BOOK REVIEW: Science and Politics, People and Process: Coping with Biological Weapons Dilemmas

By Moodie, Michael | Arms Control Today, November 2011 | Go to article overview

BOOK REVIEW: Science and Politics, People and Process: Coping with Biological Weapons Dilemmas


Moodie, Michael, Arms Control Today


BOOK REVIEW: Science and Politics, People and Process: Coping With Biological Weapons Dilemmas

Germ Gambits: The Bioweapons Dilemma, Iraq and Beyond By Amy E. Smithson Stanford Security Studies, 2011, 384 pp.

Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security By Gregory D. Koblentz Cornell University Press, 2011, 272 pp.

Biological weapons seem to have lost their appeal-as an object of policy concern, that is. From the early 1960s, when nonproliferation emerged as an international security challenge, until the 1990s, the nonproliferation agenda was dominated by nuclear issues. Chemical and biological weapons were deemed a comparatively minor matter, the province of only a small, largely technical community laboring in relative obscurity as far as senior policymakers were concerned. Beginning in the mid- 1990s, however, as the product of an unusual combination of developments in Iraq, the Soviet Union, and Japan, chemical and biological weapons began to climb up the global security agenda.

For about a decade, significant amounts of time, money, and analytical capability were devoted to bolstering policymakers' understanding of the challenges posed by these weapons, in particular biological weapons. That attention peaked after the tragedies of the September 11 attacks and the anthrax mailings in 2001. After that, attention began to wane. The biological weapons agenda became familiar, comfortable, and hardly cuttingedge. Financial resources for further groundbreaking work, especially from nongovernmental sources, began to dry up. The nonproliferation agenda reverted to the "all nukes all the time" focus of its initial decades. That is where things stand today.

Two recent books demonstrate that the situation should be otherwise. One of them, Germ Gambits: The Bioweapons Dilemma, Iraq and Beyond by Amy E. Smithson, is another valuable product from a long-time leader of the still-small band of experts on biological weapons. The other, Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security by Gregory D. Koblentz, is the work of one of the "next generation" of biological weapons analysts. It is gratifying to see that although interest in the issue has declined at least temporarily among senior policymakers, the torchbearers who have led the work on biological weapons are being joined by a new group of analysts who bring fresh and useful insights and perspectives for those policymakers willing to pay attention. More importantly, these books show that policymakers should take notice. They underline the need to understand better that challenges flowing from the misuse of the life sciences remain significant, difficult, and dangerous.

Germ Gambits is primarily an account of a key chapter in the history of efforts to rid the world of biological weapons. It details the work of the biological inspectors of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), established following Iraq's 1991 defeat in the Persian Gulf War with the mission of finding and destroying Iraq's non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction programs. Drawing on what is clearly remarkable access to all key UNSCOM players, Smithson allows the participants themselves to tell their story, focusing not just on their successes, but also on their failures, frustrations, and mistakes.

As in most good stories, the characters are central in Germ Gambits. This is as it should be because this book shows that people are the key to addressing biological risks successfully, especially in an environment of utmost difficulty. UNSCOM's biological weapons experts were remarkably diverse in profession, skill, training, experience, personality, and country; but they came together as a team, not least as a result of the low-key but highly effective leadership of the UNSCOM chairman, Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekéus, who emerges as one of the heroes of this account for his steadfastness, astute judgment, and deft political touch. They overcame enormous barriers inhibiting their ability to determine the nature and scope of Iraq's biological weapons program, find all the places where it had operated, discover the materials and equipment it had used, identify all the military hardware it involved, and destroy the whole lot of it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Science and Politics, People and Process: Coping with Biological Weapons Dilemmas
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