I’m back in Pittsburgh; many thanks to everbody who noticed me missing. The conference wrapped up on Wednesday, a friend drove me to Napa on Thursday and I spent Friday catching up on sleep and hanging out with bay area friends that I haven’t seen in years. To the folks who recommended drinking at the Toronado I give a big, hearty thumbs-up.
For the plane trip I picked up the book Scorpion’s Gate by everybody’s favorite rightwing hate magnet, Richard Clarke. If you belong to that clique who got in on the Clarke sliming back when it was in vogue, go ahead and let it all out. If everybody else could resist the bait I’d rather spend the thread talking about the book.
If the book needs any recommendation, I read it on flights when I should have been sleeping and wrapped it up in bed on Saturday while my body practically shut down around me. Let’s also get out of the way that if Tom Clancy didn’t ghost-write this book then I’ll donate my Jan 1 Steelers tickets to the Santorum reelection campaign. Civil servants don’t write like that on their first go, and nobody masturbates to acronyms and obscure hardware digressions like Clancy does. On the plus side Clancy writes a gripping yarn when his staff isn’t doing the work, as they have with his last four or five doorstops. On the minus side his dialogue still sounds like it came out of a can.
In a nutshell Scorpion’s Gate recapitulates a literary tradition stretching back to the Battle of Dorking (1871), in which concerned authors warn of real-world geopolitical dangers using the tools of popular literature. Through the mouth of a reporter Clarke declares that the important story of the early 21st century is between the US and the arab world, and I think that she/he’s right about that. China’s aggressive expansion into the world sphere counts a close third. Clarke lays out a near future in which Iraq has expelled American forces and turned to Iran for leadership, an al Qaeda-aligned insurgency has expelled the Saudi royal family and rechristened their country ‘Islamiyah’ and the royal Sauds spend their money and free time romancing receptive players in American government.
Clarke’s world, like Clancy’s, has no overarching groups that can be described as generically positive or negative, good or evil. The government of Islamiyah, formerly Saudi Arabia, rolled to power on a platform of replacing the Sauds with representative, uncorrupt and potentially democratic leadership and balances factions intent on imposing sharia and nuclear proliferation against other factions intent on creating a modern, pluralist state. Americans conspire to reach out to modernist factions in Islamiyah or repeat Gulf War II in Saudi Arabia, respectively, while Iranians quietly manipulate each faction towards a conflict that ultimately benefits them.
Exposition aside, the story moves along at the pace of a slimmed-down Clancy procedural. Entire carrier groups engage in hide-and-seek, cavalries ride unexpectedly to the rescue and explosions light up the dawn sky, but that stuff amounts the sweetened bait that draws us into a well-informed sermon on understanding the world in which we act.
In 1871 Sir George Chesney wrote the Battle of Dorking to warn Britain about invading prussian hordes, the popularity of which message obliged London to conduct peacetime exercises and strengthen the draft. Today Richard Clarke warns us that practically anything we do in the middle east benefits one faction over another, not all of whom are evil or irrational. Acting without understanding or under the direction of those whom we don’t understand, for example Ahmed Chalabi, often serves the interests of the same factions that we claim to hate.
As much as an antagonist exists in Clarke’s world it is Iran. Clarke fingers Iran as funding and training al Qaeda leaders, with provoking the second Iraq war via intermediates like Chalabi, conducting terrorist acts through its Qods force and having designs on Shi’a-majority portions of Saudi Arabia. In terms of today’s debate Clarke’s book asks whether, if we succeed in bringing democracy to Iraq, and that democracy expels our forces and becomes a loyal client of Iran, do we benefit? While it won’t convince me that invading Iran is a good (or feasible) idea, Clarke describes a patient, resourceful and well-equipped adversary whom we would do well to head off before it aquires offensive nuclear technology.
All told, a quick and thought-provoking read that will surely drive many people crazy. If you’ve read it, drop in and let me know whether I’m totally off my rocker. If not, consider this my recommendation.