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BOOKS IN THE MIRROR: Clarke Employs Fiction to Air the Facts: THE SCORPIO’S GATE, Richard A. Clarke, Putman: October 25, 2005

In March 2004, Dick Cheney asserted that Dick Clarke “wasn’t in the loop” regarding the Bush Administration’s counterterrorism efforts before 9/11.

“It was as though he clearly missed a lot of what was going on,” the Vice President said, briefly mentioning the White House’s failed efforts in early 2001 to work with Pakistan to rein in al-Qaida. Of course, Cheney did not reveal Pakistan’s reasons for refusing to help the United States persecute known terrorists. (Clarke does in his nonfiction work, Against All Enemies). In fact, unless readers spend hours reading stories from alternative news outlets such as the BBC or Al Jazeera, they will never completely comprehend the cultural and political intricacies of the Middle East.

Thanks to Richard Clarke, readers now have a so-called “fictional” source of credible information in his new novel, The Scorpion’s Gate.

Clarke’s story begins roughly ten years in the future, a year after Wahhabists (radical Islamists) have overthrown Saudi Arabia and driven the Saudi royal family into exile. With its oil contracts suddenly invalidated, the US is now paying $85 a barrel to fundamentalist Islamyah (former Saudi Arabia). Apparently, Congress has still not appropriated adequate funding for research and development of alternative energy sources. Meanwhile, the Chinese are now fairly wealthy, demanding increasing amounts of oil for their new cars and factories.

Russell McIntyre is Clarke’s quick-witted yet reluctant hero. Content behind a desk, he devotes himself to his work as deputy director for the Intelligence Analyst Center in Washington. When it looks as if China is about to trade nuclear weapons to Islamyah for oil, he bursts out of his bureaucratic cocoon Jack Ryan-style and travels to the Middle East to solve a mystery. How could China consider giving nuclear missiles to Islamyah, when they know that America will attack Islamyah and possibly even China if it obtains proof that any hostile Middle Eastern country possesses weapons of mass destruction?

The Scorpion’s Gate is Clarke’s first attempt at fiction. His previous nonfiction work is a chronicle of his twenty-year career in the White House. In Against All Enemies, Clarke relates the history of counterterrorism through his fascinating experiences working with CIA staffers, senior White House officials, and four presidents.

His debut as a novelist delves deep into Middle East politics. Readers will learn, for example, how and why the Wahhabist movement began, as Clarke gamely puts detailed expository speeches into the mouths of articulate Saudi, American, and British main characters. These long dialogue scenes make up the action of the story, for The Scorpion’s Gate is a tale of people working hard to prevent a war rather than wage one.

Clarke’s talky style may feel a bit clunky to readers who enjoy spy thrillers. Furthermore, his attempts to elaborate on his characters’ personal lives fall completely flat. Thankfully, such interludes are infrequent and brief. The Tom Clancy-lite plot moves along at a brisk pace. Indeed, the entire story takes place within the span of a week. His characters may be two-dimensional, but their exchanges are wonderfully enlightening dialogues on Middle Eastern religion, culture and politics.

When Russell talks to Islamyah ruling council member Abdullah Rashid about America’s wish to bring democracy to the Middle East, Abdullah cuts him off angrily, exclaiming, “Don’t you understand that you cannot give democracy with your armies, except to give it a bad name? Democracy must spring from the ground like native flowers, different colors and textures in every land. You have made it harder for us even to discuss democracy with our people, because they think it is Washington’s idea.”

Such rhetoric makes sense to most readers, yet the Bush administration has never given Iraqis or any other Middle Eastern citizens significant opportunities to tell their side of the story. In our free society, such an omission feels strange. What is even stranger is that Clarke, a man who apparently was not “in the loop” before 9/11 has to write a work of fiction so that moderate, intelligent Middle Eastern leaders can speak their minds.

Both of Clarke’s books showcase his immense breadth and depth of knowledge of Middle Eastern terrorism. By not including him in their counterterrorism efforts, the Bush administration is sending a message. Just one message, in fact – its own perspective on terrorism. Thanks to Richard Clarke, readers can now enjoy an entertaining alternate perspective on the Middle East. One hopes he will continue to publish books and improve as a writer, but even at his somewhat novice level, he brings a voice to the arena that many readers will want to hear.

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