November 2016 Books of Note

November 2016

Unclear Physics: Why Iraq and Libya Failed to Build Nuclear Weapons
Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer, Cornell University Press, September 2016, 288 pp. 

Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer examines why dictators in Iraq and Libya pursued the development of nuclear weapons and the factors that contributed to the failure of both programs. Braut-Hegghammer argues that Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi weakened state institutions to consolidate power in their respective countries, and as a result, neither leader had the capacity to manage and monitor progress on his nuclear weapons program. The destruction of formal institutions created limitations in auditing and processing the progress made on nuclear weapons programs, making it difficult for the authoritarian leaders to check how the programs were advancing. Drawing on primary source materials and interviews in the region, she concludes that both leaders were inconsistent in paying attention to their nuclear programs and created conditions that hindered technical advancement when they feared military attacks. Libya was even less successful than Iraq because of the extent of the erosion of state institutions during the Gaddafi era. Braut-Hegghammer concludes by discussing the wider implications of her argument that state capacity is an important variable in the performance of nuclear weapons programs in states governed by leader-centric authoritarian regimes. To test her argument, she briefly examines Syria’s illicit pursuit of nuclear weapons and its dependence on foreign assistance to address domestic deficits created by weak state capacity. Overall, Braut-Hegghammer’s findings offer useful insights into how personalist regimes make decisions about nuclear weapons that could have implications for future nonproliferation policies.—KELSEY DAVENPORT

Deterring Nuclear Terrorism
Robert S. Litwak, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, October 2016, 149 pp.

Nuclear terrorism has defied the bad- and worst-case scenarios since the 1990s, even as groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State have aspired to conduct spectacular attacks. Although the threat comes from such nonstate actors, Robert Litwak, director for international security studies at the Wilson Center, writes that nonproliferation and deterrence strategies directed at states remain key because the nuclear weapons and materials that terrorist groups seek to acquire exist in states. “Each pathway to nuclear acquisition by a non-state terrorist group is contingent on an act of commission or negligence by a state,” he writes. The “leakage” of a weapon would come from one of nine states, although the list of states with weapons-grade fissile material is longer, currently 26, he says. He cites three nuclear-weapon states of particular concern: North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia, noting that the issues involving a fourth, Iran, have been mitigated by its recent nuclear accord. Litwak highlights the importance of nonproliferation and deterrence policies on states that, unlike nonstate actors, can be influenced through those means. Given the hurdles to buying or stealing a weapon, nuclear terrorism is “mostly likely to take the form of a so-called dirty bomb,” which uses conventional explosives to disperse radiological materials, he warns. With such an attack “more likely than not” because of the widespread use of radiological isotopes, he recommends that governments educate their publics about how a dirty bomb differs from a nuclear weapon in order to “stave off mass panic” in the event of such an attack.TERRY ATLAS