Vanity Fair editor details Atomic Bazaar

By Tim Murphy

An American-made customs and security checkpoint in the Caucasus that operates like a Four Seasons and has about as much terror-fighting clout. A secret city in the Urals filled with drunken soldiers and officials just waiting to be bribed. A small industrial complex in Istanbul removed from the public eye where a nuclear weapon can be quietly assembled. Speaking at International House Wednesday, Vanity Fair international editor William Langewiesche painted the global struggle for nuclear power as a chilling but entirely rational movement.

Speaking as part of the Center for International Studies’s “The World Beyond the Headlines” series, Langewiesche discussed and read from his new book, The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor, and fielded questions from audience members. A 2007 National Magazine Award winner for his reporting on the Haditha, Iraq killings, the former Atlantic Monthly correspondent presented himself as an observer and not an expert in the hope of offering a “less politicized” take on the crisis. He used the experience from his extensive stays in the Middle East and former Soviet states as evidence to argue for a more practical approach than he felt has been exercised in recent years.

“We cannot stop this from happening, and we’ll give ourselves giant hernias if we try,” said Langewiesche on the threat of a nuclear Iran.

In discussing the tactics of nations such as Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea, Langewiesche stressed that the choice to develop the bomb “is not evil; it’s very rational.” Even the much-lampooned Koreans, he said, were “playing the game of the nation-state.” With that in mind, and with the ease with which a nation like the U.S. could track a nuclear device were it to be used by terrorists, there would be no reason for a nation-state to use a terrorist cell as a surrogate, Langewiesche said.

Perhaps the most revealing part of the talk came toward the end, as Langewiesche discussed the successes and failures of U.S. efforts to fight proliferation. Offering what he deemed to be a reasonable scenario for a terrorist attempting to obtain and smuggle out the requisite 100 pounds of weapons-grade uranium, he described the so-called “secret cities” in the Urals where Russian stockpiles are located as chaotic but altogether tough to penetrate. Should a terrorist raid somehow bust through the heavily policed towns and net the uranium, “you’ve still got to drive back. You’re in the Urals.”

But after that, he said, it’s smooth sailing. Citing his visit to a recently constructed border checkpoint in the Republic of Georgia, he suggested, “At the point where we’ve lost in Russia, we don’t have any defenses.” For all the good intentions of the U.S. government, he said, the security installations fail to register the traditions and customs of frontier lands that, if not lawless, nonetheless operate under rules entirely separate from those of nation-states.

Doomsday scenarios aside, Langewiesche called for a calmer and more open approach to a situation that he feels is here to stay. In conclusion, he offered his opinion that if hit by a “dirty bomb,” the U.S. should not respond with nuclear force, referring back to his opening statement that there “should be a limit to how much fear we allow ourselves.”

“Ultimately, if we get hit…so what?”