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National-security expert turns fact into fiction

Presidential aide Richard Clarke unveils his first novel, ‘Scorpion's Gate’
/ Source: Reuters

Dreaming up nightmares is what former national security advisory Richard A. Clarke once did for the U.S. government. Now he’s doing it for fiction readers.

Clarke ended a 30-year Washington career in 2003 with a much-publicized critique of the Bush administration over its failure to heed warnings about the danger of al Qaeda. His tell-all nonfiction book on the subject became a bestseller.

In his new novel released this week, “The Scorpion’s Gate,” Clarke writes about a world pushed to the brink of a nuclear war as a corrupt U.S. Secretary of State tries to restore the deposed Saudi royal family to power.

Clarke says this view of the future isn’t sheer fantasy, but instead is a “reasonable extrapolation from where we are today.”

“I thought another policy book was not going to get through to as many people as a fast-paced thriller -- a book you can pick up at the airport and read on a four-hour flight,” Clarke told Reuters in an interview.

The book has climbed onto the best seller lists in its first week on bookstore shelves, and a Hollywood producer has acquired rights to make a movie. Early reviewers have been mostly favorable  -- though some say the book’s characters talk too much like Washington policy experts.

Sending a warningClarke seems less concerned about winning literary awards than getting his message across that the United States is heading for trouble. In that, he has succeeded, said a USA Today reviewer, who called the book “a red-meat feast for Bush doubters.”

There are no scenes in the book centered on a U.S. president, real or fictional. But its storyline does involve a Middle East thrown into permanent disarray by the Iraq war, and an emerging China fighting with the U.S. over dwindling oil supplies.

“What this book says to readers is ’There are some trendlines in place, and if things go the way they are going this is the world we are going to live in,” Clarke said.

In the new world, Iraq has become a puppet state of an ambitious Iran, now armed with nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia has been renamed Islamyah, and oil-hungry China is giving the radicals nuclear arms. The deposed Saudis, meanwhile, are paying a U.S. secretary of state handsomely to get them back into power.

Clarke’s story revolves around two intelligence agents --one British and one American -- trying to defuse a nuclear confrontation by reaching out to Islamic dissidents who are willing to help save the world.

The story, he says, is the kind of “visualization exercise ” that goes on all the time in policy circles as strategists work out worst-case-scenarios and prepare for them. “We imagine it now so that those terrible scenarios don’t take place five years from now.”

The Bush administration never had patience for such homework, he said, even though it might have helped head off the Sept. 11 attacks or meant a fast response to Hurricane Katrina that killed more than 1,200 in the Gulf Coast.

In a Washington Post Book review, former senator Gary Hart quips that “Graham Greene and John le Carre are under no threat from Clarke.” But he does have “a flair for action fiction” and his vast experience as a national security expert make him a formidable prophet of gloom.

“Some of us have learned to listen when Richard A. Clarke has something to say,” Hart said.