Sunday, December 25, 2005

Clarke's The Scorpion's Gate

Just finished Clarke's first novel. I picked it up while on vacation in beautiful Kailua, Hawaii. I thought it would fit the bill: allow me to enjoy the sandy beach atmosphere while engaging & entertaining the brain. I was looking for some insight on the way the Bush administration dealt with complex Middle East activities. Given that it was a work of fiction, I believed his byline that he could be more open with his beliefs. At the same time, I wanted enough action to keep me flipping the pages.

The entertainment part worked out. I enjoyed reading the yarn about terrorist government trying to blow up US targets, but being thwarted by smart staffers allied around the world with other international agents. Lots of action and intrigue.

Clarke's insights into the Middle East was what I found most interesting. He believes Iran is at the root of key terrorist organizations: al Qaida, Hizbollah, Islamic Jihad, etc. They are looking to promote Islamist Shia rule throughout the Middle East. Iran uses it oil earnings to promote its agenda in a secretive manner. You hear of the organization, you think that they are backed by wealthly but misguided Arabs, but in reality these are backed by Iran. Their covert agency, Qods, is behind many a bombing.

In this book, Saudi Arabia has been taken over by a coalition of fundamentalist and secular groups - renaming the country Islamyah. Some want nukes to protect against Iranian, Israeli and American weapons. Many do not. Given the US relationship to the previous corrupt Saudi rulers, instead of seeing the new government as a group that sought to end one family rule and diminish hard-line Wahhabism, the US government was willing to attack and occupy Islamyah. This would anger Muslims around the world - attacking the country of Mecca.

Iran was playing to this by trying to frame various terrorist acts on Islamyah. The hardline US Secretary of Defense (uh...Rumsfeld) saw every act as sponsored by Islamyah, a group of former al Qaida terrorists. He saw himself as the real power knowing he also had the ability to initiate an attack without Presidential approval. Like the President, he was covertly connected to Saudis financially.

The Chinese were also involved. Like us, they need access to oil. Their technological and military prowess has grown enabling greater ambition. The Islamyah were offering preferential access to oil at lower prices in return for military and yes nuclear equipment.

If any of this is true, it has far-reaching implications. The Chinese rapidly become a real military rival fueled by the need to feed its energy hungry industries. Iran acquires nuclear weaponry, presumably used for defense, but gives them cover to continues destabilizing covert activity. The Saudi family's days as rulers are numbered. We continue our dependence on crude and make ourselves beholden to an unstable area of the world that still has not been able to transform their natural resource wealth into a knowledge building society of the 21st century.

One interesting insight was the founder of Salafism is Ibn Taymiyya who influenced Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab. It is al Wahhab in the 18th century that influences Muhammad Ibn Saud. He ends up using the strict teachings as a pretext for killing other "impure" Muslim rulers and taking over what becomes Saudi Arabia. The Saudi wealth promulgates the famous madressas that lead to the hard-line anti-Western point of view that we saw in the 9/11 terrorists.

Another insight is the degree of control that the imams have in Iran and increasingly Iraq. There is a democracy, but real power is in the hands of the Supreme Ayatollah and his imams. Iraq is considered a Iranian victory won with American blood.

A final interesting insight is the degree to which arms sales can be used as a controlling force in a country. If the US withdraws support, space parts sales becomes very limited. Since military equipment requires so much maintanence, selling arms to a country enables greater control. Smart countries would diversify their support and have indiginous industry build weapons under license.

In the end it is human factor that makes all the difference. Human intel combined with people willing to take personal risks to defend their county are what saves the day.

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