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Gone With the Wind

Americans around the world are right to think that this war with Iraq may change their world forever
/ Source: Newsweek Web Exclusive

“War, war, war,” said an Iranian lady at a cocktail party in Paris earlier this week. She was among friends from Algeria and Lebanon, France, Canada and the United States—everybody sipping champagne, nibbling crab canapes, talking about the imminent storm in Iraq. And suddenly it struck her, she said, “this is like the barbecue scene in ‘Gone With the Wind’.”

WE WERE ALL enjoying ourselves, but all of us were haunted by a sense the world was about to change forever. “Fiddle-dee-dee,” said the Persian Scarlett with evident irony. “This war talk is spoiling all the fun.” She shook her head and smiled with solemn regret.

This woman and several of the other guests that night had seen their worlds change before, in revolutions and in civil wars, and they’d emerged sadder and wiser for the experience. We Americans feel something of the sort when we think back on September 11. But with this new war, we may learn that that grim day was only the beginning.

Consider this chilling little passage in testimony by Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month: “With regard to proliferation, sir, I will quickly summarize by saying we have entered a new world of proliferation. In the vanguard of this new world, are knowledgeable nonstate purveyors of WMD materials and technology.” That is, the ultimate merchants of death, who are “increasingly capable of providing technology and equipment that previously could only be supplied by countries with established capabilities. Demand creates the market.”

According to Roland Jacquard, a respected French expert on terrorism who’ll publish a new book about the spread of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in May, the market makers have been Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, both of whom have offered enormous sums for contraband components of mass destruction over the past few years. “They’ve used drug traffickers, arms merchants and all the parallel markets.” Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, most of the action has been in former components of the Evil Empire. But as the technology and weapons have spread in secret, “this market has escaped all controls, creating little proliferating states within proliferating states,” says Jacquard. One country where that has happened already is North Korea. Another is Iraq.

So now the war has begun. Will it make us safer? More secure? Once Saddam Hussein goes and the internal order of Iraq breaks down, “there is a significant danger that some in the weapons complex will simply ‘privatize’ technology or systems under their control,” warned a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations coauthored by former secretary of State James Baker. These experts in high-tech slaughter will be accountable to no one, and looking to fatten their bank accounts.

Of course American forces will be hunting frantically for such men and women. But in the fog of war and the aftermath of shock and awe, soldiers may have even more trouble than the United Nations inspectors did tracking them down. As those who escape put their expertise and their wares on the market, it’s hard to imagine how any of us will ever feel completely safe again.

InsertArt(1951453) The good news: Osama and Saddam won’t be pumping up the market much longer. But somebody else probably will be. As Tenet told the Senate, “The desire for nuclear weapons is on the upsurge. Additional countries may seek nuclear weapons as it becomes clear their neighbors and regional rivals are already doing so. The domino theory of the 21st century may well be nuclear.” Or biological. Or chemical.

It’s been less than a week since the crab canapes and champagne. I’m in Jordan now, looking to cross into Iraq with mineral water and crackers when the storm clears. The world has changed. Gone with the WMD.

© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.