While the British and American political classes chatter about weapons of mass destruction that have long since dissolved into the sands of Iraq, out here in the real world the threat of WMD being used - the mass murder of civilians - is real and growing. Let's look at just two of these dangers: the threat to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal should General Pervez Musharraf be killed, and the loose nukes which are almost unguarded in the former Soviet Union.
In the last few days, Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, has apologised on live TV for flogging off nuclear secrets to the highest bidder, including the most depraved abuser of human rights in the world, the North Korean government. He exculpated the Pakistani government of any responsibility, but that isn't much of a relief. He has extremist Islamist sympathies, and Khan is not a lone traitor, a nutcase now safely intercepted.
Pakistan's state structures are utterly divided. On one side, Khan swam in a river of intense anti-Western hatred that runs straight through Pakistan's national security apparatus. A large slice of Pakistan's notorious secret services, the ISI, have links to jihadist groups, supported the Taliban and pushed for an intensification of the nuclear stand-off (even to the point of war) with India over Kashmir.
In contrast, Pervez Musharraf, an unpleasant dictator who came to power in a coup in 1998, does seem, under considerable US pressure and financial inducement, to be trying to bring this large, sordid underworld under control as much as he can without being toppled. The more blatant jihadists are being arrested, and he is talking peace with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Indian Prime Minister.
So, future Khans will be jailed by Musharraf and we can cross Pakistan's nuclear weapons off the list of geopolitical reasons to stay sweatily awake at night, right? No. Musharraf is perched on top of a volcano, and he could be burned away at any moment. He has already narrowly survived assassination by fundamentalists twice this year. If - when? - Musharraf is killed, there is a real risk that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal will be seized by the jihadi extremists within the ISI. A nicely polished set of pro-Taliban, pro-al-Qa'ida nukes will be the result.
Many serious commentators are warning of this. Bernard Henri-Lévy, one of France's leading public intellectuals, conducted a year-long study into Pakistan for his recent book, Who Killed Daniel Pearl? He explains, "We don't have to scare ourselves about what would happen... if Musharraf were overthrown and replaced by a clique of religious fanatics. The clique is already there. The religious fanatics are in the arena. Because they invented Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, they have the key, the access codes for the Pakistani silos, transmission systems and warheads."
All the West can do about this massive WMD danger, it seems, is pay for some impressive security for Musharraf - a troop of US marines should be training his security personnel - and keep prodding him to deal with the jihadist networks, while also democratising and developing Pakistan to tackle the root causes of fundamentalism. This is a terrible juggling game, and one dropped ball will lead to disaster.
And so onto the next real batch of WMD that could massacre millions: Russia's loose nukes. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there were 27,000 nuclear weapons hanging around, and enough plutonium and uranium to make a further 55,000. Each one of these weapons would produce a blast considerably larger than Hiroshima's. For several months in the early Nineties, scientists at a nuclear institute in the former republic of Georgia took turns guarding 22lb of highly enriched uranium with garden rakes.
Even today, only 40 per cent of these weapons are being guarded to the same high standards as US nuclear material. As the US Council of Foreign Relations explains, "Even basic security arrangements such as fences, doors and padlocks remain inadequate in many locations."
Smuggling this liberally-sprinkled nuclear material out to terrorists is not a sci-fi scenario. It has very nearly happened on several occasions. One Russian naval officer in Murmansk crawled through a hole in the fence surrounding a submarine fuel facility, broke into a barely-locked building, hacked off a 10lb lump of enriched uranium and hid it in his garage. He was looking for a buyer when he was caught by the police.
In 1994, three former Soviet citizens were arrested in Munich. They clung to a lead-lined suitcase containing 12.7oz of plutonium. They were planning to sell it to maniacs who wanted to make a dirty bomb. The German intelligence agencies alone report that they have intercepted more than 800 attempts to smuggle nuclear material out of Russia since 1991. More than 4lb of highly enriched uranium stolen in 1993 - after it was abandoned, unguarded, in the Sukhumi research centre in Georgia - is still missing.
This is especially worrying because some of the world's most virulent jihadists are working out of Russia's backyard. The crazed war on Chechnya commandeered by Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin has murdered over a third of the Chechen civilian population in 13 years. It has turned the province into a petri dish for the world's most savage Islamists, including al-Qa'ida. They are fighting worryingly close to an awful lot of unguarded weapons.
So what has George Bush, resolute foe of an al-Qa'ida-meets-WMD sandwich, done about this menace? He actually slashed funding to deal with Russia's loose nukes by a third in 2001, and only reversed this decision after 11 September. It would cost a mere $13 billion to buy all of Russia's loose nukes and turn them into fuel for power plants, yet Bush refuses to do this on the grounds of expense. He has spent over 1,000 times this sum on tax cuts for the American rich over the next decade.
His Democratic opponents have wisely raised this as an election issue. Bush is, in this area, blatantly weak on US national security, in order to pay for his ideological crusade in favour of America's supposedly persecuted rich.
Democrats must not allow this issue to be dropped. If you were Osama Bin Laden this time last year, where would you go shopping for WMD - to your friends in Pakistan's secret services, to the many unguarded Russian weapons sites, or to your mortal enemy Saddam Hussein? Tony Blair was right to warn that WMD pose an apocalyptic threat to free societies, but totally wrong to believe that Iraq was their most likely source for Islamists. Blair's misjudgement in making WMD the official reason for the recent Iraq war might have actually made it even harder to deal with the very real danger.
Oh, and George Bush's sane and rational response? This week, he asked the Senate for billions of extra dollars to develop a "new generation" of WMD for himself, including hydrogen bombs and "mini-nukes". Sleep well, everyone.Reuse content