Terrorists armed with nuclear weapons are the bad actors in this novel. The dramatisation is so compelling that the novel could pass for a book published by a think tank.
The book’s realism is not surprising, since the author served as Secretary of State in the Obama administration and had previously served as US Senator from New York and First Lady. She is also the first woman who was the presidential nominee of one of the two major political parties.
The drama begins when three buses explode in three European cities within days of each other, killing everyone onboard. The search begins – who did it and why?
From that point on, the plot unfolds with the full fury of a Matt Damon thriller. Eventually, a common link between the bombings is found. The explosions targeted and killed three relatively unknown nuclear physicists of Pakistani origin.
Who killed them and why? Initial suspicion points toward Iran. A Pakistani nuclear physicist, Bashir Shah, has gone rogue and is selling nuclear weapons and technology to the highest bidder. The Iranians view him as a threat. But those killed were not high-profile scientists. Something more sinister is underway.
Resolving that mystery becomes the focus of the new US Secretary of State, Ellen Adams. Ellen has a difficult relationship with the new US president, Doug Williams, who has succeeded a self-styled “stable genius,” a populist demagogue, Eric Dunn.
It is no coincidence that Dunn bears a strong resemblance to Donald Trump, Ellen to Hillary and Shah to A. Q. Khan.
Ellen gets on a whirlwind tour that takes her to Frankfurt, Muscat, Tehran, Islamabad and Moscow. The mystery begin to unravel, slowly but steadily. The suspense mounts, almost becoming unbearable when she discovers that three dirty nuclear bombs have been planted in the US. The clock is ticking. Who is behind the nefarious plot? Can the bombs be defused before they blow up? Where are they located? Who put them there?
Along the way, Hillary provides trenchant commentary on the strategic objectives of the Ayatollah’s Iran, Pakistan’s military-dominated establishment and Putin’s Russia.
Mike Tyson is quoted saying that “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” to remind the reader that plans are always going to fail – but that does not mean that they should not be made
The Pakistani prime minister is a decent but naïve man, unable to control right-wing elements in the military who project Pakistan as the only good and trustworthy US ally in the region which is wearing a “white hat,” while all others including India, Israel and Iran are wearing black hats.
In his naiveté, Eric Dunn signed a deal with the Taliban not knowing that it almost guaranteed their return to power. Pakistan, which had sought unsuccessfully to make Kashmir its fifth province since 1947, thinks its moment has arrived. By extending the hand of friendship to the Taliban, it hopes to convert Afghanistan into a fifth province.
However, the Taliban have greater ambitions. They are busy rehabilitating Al-Qaeda. The US has figured out that Pakistan is playing a complex game. The US Navy Seals had found Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, not in a cave on some remote mountainside but in a luxurious compound just outside the city of Abbottabad, a mile away from the army’s academy. It was inconceivable that the ever-vigilant ISI would not have known of his presence in their own backyard.
Hillary’s views about Pakistan transcend the book. The currently serving US Secretary of State commented on Pakistan’s double-faced character in his remarks to the US Congress. President Biden has not called Imran Khan.
As the narrative unfolds, we discover to our horror that Shah is the evil genius behind the plot. His ultimate goal is to blow up the White House. He is the lynchpin of a triangle. The white supremacists in the US, who think the US has deviated from the vision of the Founding Fathers, are the first vertex. The second vertex is the Russian mafia, which is headed by a long-serving tyrant who is seeking to restore the glory that was lost when the USSR broke up. Al-Qaeda, hell-bent on seeking revenge for the killing of Osama, is the third vertex.
The book says these three constitute a modern rendition of Azhi Dahaka, the three-headed dragon of Persian mythology who was born out of lies and spawned to wreak havoc on the world.
The book is rich in allegories, metaphors and legends – much more so than any political thriller. The narrative is vivid and gripping.
For example, Islamabad is described as a fun, heady and exciting place filled with deception and duplicity. “The nights are steamy and the days are sultry. Everyone is so young, so vital, so firm, so certain. Life is teeming all around them while Death awaits in the marketplace.”
To the former US president, “Loyalty was the most important thing in that White House. Anyone who looked like they might say anything at all critical was let go.” He had unexpectedly “turned to politics and won the highest office in the land. But not […] without help from people and foreign governments who planned to profit from it […] It was the strong shadow that accompanied the bright light of democracy.”
The white supremacists in the US are claiming: “Jobs for hardworking Americans are being stolen. Prayer is banned. Abortions are happening. Gays can marry. Immigrants and criminals are flooding in.” They have joined in this diabolical plot to topple the current US administration, even if it means killing thousands of innocent people.
The Grand Ayatollah is a shrewd strategist who uses fables to conduct diplomacy. He invokes the Persian tale of “the cat and the rat” to signal that while it can be advantageous to form alliances with one’s enemies when expedient, it’s a not a good idea to keep those alliances when the anger has passed.
Mike Tyson is quoted saying that “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” to remind the reader that plans are always going to fail – but that does not mean that they should not be made. The “Secretary’s Dilemma” is cited to make the point that ultimately a decision has to be made, however imperfect it might be. The Mesopotamian story, “Appointment in Samarra,” is mentioned to remind us of the impossibility of cheating death.
The book is a work of erudite scholarship by Hillary Clinton, beautifully narrated by Louise Penny, a Canadian crime novelist. Both authors hope the dreadful scenario laid out in their book will not come to pass.
So do I.