No one has ever accused Clarke of being lacking in the ego department. He became a key player in both the Clinton and Bush White Houses precisely because he was so hard-charging—a real make-it-happen kind of guy. Since leaving office in 2003, he has hardly been shy about criticizing the Bush administration for not paying enough attention to the counterterrorism issues on which he worked. So when one picks up his novel about horrific setbacks for the United States in the Middle East, the natural assumption is that his barely hidden agenda will be to blast the Bush team for leaving America vulnerable to catastrophic terrorism.
Perhaps that was his intention, but in fact when Clarke had to paint how things could go to hell for U.S. interests in the Middle East, he came up with a story in which shadowy Al-Qaeda-like terrorists play a distinctly faint second fiddle to the classic problems of evil states, especially to meddling outside powers. Indeed, at every twist in the plot, the new dangers that loom come from governments, not from networks of individuals. Ideological fanatics abound in The Scorpion's Gate, but they do not pose any great threat to U.S. interests until they have a state behind them. That is an intriguing development from someone who has criticized recent administrations for not understanding that in the new globalized world, with its instant communications and easy travel, loosely associated small groups can pose as deadly a threat as any great power.
Clarke's story is a good read for those who enjoy the action genre with colorfully painted characters. He puts to good use his intimate knowledge of life inside the circles of power. Yet even in these details, he displays all the usual attitudes of recent U.S. governments. The Saudis, for all their dislike of America's ways, prove in the end to be strong geopolitical partners with the United States—and this despite the overthrow of the House of Saud by religious radicals. The Iranians are evil conspirators who weave intricate webs to trap America. Of course, the British are clever and brave, coming to America's rescue. Perhaps most surprisingly, the actors are defined by their visions of their respective national interests more than by trans-national ideology.
In all, The Scorpion's Gate has more in common with Cold War suspense fiction than with religiously motivated adventure stories such as the rapture series or Muslim anti-Western thrillers. Perhaps his years in the corridors of power have made Clarke realize how much more dangerous are those with a state behind them.