the incident “an example of glaring injustice,” while the Ministry itself published a statement calling the extradition an “unlawful” instance of “unprecedented political pressure” and “interference with justice.” Meanwhile, U.S. officials are bruiting it about that Bout openly boasted of “preferring to kill Americans.”

A little background: In 2008 Bout was caught in a sting operation in Thailand while agreeing to sell weapons to the Colombian FARC guerillas. Not just a truckload or two but 700 surface-to-air missiles, 5000 Kalashnikovs, mines, explosives and even ultra-light-planes with grenade launchers. The Thai authorities held him until now. Here is a usefulDaily Telegraph history of Bout's activities in the past—he may be the hardest working 'freelancer' in arms dealing, though according to Russian sources he has compatriots even more active in the field. So why arrest him, they wonder. After all, everybody does it.  

The United States illicitly armed the Mujahideen during the Soviet occupation ofAfghanistan. And what about weapons sales to the Gulf countries, Taiwan, and Israel? How about Saudi Arabia and Egpyt? Nice. Does this mean hard-working executives of, say, Lockheed should be charged as criminals the minute they step into neutral countries?

To this question, the American mind responds rather unimaginatively with, huh?! This guy sold arms to the Taliban, and to the worst genocidal regimes in Africa. Where's the controversy? His deals led directly to the deaths of American personnel and many thousands of innocent civilians in benighted lands. Russian response: yes, but Bout helped supply your early logistical needs in Iraq (see under '2004' in Daily Telegraph link). He wasn't so criminal then, apparently. You guys supplied Saddam for years during the Iran-Iraq conflict. And later your direct incursion into Iraq led to thousands of civilian deaths. Just because you enjoy convenient interludes of moral amnesia, doesn't mean the world has to. What makes you so qualified to judge Bout or anyone else? It's all just one big cynical power game for world domination, isn't it, so why not just drop the pretense already?

Well, no, not quite. That's where the Russians don't get us, and why we keep miscuing each other. Sure, the United States has to get in bed with bad guys periodically, but only to stop even badder guys from taking over, and only as a last resort, and with painful agonizing followed by years of political accounting. Here's the point: we don't do anything purely for the sake of imperial power. And though, to Moscow, it must sound utterly naïve, maybe even dangerously naïve, not to say disingenuous, Americans genuinely believe they can and do help bring happiness and prosperity to other countries. 

We can cite a long track record of successes in that endeavor (how's Russia's track record?). In fact, this inveterate idealism all too often leads to empowering rivals such as China, and temporary alliances with villains for lack of alternatives. Case in point: the use ofefficacious, corrupt warlords in Afghanistan to quell the Taliban. All of which operates in tandem with America’s incessant self-criticism—unlike, say, the Kremlin's performance over Chechnya, which merely leads to dead journalists and critics.

In the end, the United States often turns on former allies when they grow too unpalatable to stomach: The Shah of Iran, Panama strongman Manuel Noriega, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, to name three among many. Instead of regretting such inconsistency, we should celebrate it: it's a dirty world where one often chooses between evils, but we do not uphold utter sleazebags for mere loyalty or the sake of convenience.

One can imagine the Russian attitude to this: nudge-nudge-wink-wink, you're just like us. They can't fathom why we won't accept the equivalency. But we don’t: The United States refuses to be corrupted for good by realpolitik. Idealism keeps bursting through. What seems mysteriously hypocritical to the Kremlin mindset is actually very simple: regeneration and renewal are an integral part of a properly functioning democracy.

Maybe there was a moment when we had to do business with Viktor Bout, but that does not mean we have to like him or be like him. It doesn't make him one of us, one of the gang close to a permanent power center akin to Putin's. Anyone offering that would soon be unmasked, fired, prosecuted or voted out. Critics in the media would have a field day—and live to do so again. This is not Russia, and just now we mean that in the nicest way possible, and only because we need help on AfghanistanIran, and the START Treaty.

Melik Kaylan writes for The Wall Street Journal and Forbes.

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