Assessing the Nuclear Threat; Richard L. Russell Reviews the Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor

By Russell, Richard L. | Harvard International Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Assessing the Nuclear Threat; Richard L. Russell Reviews the Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor


Russell, Richard L., Harvard International Review


While Langewiesche's new work has a great "hook," it offers little new insight into Pakistan's role in Abdul Qadeer (A.Q.) Khan's aid and abetment of nuclear weapons proliferation. Moreover, it is largely silent on the danger that Pakistani nuclear weapons might, in the midst of political chaos, slip into al-Qaeda's murderous hands.

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The book starts off with a general discussion of the problem of states acquiring nuclear weapons after the Cold War nuclear standoff. It focuses on the new post-9/11 dimension of nuclear weapons proliferation--the danger of non-state actors such as al-Qaeda acquiring nuclear weapons. Langewiesche develops an interesting description of the tradeoffs for non-state actors in the stealing and operational handling of plutonium and highly enriched uranium from existing stockpiles around the world (especially from Russia) to use as the fissile material for nuclear weapons. He then devotes a chapter to Pakistan's infamous A. Q. Khan's role in fueling--literally and figuratively--nuclear weapons proliferation. The book ably traces Khan's contribution to Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, which largely occurred in his development of centrifuge capabilities to enrich uranium to weapons grade. Khan offered his expertise and entrepreneurship to eager buyers in Libya, Iran, and North Korea as a short-cut alternative to the traditional bottom-up development of indigenous uranium enrichment capabilities.

Langewiesche is rightfully skeptical that A.Q. Khan was a "rogue" operating on his own without approval from Pakistan, but he does not uncover any compelling evidence of under-the-table deals and kickbacks. The best Langewiesche can do is to write in the concluding chapter that "A. Q. Khan had allies in high places who, rather than ignoring his activities, were directly involved and almost certainly approved. In Pakistan this can only mean the generals, including some of those currently in power, and to a certain but unknowable degree Musharraf himself." After widespread exposure of Khan's proliferation business, Musharraf only made Khan apologize for his nefarious activities before whisking him off into house arrest, away from any questioning regarding his global nuclear proliferation operations and collusion with Pakistani military and security services.

Langewiesche also pays admiring tribute to a fellow journalist and nuclear technology expert, Mark Hibbs, who has covered breaking stories over the years for specialized nuclear trade publications. Hibbs has used an array of public information to piece together major trends in global nuclear weapons proliferation--including Pakistan's assistance to Iran's uranium enrichment program--well ahead of government intelligence agencies. American intelligence agencies can learn a great deal from this section, since they chronically suffer from inexperienced analysts following subjects with too little time and substantive insight. Interesting as this chapter may be, however, it might strike some readers as tangential filler.

Many of the book's pages are sprinkled with Langewiesche's conversations in Russia, Turkey, and Pakistan. These anecdotes are important tools for escaping the mindsets and commonly accepted wisdom of the United States. Indeed, books by well-traveled and street-savvy journalist are invaluable for understanding the international realities that can elude scholars publishing narrower and more specialized studies. In this sense, journalistic books can be more effective than works written for consumption by colleagues in the academy, policymakers locked under the tyranny of official talking points in government-to-government exchanges, or intelligence analysts cloistered in narrow bureaucratic confines of responsibility without direct access to foreign players.

On that note, the protection of sensitive sources with anonymity is a fair journalistic practice. Yet Langewiesche offers only shallow descriptions of his sources.

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