THE SCORPION S GATE. By Richard A. Clarke. Putnam. 305 pages. $24.95.
These days the enemy in fictional political intrigue is not an external foe the way international communism was. It is more likely an enemy within the greedy, the insatiably ambitious, the power-hungry, the stupid, and those with hidden, self-serving agendas.
So it is in David Baldacci s Camel Club and Robert Ludlum s Ambler Warning. And so it is in Richard Clarke s classy first venture into fiction.
He is not a linguistically endowed storyteller. His characters don t seem all that introspective. They are people of action, the kind that charms in its straightforwardness and in its telling in writing reminiscent of accounts of investigative action. Readers are spared the police jargon of people exiting their vehicles, but then they are bogged down in the shorthand of military operations, acronyms like SECDEF, for secretary of defense, BUPERS (the Bureau of Naval Personnel) and CinCPAC, which appears to be a Honolulu-based naval command post. But petulance aside over these riffs, what unfolds is a gripping adventure of sometimes fatal double-and-triple crosses in a morality tale not so different from that playing itself out today in the nation s capital and Iraq.
No wonder, really. Clarke for some 30 years held major roles in intelligence and state security in the Reagan, Bush One, and Clinton administrations. Until 2003 he was special advisor to George W. Bush on matters of cyberspace security and he headed the President s Critical Infrastructure Protection Board. After he called the Administration wrong for alleging an al Quaeda-Saddam tie, he spent another two years among them. Then he left.
This novel of intrigue in the Persian Gulf, complemented by an American foreign policy geared more to special interests than the commonweal, has many elements akin to Clarke s dealings with the Bush administration, though the story is set several years after the end of the current Iraq war.
It features a pair of intelligence agents, one British, one American, an admiral who finds a clever way to foil stupidity from above, an American reporter who proves smarter than the people whose fatal secrets she uncovers, and a new regime in Saudi Arabia now named Islamiya that is intentionally more progressive than the House of Saud. U.S. leaders, comfortable with oil cronies and the way things were, want to return the old despots to power. Iranians stir up trouble and plan an attack on U.S. military interests, hoping to blame it on Islamiya and bring the United States into a new war.
Through the novel one becomes aware of the infinite variety of spies and the uses to which they are put, including spying on America s best and brightest, and one another s spies. One sees scurrilous schemes, including murder, by powerful men in pursuit of their own ends. And then there are the clearheaded, clear-sighted people determined to keep these scorpions at bay. One way is to build a scorpion gate. The ingenious and informed strategies and tactics used to erect it make the work of novelist Clarke hard to put down.
Even foes of Clarke and his denunciations can profit from his fictional effort to let Americans in on how others see them.
The Americans think democracy solves everything, says the fictional ruler of Islamiya, who helped rout the Saudis. It took them over a hundred years to allow all their people to vote, the poor, women, the blacks. Has it solved their problems? They waste so much time and fortune in their elections. It is a game to them and they never stop playing at it. And are their results so different? We overthrew hereditary rule here. They still have it: fathers followed by sons, wives seeking to replace husbands
Clarke has planted similar little jewels throughout his book. They will raise hackles in those who despise challenge, and provoke many others to thought.