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Mr. Khan was able to find some helpful Dutch stooges to do dirty work for him, which included taking pictures of centrifuges and supplying equipment he otherwise might not have access to. One of these helpful Hollanders was taken into Mr. Khan’s confidence to such a degree that Mr. Khan was willing to send him to Pakistan, all expenses paid, to meet his friends and family. The Dutchman smelled a setup, but it was too late to do much good — his attempts to report Mr. Khan’s nefarity to the Dutch authorities fell on deaf ears, and Mr. Khan’s former lackey found himself having to spend the balance of his career “burrowed into the bureaucracy” of a health insurance company.

Even as Mr. Khan’s former associates were struggling, he was thriving, staying one step ahead of the dithering Dutch, who didn’t seem to understand what he was capable of or what he was doing until too late. By the end of the 1970s, Mr. Khan was firmly affixed to the bosom of his motherland, doing what has to be considered revolutionary work. The postures he struck for public consumption, likewise, were full of revolutionary brio and bluster.

A 1979 letter to Der Spiegel, for example, questioned “the bloody holier than thou attitudes of the Americans and the British … bastards” who had problems with Pakistan’s forays into the nuclear game. Similarly, in 1980, Mr. Khan took issue with a writer for the London Observer, a “Hindu bastard” incapable of “writing anything objective about Pakistan” and its nuclear efforts.

As the book progresses, so does Pakistan’s nuclear program, and the sinister machinations of Mr. Khan, who, by the end of his public career, had helped to facilitate the nuclear ambitions of Iran, North Korea and Pakistan in addition to those of his own country. Mr. Langewiesche ultimately sees a future that validates Mr. Khan’s vision, arguing that there “will be other Khans.” Is there any hope? In the author’s opinion, only through “finding the courage to accept the equalities of a maturing world in which many countries have atomic bombs, and some may use them.”

William Langewiesche’s policy presciptions and sobering observations are a world removed from the “America as hyperpower” motif trumpeted across the political spectrum a few years back. That said, in a world where American power is being challenged like it hasn’t been in decades, perhaps the time has come to consider how Washington can use its power and influence more realistically, in an attempt to vouchsafe its prerogatives in the increasingly challenging realm of foreign policy. “The Atomic Bazaar,” and its straight talk about the global nuclear race, certainly provides fodder for that all-important and seemingly unavoidable discussion.

A.G. Gancarski writes from Jacksonville, Fla.