By Richard A. Clarke

Putnam. 305 pp. $24.95

Some of us have learned to listen when Richard A. Clarke has something to say. As the long-time White House counterterrorism chief, he warned the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century in 1999 that terrorists were coming. We listened, but when we passed the warning on to President Bush, he did not. Now Clarke comes with a novel that, even if you swallow only a portion of it, will keep you awake at night. It's basically about turmoil in the Middle East, threatening to lead to World War III between the United States and China involving -- guess what? -- oil.

Reading The Scorpion's Gate will require you to contemplate the consequences of the fall of the House of Saud, indigenous democracy on the Arabian Peninsula in a successor government of moderate Islamists, the profound fissure between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, possible Chinese military intervention in the Middle East, America's disastrous energy policy, the costs of the Iraq War, the simple-minded U.S. understanding of the Middle East, and the political complexities of that region.

The book's plot defies easy summary. A revolution in Saudi Arabia (now renamed Islamyah) leads the Qods Force -- the covert-action arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard -- to try to destabilize the Persian Gulf, attacking U.S. facilities in the guise of Iraqis, all in the interest of establishing Shiite hegemony in the region. Two Chinese carrier task groups deploy to the Persian Gulf to deliver nuclear warheads to the hard-line Shura Council that is running Islamyah and to secure China's oil supplies. Meanwhile, under the guise of massive military exercises, a corrupt U.S. secretary of defense conspires to usurp command over the military, divert U.S. forces to invade Islamyah and reinstate the Saudis.

Against this intricate backdrop, a senior American intelligence analyst named Russell "Rusty" MacIntyre makes contact with high-level dissident officials from Islamyah (former al Qaeda operatives converted to patriotic democrats -- don't ask); British intelligence's station chief in Bahrain, Brian Douglas, survives an assassination attempt and reactivates a source in the Iranian Foreign Ministry; and New York Journal reporter Kate Delmarco uncovers Defense Secretary Conrad's corrupt ties to the Saudis (for whom Clarke has little use).

Though Graham Greene and John le Carre are under no threat from Clarke, he does demonstrate a flair for action fiction. His almost three-decade background in intelligence and counterterrorism serves him exceptionally well when he narrates a hair-raising Special Ops assault to prevent Qods Forces from detonating a giant liquid natural gas tanker at a U.S. naval base in Bahrain. He is equally persuasive in his account of Douglas's clandestine meetings in Tehran and MacIntyre's penetration of the security center of the Islamyah government in Riyadh. And his description of a naval engagement between the U.S. and Chinese fleets reveals a professional understanding of modern weapons systems, forces and military operations.

Less successful is Clarke's handling of personal relations, particularly MacIntyre's superfluous marriage and his irrelevant affair with the reporter Delmarco. His dialogue also needs work. "Well, sir," says a young staffer to MacIntyre, "you told us at the off-site that intelligence analysis was 'literally looking for needles in haystacks. The trick is looking in the right haystack,' " and so forth. Too many discussions among the characters are didactic and stilted, used to provide historical background, political rhetoric and argumentation. "We will continue to be slaves of our own oil," says one 'good' Islamyah operative, "able to do nothing but watch as what Allah put in the ground comes out of it. And the money we get from it will continue to be wasted in supposedly 'religious' follies. We are not a country, we are an oil deposit! And if that is all we are, others will come, the scorpions will come for their food, their precious black liquid." Here Clarke could learn from the masters; Greene and le Carre's genius lies in subtlety of mood and context, as well as reliance on the reader's sophistication.

Clarke, by contrast, uses dialogue to settle some scores and register his political convictions. "The Americans!" spits Abdullah Rashid, the head of Islamyah's intelligence service. "The Americans think democracy solves everything. It took them over a hundred years to allow all their people to vote, the poor, women, the blacks. . . . They waste so much time and fortune in their elections. . . . We overthrew hereditary rule here. They still have it: fathers followed by sons, wives seeking to replace husbands." And Clarke lets us know where he stands on Iraq: "Everyone thought they had WMD," says MacIntyre. "But with us gone, it's still a mess. The Shi'a aren't going to be able to put down that Sunni insurgency. It's been going on for years and no sign of letting up."

The wise old chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee observes that the Saudi royals are now "throwing their money around, getting involved in American politics. Or should I say more involved? The Bushies were always in bed with the Sauds." And the commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet tells a Marine general that "the Iraq occupation almost ruined the Army and Marines. It stretched them thin and it almost busted the National Guard and Reserves. Recruitment has never come back. We got seven thousand kids who are now veterans without legs or with missing eyes and we got nothin' for it."

Some readers of The Scorpion's Gate will happily settle for a rapid-deployment plot and political intrigue high and low. Airport sales should make it a success. But a more thoughtful audience will find itself required to give some thought to what the United States is and is not doing in the most volatile region in the world. If Clarke does nothing else but cause some readers to question our ludicrous reliance on unstable oil supplies, wonder whether we have even begun to understand Islamic culture, begin to demand a more subtle and layered approach to the Middle East, doubt our ability to export democracy at the point of a bayonet, or gain maturity in foreign affairs, he will have done a service.

On his book's jacket, the author says: "Fiction can often tell the truth better than nonfiction. And there is a lot of truth that needs to be told." As co-chair of the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century, I am often asked what caused us to predict terrorist attacks on the United States months before Sept. 11, 2001. More than any other factor, Clarke's chilling briefings of our commission persuaded us. Perhaps he is trying to persuade us of a truth yet again. *

Gary Hart is a former Democratic senator from Colorado and the author of 16 books, including four novels.

Richard A. Clarke