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How I learned to Love the Bomb: A Review of William Langewiesche’s The Atomic Bazaar

By posted at 12:48 pm on September 12, 2007 0

Gone are the days of mutually assured destruction, when – at the push of a red button – one of the nuclear giants could initiate a worldwide fallout, inevitably bringing about the widely feared doomsday. It is different now: the rogues are in the game.

The bomb scare is not what it used to be. Scaremongers nowadays point to the potential of a nuclear-armed North Korea or Iran, and not at the risk of MAD when things get a little tense between, say, the U.S. and Russia. True, guns at the hands of the “peerless leader” Kim Jong-il or mullah-led Iran with its fierce, controversial and rhetoric-driven president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, could be intimidating – but the real danger does not lie in so-called rogue states owning nukes; it lies in truly rougue groups’ ability to get their hands on these weapons.

coverWilliam Langewiesche’s The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor, an incredibly well-researched, 175 page firestorm that explores a nuke’s power, moves from the laxly maintained Soviet-era nuclear facilities to Pakistan and its acquisition of the bomb and illustrates the who, when, where, what and why – not to mention the how – of developing the world’s most coveted weapon. Parts of the periodically disturbing Atomic Bazaar were published in The Atlantic Monthly in 2006. Langewiesche has augmented the story with more details in the book, animating his breathtaking sources, and bolstering his claim that state-level proliferation is almost impossible to stop. The Atomic Bazaar is narrated in two parts and four sections. The first half is a how-to guide for a terrorist interested in developing a nuke and exploding it somewhere in the Western hemisphere. Now, some might find it outrageous to publicize this information, but the journalist’s ability to collect all the facts by talking with locals and officials, and consulting with public documents should override that concern. After all, the instructions were probably already available to interested parties.

It is not so much the availability of the information – or the drunken Russian security guards, or the fact that radiation detectors in the Urals are turned off because they only catch fish from radioactive lakes – but the West’s loss of street smarts that arms a seeker, according to Langewiesche. A terrorist can someday attack the U.S. with nukes, he writes, “because of Washington’s discomfort with informal realms – because of a blindness to the street, amply demonstrated in recent times, which will have allowed some bomb-builder the maneuvering room necessary to get the job done.”

But despite America and the West’s arrogant ignorance regarding the work, life and authority of a wide range of people – from residents of Soviet-era “secret towns” with their corrupt and decrepit social structure to the local sheiks in eastern Turkey, who run the country’s porous borders with Iran, Iraq, Syria, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – stealing enough bomb-grade uranium, or developing bomb fuel, is still a long shot even for a sophisticated terrorist, Langewiesche writes, citing operational and cultural complexities.

The Atomic Bazaar does point to a recent lesson, however: the West’s gross underestimation of Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions. For a country that had next to nothing in terms of both financial and intellectual resources, Pakistan developed the “Muslim bomb” with relative expediency – about 20 years – right under the nose of American intelligence agencies and the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and with technology from Holland and parts from all across Europe – particularly Germany and Switzerland.

Pakistan’s nuclear genius, Abdul Qadeer Khan, was not only a firm nationalist who wanted to put his country on equal military footing with India, but also an egotist who sought fame and recognition – and who, to achieve that end, acted on the belief that the bomb was not exclusive to the original five (China, France, the UK, Russia and the US) and the “undeclared” few (India and Israel) but available to any sovereign who sought it.

The story of A.Q. Khan arming his nation is intriguing and disturbing. As Langewiesche repeatedly points out, Khan ran an operation much like the one Iran is running today: pompous and convinced that no one would or could do anything about it. Langewiesche also reports that that nuclear technology in Libya, Iraq, Iran and North Korea was provided by Khan; naturally, he charged a hefty premium.

It was easy for Khan to flout the West and enrich himself as long as the U.S. placed “greater importance on propping up the various Pakistani regimes than stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.” Next he presents reporter Mark Hibbs, a “spy’s spy” who shocked intelligence and nuclear agencies throughout the West with his step by step coverage of Pakistani and Iraqi efforts to build the bomb – as well as reporting on the methods by which technology and parts were flowing to these countries from the West.

Back then, as today, nuclear powers did not act. Yes, legislators and prosecutors eventually took action against exports and companies in the U.S., Germany and Switzerland – much like the IAEA actions against Iran today. But Western efforts to curb nuclear ambitions did not pay off in the past, and there is no indication they will now.

The Atomic Bazaar carefully acknowledges that during the last 60 years nukes may have spread to other countries, but they did not drop anywhere; i.e., as long as nation-states hold the bombs, they can be expected to remain in arsenals.

But, as Langewiesche points out, with likes of Khan running around the globe, and the West’s self-imposed, politically driven complacency, it is becoming harder to trust governments and international organizations with stopping nuclear proliferation. So, I stopped worrying. Or, as one source told Langewiesche: “The best way to fight proliferation is to pursue global disarmament. Fine, great, sure – if you expect that to happen… It is simply not going to work.”





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