THE LAST JIHAD

By Joel C. Rosenberg

Forge Books. 351 pp. $24.95 Joel Rosenberg's first novel could hardly be more timely: A worldwide terrorist offensive leads to a nuclear showdown between a Republican president and the Great Satan himself, Saddam Hussein. I found it largely unreadable, but if you can tolerate its dreadful prose or sympathize with its right-wing politics, or if you have mastered the art of enlightened skimming, you might find it diverting.

The president is James MacPherson -- Vietnam hero, Wall Street legend, former governor of Colorado -- who has succeeded George W. Bush. Between them, Bush and MacPherson have brought joy to our troubled land. The war on terrorism is won, Osama bin Laden is dead, and al-Qaeda is obliterated. Taxes are low, employment high and our hearts even higher: "Presidential promises made were promises kept. And the sense of relief is palpable."

Alas, the good times end as the novel begins. The president's motorcade is attacked by a Gulfstream IV. The Secret Service brings the plane down with Stinger missiles, but the president is wounded and his aides fear that a mole in his inner circle has tipped off the terrorists to his travel plans. Worse, the attack was coordinated with others at Buckingham Palace, the Canadian Embassy in Paris and the Royal Palace in Saudi Arabia. The aging Saddam Hussein has launched his "last Jihad." (Just how he survived the tender mercies of G.W. Bush is not explained, but in the world of fiction, great villains never die.) When the Israelis decide that Hussein is about to attack them with nuclear weapons, they give the president an ultimatum: Either he must nuke Iraq or they will.

We meet the cast. Jon Bennett is a young financial wizard whom the president recruits to broker the deal of the century. Vast undersea oil and gas reserves have been found near the Holy Land, and the president wants to make the Israelis and the Palestinians an offer they can't refuse: They can all be millionaires if they'll just stop their damned fighting. Erin McCoy is a CIA agent, "feisty, gorgeous, yet also inexplicably single." The secretary of state is a "pasty white" peacenik who keeps begging the president not to incinerate millions of Iraqis. We even meet the dastardly mole who has betrayed the president, and learn he went to Harvard and never married.

All this leads to a three-ring circus of an ending during which the United States is bombing Baghdad, terrorists are blasting away at the president at the Washington National Cathedral, and Bennett and McCoy are besieged by terrorists in Israel. When the dust settles, the president makes his fateful decision on whether to nuke Baghdad. What will it be? A bang or a whimper? Hint: This is no novel for wimps.

Rosenberg is a communications strategist who has worked for Steve Forbes, Rush Limbaugh and Benjamin Netanyahu. His political views are no doubt deeply held, and in the spirit of Christmas, I will pass by his gratuitous attacks on Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and other partisan asides. His writing, however, is harder to forgive, for it is an act of terrorism on the reader's brain. There is endless dumb dialogue on the order of: " 'Hey, Jon,' said McCoy with a smile, a grape lollypop in her mouth. 'Heard you took a bullet for the President.' "

The craven secretary of state keeps babbling about peace ("Sir, I beg you, for God's sake, take a deep breath") until the president threatens to have him arrested. Bennett, a closet Democrat, keeps feeling nauseated at the prospect of nuclear war. Scenes keep ending with: "I need to talk to the President -- now!" Four agonizing pages are devoted to McCoy telling the president a flatulence story about Bennett, who responds by telling about the time McCoy took a shower with a woman whose name she believed to be Gay. (As in: "Are you Gay?") All this hilarity has the inevitable result, love: "He couldn't help but notice -- for the first time really -- how attractive she looked in her soft pink cashmere sweater, black wool skirt, black pumps, string of pearls, tiny pearl earrings, and black and gold Cartier watch." And that's before this right-wing fantasy babe (with that lollypop in her mouth) shows she can handle a Beretta: "Pivoting around through the archway, she saw the Iraqi plunging down the circular stairs and quickly emptied all twelve rounds into his twitching, clawing, contorted body."

Who could resist such a woman? Not I, but I can resist "The Last Jihad." There is a good novel to be written about worldwide terrorism and nuclear war, but this isn't it. Tom Clancy is still the king.