I just finished reading “The Scorpion's Gate” by former Terrorism Czar, and every Democrat’s favorite Republican, Richard A. Clarke. I cannot say that it was the best fiction I’ve read. It suffered far too much of the novice story-teller’s fault of filling in the gaps in the reader’s knowledge with unrealistic expository dialog which the author has to strain to explain away. I grant, however, that I can think of no other way the author could have conveyed the great depth and nuance of his understanding of Middle Eastern politics and geo-strategy more as efficiently and more artfully. Also, the ending is fairly anti-climactic, as are all novels premised on the idea of a cabal trying to drive world-altering events forward, only to be foiled by better-intentioned protagonists.
Within these limitations, however, Clarke does manage, as the jacket cover promises, to tell the truth more effectively through fiction. Clarke’s story begins a few years down the road. America has been invited to leave Iraq by the now Shiite dominated parliament and a popular revolution in Saudi Arabia, involving former Al Qaida members, has toppled the House of Saud, though not the grip of the Wahabi clerics, and the nation has been renamed Islamyah. Islamyah is under economic embargo by the United States and oil is up to $85 a barrel.
Against this backdrop, a political intrigue pitting the U.S. intelligence services against the Defense Department unfolds. The DOD and its Secretary wish to see every threat in the Middle East through the lens of their hatred for the new Islamyah government and their self-interested desire to place the Saudi royals back on the throne. The intelligence services want to know what’s really going on and Clarke’s story follows the international adventures of a few protagonists from the Western intel services in the quest to find the truth before it’s too late.
The central thrust of Clarke’s story is that the real threat to American security is not from Islamyah, or even Al Qaida, or even a growing superpower like China, but from the Shiite pan-national movement led by the mullahs of Iran. This is a central insight into Middle Eastern politics that most experts on the region agree is the strongest threat to American energy security, as the greatest deposits in the Gulf region, making up the great preponderance of the world’s reserves, have majority Shiite populations living on them. Those populations are scattered among Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia (Islamyah), and the Gulf Emirates, but the Shiite religious identity could be used to care rump states out of all these – as is arguably already underway in Iraq. I myself have written about Shiite pan-nationalism as being the greatest threat to America in the region, despite Bush’s irresponsible use of a chimerical threat that Al Qaida will form the revolutionary vanguard for a re-establishment of a unified Caliphate across the entire Ulemma.
Beyond the political message of his book, Clarke does manage to provide some great insight into the process of bureaucratic infighting, international espionage, and modern military capabilities. His characters are well-drawn, though I did find myself often confused as to which spy belonged to what agency, that was probably my short-coming not Clarke’s. There is murder, mayhem, love, betrayal, friendship, unlikely alliances, and tragic endings enough for any aficionado of Tom Clancy, John Le Carre, or Ian Fleming.