Ostensibly, "The Apocalypse Brigade" is a suspense thriller by one of the secondary masters of that flourishing form. It begins with the murder of the CIA director and his current mistress, apparently by a terrorist, aboard his sloop anchored in the Potomac. It ends with a vision of something like Armageddon: bombers sweeping in to destroy a massive, secret military installation in an Arabian desert while, not far away, other aircraft fly off to spray down a deadly, radioactive mist on the world's richest oil fields.

Two people are left standing and apparently safe in the final cataclysm out in the Rub' al Khali, the Empty Quarter -- a million square miles of incredibly desolate sand in the Arabian peninsula. They are Michael Rivas, a former CIA agent who quit in disgust and became a journalist, and Amira Shallai, an Egyptian woman of the ancient Coptic branch of Christianity, who became an Israeli spy after her brother was brutally killed by Palestinian militants. They are probably in love, or about to fall in love, but that is another story. What they do mostly in "The Apocalypse Brigade" is watch, with growing levels of understanding and horror, as a ghastly, enormous and elaborate plot unfolds: a plot to alter, perhaps permanently, the precarious balance of power in a confused, violent world.

Behind all its technological trappings, its intricate plotting, its minor characters thrown in for human interest, and its mandatory scenes of sex and violence (though Coppel falls happily short of current quotas in the sex department), "The Apocalypse Brigade" is actually a novel about what Kipling used to call "the white man's burden," the job of maintaining and spreading civilization and order among that vast segment of mankind who were not fortunate enough to be born Victorian British gentlemen. The definition of the w.m.b. has expanded somewhat since Kipling's day -- Coppel's cast of characters includes quite a few people whom Kipling would not have considered "white," not only Amira, but also Michael, who is half-Mexican.

The time is late in the 1980s; Amira and Michael have been brought to Arabia by an organization called the New Peace Corps, which is definitely carrying the white burden but has allowed selected members of the Third World to get in on the act. The NPC, as its founder Calder Davis proudly explains to U.S. President Vincent Todd Loomis, has "more than 80,000 Corpsmen in some 1,500 locations across the world." Compared with the CIA, which has a mere 18,000 people, it is a formidable force -- but of course it is devoted exclusively to good works. It is "lavishly funded" by a consortium of multinational corporations, not only with tax-free money but with their resources for transportation, communications and manufacturing. "Half the oceangoing ships in the world and three-quarters of the world's air transport was owned, or at least controlled, by the same people who, under the guidance of Calder Smith Davis, backed the NPC," Coppel explains. "Most of the western world's most sophisticated weaponry was built by companies having corporate connections with the banks and multinationals." If the NPC turned out to be a kind of international police force rather than an organization for research, humanitarian services and massive engineering projects in the Third World, it just might fill the vacuum caused by a paralysis of will in the governments of the West and stem, at least for a while, the rising tide of international barbarism.

Is the NPC being used as a cover for such a force? That is the author's secret, I suppose, at least in the opening pages -- but without that question to move his plot forward, Alfred Coppel would not have a novel. And why else would the CIA director have been so brutally done in just when he was getting ready to give President Loomis a report on his suspicions about the NPS and some of the strange people it is hiring -- such as experts in unconventional warfare? The NPC has bent over backward to avoid the appearance of being a tool of U.S. policy -- all of its teams are internationally staffed, for example -- but Rivas smells a rat. All of the Third World people he encounters in NPC cadres seem to be thoroughly westernized, cut off from their roots and inclined to despise the cultures from which they sprang.

By the time the novel opens, something clearly needs to be done. Saudi Arabia has been taken over by Islamic revolutionaries similar to the dangerous buffoons who currently control Iran; the American embassy in Riyadh has been in their hands for 200 days, packed full of diplomatic hostages, and the American government is, once again, impotently wringing its hands. Israel, starved for petroleum, is planning an invasion of Arabia -- a desperation measure, since they might be able to take the oil fields but past experience clearly says that they cannot hold them.

Can Calder Davis and his minions straighten it all out and teach the upstarts good manners? Davis would certainly like to. "The Arabians," he tells Rivas, "are the richest members of the Third World. And because they are, it is they who must be subdued. They have no culture meaningful to our time. They were a great people once, but they have never advanced beyond the twelfth century in any of the concerns that denote modern nationhood. In our time, Mr. Rivas, we have seen the West grow slack and timid. Our experiments with permissiveness and luxurious consumption have made us lazy and fearful. I hope with all my heart that this is only a temporary illness, and not the symptoms of a fatal disease."

In working out his story, Coppel is sometimes a bit more slow-moving and complicated than is customary in action-suspense fiction these days. In a sense, his book is a wishful rewrite of recent history rather than a work of creative imagination. But when he is not exciting he is often thought-provoking, and many readers should welcome the tradeoff.