Unclear Physics: Why Iraq and Libya Failed to Build Nuclear Weapons

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Unclear Physics: Why Iraq and Libya Failed to Build Nuclear Weapons
by Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer
Cornell University Press, 2016
288 pp.
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Why do some states succeed at building nuclear weapons and others fail? Braut-Hegghammer has produced an insightful account of two cases of failure. Iraq might have achieved its nuclear ambitions had Saddam Hussein not started a fight with the West by invading Kuwait in 1990; he was forced to dismantle his nuclear facilities after the ensuing Gulf War. Libya, meanwhile, never made much headway, despite three decades of effort and considerable help from the illicit proliferation network run by the Pakistani physicist A.Q. Khan. The Libyans eventually abandoned their program as part of a broader rapprochement with the West. In both cases, the programs were chaotic and hampered by inadequate oversight and shifting priorities. Iraq’s program produced better results because the Iraqi government retained some capacity, whereas the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi had deliberately dismantled his country’s state institutions. Braut-Hegghammer suggests that regardless of the importance that these autocrats attached to their nuclear programs, neither leader truly prioritized them—or even had much of a clue about how they were proceeding. The lesson for nonproliferation is that intentions often outstrip capabilities: whether a state can actually manage a complex nuclear program matters more than how much its leaders want one.