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American foreign policy in a “nonpolar” world

foreign policyA World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order, by Richard A. Haass

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

It would be difficult to identify anyone other than Henry Kissinger who represents the tradition of America’s bipartisan foreign policy more fully than Richard A. Haass. Haass is the longtime president of the Council on Foreign Relations, which comes as close as any institution to sitting at the center of gravity for the internationalist wing of the Eastern establishment. For decades before he began at the Council, he cycled in and out of senior policy planning and diplomatic posts in government and a series of positions in academia and other establishment thinktanks. If you want to get a handle on the conventional wisdom that emanates from that elite group of scholars and officials, read Haass’ latest book, A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order.

The three phases of international relations

Haass’s abbreviated survey of international relations in the modern world divides history into three phases. The first began with the Treaty of Westphalia in the mid-17th century that ended Europe’s Thirty Years War and established the primacy of the sovereign state. That phase lasted through the end of World War II, which upended world affairs in profound ways. The second phase lasted from 1945 until the end of the Cold War in 1989. This was a period of superpower supremacy, the absence of large-scale conflict, and unsurpassed economic growth. We now live in the third phase, a troubled “world in which centrifugal forces are gaining the upper hand.”

Haass argues that “the past twenty-five years since the end of the Cold War constitute a break with the past . . . [S]omething very different is afoot in the world.” He characterizes the current state of affairs as “disarray.” In his view, the word “captures both where we are and where we are heading.” This is not the multipolar world so many observers write about. It’s a nonpolar world. “Power is more distributed in more hands than at any time in history,” Haass notes. “The same holds for technology.” In Haass’ view, the multiple uncertainties and dangers of today’s world require that the United States be more assertive on the world stage. He “argues for the stationing of military forces in and around areas that either China or Russia might claim or move against, something that translates into maintaining increased U.S. ground and air forces in Europe and increased air and naval forces in the Asia-Pacific.” Other observers might see greater reliance of this sort on the U.S. military as a prescription for bankruptcy at home and dangerous conflict abroad.

A new approach to foreign policy

The essence of Haass’ thesis is that the concept of state sovereignty established by the Treaty of Westphalia is no longer adequate in a nonpolar world. Today’s international landscape is no longer dominated either by the major powers or exclusively by nation states. Nonstate actors, including international and regional organizations, corporations, terrorist groups, some major cities, and numerous other entities all play roles in setting the direction of civilization today. Haass contends that “the post-World War II order—effectively World Order 1.0—provided only a degree of structure for the international system once the overlay and discipline of the Cold War order disappeared. Just as important, the world was not well positioned to deal with the diffusion of power that was to come.”

In this much more complex environment, U.S. foreign policy must be directed toward establishing a new concept in world affairs: “sovereign obligation.” Haass views this as the ideal operating principle in contemporary international affairs. Under sovereign obligation, every state would be expected not merely to tend to its domestic affairs but also to play a role in addressing the multiple global challenges that bedevil us today: nuclear proliferation, climate change, terrorism, restrictions on trade, threats to global health, the vulnerable state of international finance, and the abuse of cyberspace. (The author’s laundry list does not include drug trafficking.)

It’s difficult not to see this prescription as wishful thinking. Another failing in Haass’ analysis is his failure to distinguish between global threats that are existential and those that aren’t. Any dispassionate observer of climate change, nuclear proliferation, and the growing potential for pandemics would surely agree that any of these three challenges could be fateful for civilization if not for the human race. The other challenges in Haass’ list, while serious, do not rise to the same level. Global trade could constrict, terrorism increase, the international financial system seize up, and cybercrime and cyberwarfare proliferate, but it’s highly unlikely that any of these events would end human civilization, much less lead the human race to extinction.

“What is to be done?”

Haass makes clear his belief that yesterday’s foreign policy is not adequate for “a world in which not all foes are always foes and not all friends are always friendly.” He advances a detailed set of recommendations, not just for U.S. foreign policy but for changes in domestic policy as well. His advice about foreign affairs is, as anyone might expect, highly nuanced. On domestic affairs, his approach is less so. It’s hard to distinguish from traditional moderate Republican policies. For example, he advocates both decisive action to reduce the nation’s debt and increasing the Pentagon’s budget. To enable all this, he favors raising the retirement age, reducing Medicare and Medicaid, and eliminating tax deductions for home mortgage payments and charitable deductions. Wishful thinking again, given any reasonable expectation for Congressional action.

A nonpartisan analysis?

At the outset of A World in Disarray, Haass claims that his analysis will favor neither Republicans nor Democrats. It doesn’t come across that way. It’s true that he is pointed in his criticism of the decision to invade Iraq and of the conduct of the war that followed. But his discussion of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy is savage. Haass reserves his most hard-edged criticism for Obama’s decision to accelerate the drawdown of troops from Iraq, the conduct of the war in Afghanistan, the outspoken support for the Arab Spring, the intervention in Libya, and the decision not to attack Syria after Hafez el-Asaad crossed the “red line” by using chemical warfare on his citizens. This is not a nonpartisan analysis.

About the author

President of the Council on Foreign Relations since 2003, Richard A. Haas has also served as a senior advisor to President George H. W. Bush and to his son, President George W. Bush, as well as in a number of other diplomatic and scholarly posts. A World in Disarray is his 12th book.




Islamic terrorism, from the inside and out

islamic terrorismThe Association of Small Bombs: A Novel, by Karan Mahajan

@@@ (3 out of 5)

It’s 1996. Two brothers, ten and thirteen, walk into a busy Delhi market with their twelve-year-old friend. The brothers are Hindu, the friend, Muslim. As they arrive, a terrorist bomb explodes, instantly killing the two brothers but only slightly wounding their friend. Karan Mahajan’s novel, The Association of Small Bombs, explores the consequences of this attack from every perspective over the years that follow. He traces the lives of the brothers’ parents, the surviving boy and his parents, the bomber, and a circle of younger activists who fall into an association with the bomber many years later.

Mahajan deserves high marks for his insight into the ongoing conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India and into the motives of the Kashmir-based terrorists who bedevil Indian society to this day. It’s a pity that he doesn’t seem to like any of the characters he has created. Several are despicable human beings. The others are simply unpleasant.

The Association of Small Bombs was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in 2016. I can’t profess to be surprised: literary critics typically choose books that annoy me. My excuse for picking up and reading this one is that the subject matter is so compelling — and I read the book to the bitter end because it’s reasonably well written. I say reasonably, because the author uses far too many Hindi or Urdu words, the meaning of which is sometimes unclear even in context; a glossary might have helped for readers who don’t speak one of those languages. Unless you have a special interest either in contemporary Indian affairs or in Islamic terrorism, I do not recommend reading this book.

High stakes in an excellent espionage thriller

espionage thriller - At Risk by Stella RimingtonAt Risk (Liz Carlyle #1), by Stella Rimington

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Ex-spooks with a modicum of writing ability sometimes turn to writing spy thrillers once they’ve left the world of espionage. Rarely, though, do we see fictional treatments of the game come from anyone who retired at the very top of the game. Dame Stella Rimington is one of what must be only a handful of examples. She retired in 1996 as Director General of MI5, Britain’s counter-intelligence service, the only woman ever to have served in the post. Her first novel, At Risk, appeared in 2004, introducing her alter ego, MI5 officer Liz Carlyle. That first book has been followed to date by nine others, one every year or two. It turns out that not only does Rimington know how the counterespionage business works, she’s able to describe it with great skill — and create a great deal of suspense in the process. At Risk is an espionage thriller that fulfills its promise.

Liz Carlyle, now 34 years of age, is a ten-year veteran of MI5. She is in a relationship with a married man whom she’s on the verge of dumping, as she has so many of his predecessors. Her mother wants her to move home and find a marriageable man, settle down, and give her grandchildren. Predictably, Liz has no intention of complying.

At MI5, Carlyle “runs agents” and serves on the Joint Counter-Terrorist group along with representatives of MI6, the police Special Branch, GCHQ (Britain’s NSA), and, sometimes, the Home Office and the Foreign Office. At a meeting of this inter-agency group, MI6 discloses that a terrorist is about to enter the country — an “invisible” capable of blending perfectly into English society. The terrorist’s identity, and his or her intentions, are unknown.

No sooner has Liz begun work on the case than she hears disturbing news from an informant who had reported to her when she was involved in investigating organized crime. Apparently, a crime boss engaged in smuggling drugs and illegal immigrants into the country is expecting a very big shipment; the boss is nervous, and the informant is terrified. Is there a connection to the terrorist on the way? This being fiction, we surmise that that is the case. But how the connection is revealed is fascinating.

At Risk is a superior example of espionage fiction. It’s tense almost from the very beginning, the suspense builds steadily throughout, and the ending is shocking in more ways than one. Highly recommended.

My review of the second novel in the Liz Carlyle series, Secret Asset, is here: An engrossing novel about British counter-espionage. The third, Illegal Action, is at An engaging spy novel from former MI5 director Stella Rimington.

Paradise lost in a small Idaho town

paradise lostA review of Wayward (Wayward Pines #2), by Blake Crouch

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Spoiler alert: do NOT read this book (or this review!) unless you have already read Pines, the first novel in the Wayward Pines trilogy. Wayward is the second. It makes absolutely no sense as a standalone story. Now, assuming that I’m not revealing any secrets, here’s how the novel opens . . .

Former Secret Service Special Agent Ethan Burke is now the Sheriff of the small, isolated Idaho town of Wayward Pines. At a casual glance, Wayward Pines is an idyllic settlement, free of poverty, crime, terrorism, or any of the other afflictions of modern civilization. However, with barely fewer than 500 inhabitants, the town is the last human settlement on Earth — and more than 1,800 years have passed since Burke arrived in town. Yes, it’s now the 39th century. Burke’s role is essentially to keep the residents in town in line, preventing them from attempting to escape. In reality, they are all captives, ignorant of the circumstances in which they live.

As Burke learned in his own early attempt to flee, Wayward Pines is surrounded by an electrified fence topped by razor wire and backed by sheer cliff walls. Outside, the new top predators on Earth are “aberrations,” or “abbies,” mutant descendants of the human race with enormous talons and a voracious appetite for flesh. Humans included, of course. Burke’s job, as he sees it, is to keep the residents safe from attack by these vicious creatures. However, that’s not the way it seems to the evil genius who built the town and sent its inhabitants into the far future through suspended animation. That man, David Pilcher, was convinced that human DNA was degrading in the 21st century and that the species would soon go extinct. He was right, as it turned out. To his mind, Burke’s top responsibility is to ensure that none of the inhabitants learn any of this.

As the action slowly unfolds in Wayward, Burke learns more about the extent to which Pilcher controls the lives of its inhabitants — and about the emptiness of the lives they lead. “More and more, he was coming to realize that living in Pines was like living in an elaborate play whose curtain never closed.” A play, he comes to find out, with an underlying reality of extreme, recurring violence. With accelerating suspense, the story rushes forward to what book publicists are fond of calling “a shattering climax.” The author, Blake Crouch, is supremely skilled at turning this highly original if unlikely science fiction story into a thriller that’s impossible to put down.



Money-laundering and the Russian mob

Money-launderingA review of Single & Single: A Novel, by John le Carre

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

John le Carre established his well-deserved fame in the early 1960s on the basis of the espionage fiction that reflected his career in Britain’s Security Service (MI5) and Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). Over the five decades since then, he has returned again and again to the world of spies. But to stay relevant in the years since the end of the Cold War, he has also ventured into other areas such as corporate crime, terrorism, and high-stakes finance. Single & Single, published in 1999, explores the dark recesses of international money-laundering.

Enter the “Russian mob”

In the 1990s, once the Berlin Wall was torn down and the Soviet Union fell apart, Russia entered into a period with the trappings of democracy. The change did not run deep, however. Effective control of Russian society shifted from a Communist hierarchy to criminal gangs widely known as “mafias.” There was no “Russian mob” as such. (However, that term may apply to Coney Island — and it might even be an apt description of Vladimir Putin and his cronies.) With connections to Boris Yeltsin‘s government, the most entrepreneurial of the mafias made their fortunes by snapping up formerly state-owned companies at bargain-basement rates through privatization. Le Carre writes about one such well-connected gang in Single & Single.

The novel’s title is the name of a wealthy and powerful London-based financial services firm. As we learn early in the story, the Single fortune is built on money-laundering for Russian criminals. The firm’s founder, Tiger Single, is ruthless. But his son, Oliver, gradually develops a conscience after he joins the company. Oliver’s agreement to serve as an informant for Her Majesty’s Customs Service is the linchpin on which the novel hangs.

International criminals and corrupt financiers in a tale of betrayal

The story opens with the brutal execution of Tiger’s attorney on a field in Western Turkey. That murder reflects the Russian gang’s mistaken belief that Tiger has been stealing from them. Meanwhile, Oliver’s relationship has deepened with Brock, the veteran senior Customs agent who is handling him. To gather evidence against the Russians and his father, and to identify the corrupt British police officers who have sold out to Tiger, Oliver becomes deeply involved in dealings with the Russian gangsters and their families. The scene shifts from Turkey to England to Armenia, where the gangsters are based. The tale is fast-moving, suspenseful, and shocking. If there’s a moral to this story, it’s that it’s dangerous to get involved with money-laundering for criminals. But some of us knew that already, right?


Inside the fight for Israeli independence

israeli independenceCity of Secrets: A Novel, by Stewart O’Nan

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

A Latvian Jew freed from imprisonment in World War II internment camps makes his way to Palestine in 1948 and joins the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization that led the fight for Israeli independence. His new name is Jossi. He operates as a courier in Jerusalem, part of a small cell that includes an older woman with whom he had fallen in love.

Terrorism and the struggle for Israeli independence

Then the Haganah merges with the far more radical Irgun, and the stakes for Jossi rise dramatically. Jossi and others in his cell are quickly drawn into terrorism designed to kill British soldiers in the occupation force. Jossi is terrified. This is the picture that emerges early in Stewart O’Nan’s new thriller, City of Secrets.

“He wasn’t weak enough to kill himself,” O’Nan writes, “but wasn’t strong enough to stop wanting to. There was always the question of what to do with his old life, memory seething inside him like a disease.” Having lost his whole family in the Holocaust, Jossi is haunted by nightmares of the experience. Even his deepening love affair causes nightmares about his dead wife.

O’Nan skillfully portrays Jossi’s evolution from a frightened refugee into a terrorist. Along the way, we learn a great deal about the tactics of the Israeli independence movement. As history has recorded, the consequences were sometimes tragic. City of Secrets deals with the country’s most notorious act of terrorism. As historical fiction, City of Secrets contributes to our understanding about the road to the State of Israel.

About the author

Stewart O’Nan is the author of seventeen novels and a half-dozen other works. He is American.

Lucas Davenport takes on extremists

extremistsA review of Extreme Prey (Lucas Davenport #26), by John Sandford

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Lucas Davenport took his first bow on stage in 1989 with the publication of John Sandford’s second novel, Rules of Prey. Now, 27 years and 26 books later in the Prey series, Davenport has left behind the bureaucratic hassles of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, where he led a team of crack investigators in solving a litany of challenging cases.

Independently wealthy from the sale of a software firm many years earlier and married to a successful plastic surgeon, Davenport is by no means in need of money. It would appear, though, that he needs something more to do than refurbish his cabin. That’s why he is able to take off quickly for Iowa in response to a cry for help from his old friend and protector, Elmer Henderson, the governor of Minnesota. Henderson is campaigning for President in the run-up to the Iowa Caucuses. Yes, it’s 2016, and the extremely progressive governor is running behind Michaela (“Mike”) Bowden, a former Cabinet Secretary who is, oddly, a woman and a moderate Democrat. Of course, any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental!

An unusual species of extremists

It would have been all too easy for Sandford to build his plot around an extreme Right-Wing conspiracy. There’s an abundance of such nefarious doings afoot in America today. But Sandford chooses instead to describe a conspiracy to kill Secretary Bowden that comes from the Left, not the Right. In this thriller, the plot takes a bow not to Ruby Ridge but to the Weathermen of the 1960s.

Marlys Purdy “housed a rage that knew no bounds.” A refugee from the era of farm foreclosures in the 1980s, when she and her husband lost their farm, Purdy now works a small vegetable farm with her son Jesse. Jesse is a drinker and is suspicious of his mother’s crazy politics, in which she has involved her younger son, Cole. Cole, an Iraq veteran suffering from brain damage, is obsessed with guns and fantasizes about killing people. As Sandford explains, “The Purdys weren’t rich, but they did all right, not counting the possibly inherited tendency to psychosis.” Marlys and Cole’s particular brand of psychosis has come to center on Secretary Bowden, whom they are intent on murdering. In Extreme Prey, Sandford tells the tale of their attempt to do so — and of Davenport’s desperate (and inevitably successful) work to prevent it.

About the author

John Roswell Camp, aka John Sandford, has written a total of 43 novels to date in addition to a few other books. He is a former journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for a series of articles in 1985 on the Midwest farm crisis. Sandford’s fiction is characterized by a combination of grisly violence and clever, often funny dialogue, a winning combination in today’s America.


An engrossing novel about Irish terrorists’ real-life attempt to kill Margaret Thatcher

Irish terroristsHigh Dive: A Novel, by Jonathan Lee

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Relative newcomers to the political scene may not recognize the name Margaret Thatcher, who served as Prime Minister of the UK from 1979 to 1990. A Conservative who represented the right wing of her party, she crushed the trade unions, deregulated the financial sector, privatized state-owned companies, humiliated the Argentine military in the Falkland Islands, and weakened her country’s social safety net to the detriment of millions of Britons. Ronald Reagan regarded her as an inspiration.

On October 24, 1984, Thatcher narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by Irish terrorists at the Brighton hotel where she was presiding over a Conservative Party conference. Now a young British novelist, Jonathan Lee, has brilliantly reimagined the event in the current bestseller, High Dive.

They didn’t consider themselves “Irish terrorists”

In High Dive, a young explosives expert named Dan, a promising soldier in the paramilitary Provisional IRA, the “Provos,” is a central character. Like others in the Irish independence movement, Dan thinks of himself as a freedom fighter. However, he’s motivated as much by a desire to wreak revenge against the British for their brutal occupation of Belfast as he is by any vision of a free and united Ireland. Dan would never consider himself a terrorist, though it’s difficult not to see him that way. Apparently, Jonathan Lee would agree. This novel isn’t likely to be popular in Ireland.

A latter-day tragedy

Two others join Dan as central figures in the story. Philip Finch, known as Moose, is deputy manager of the Grand Hotel, where the Conservative Party conference is scheduled to be held. Moose is an athlete, a champion diver, who now aspires to the top management post in the hotel. His clever, eighteen-year-old daughter, Freya, works at the hotel’s front desk, unconvinced that attending a university is right for her despite her high grades in school. The tale shifts from the perspective of one of these three to the other, with lengthy flashbacks along the way to tell their backstories. All three — Dan, Moose, and Freya — seem carried along by the strong current of events they can’t control. They are like characters in a Greek tragedy, under the sway of the gods.

Though Dan, Moose, and Freya are all products of the author’s imagination, the story of the hotel bombing is thoroughly grounded in facts. It’s a sobering condemnation of terrorism.

About the author

Jonathan Lee, just thirty-four years of age at this writing, is the author of three highly-regarded novels. Before High Dive, he wrote Who Is Mr. Satoshi? and Joy. Though British, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.



February 23, 2016

The existential threat of contagious disease

contagious diseaseA review of Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, by Sonia Shah

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

To judge from the over-the-top rhetoric on display among the Republican candidates in the 2016 Presidential primary campaign, many millions of Americans live in abject fear of immigration, terrorism, and having their guns taken away. It’s true there are genuine reasons to fear that our lives, our livelihoods, and our lifestyles might be disrupted in the foreseeable future. But they have nothing to do with immigration, terrorism, or hunting rifles.

Any logical, clear-headed look at the world around us reveals that the true existential threats on the horizon include climate change, nuclear holocaust, pandemics, and, at a higher level of logical abstraction, rampant consumerism. However, the most immediate of these threats to our civilization appears to be contagious disease. In Pandemic, Sonia Shah’s superb survey of the past, present, and future of infectious disease. Just so it’s clear: she’s not writing about simple colds and mild flus, but about illnesses that might kill tens or hundreds of millions of people with little warning and with unpredictable consequences for the cohesion of society. The heart of the problem, as she explains, is that “epidemics grow exponentially while our ability to respond proceeds linearly, at best.”

A balanced view of contagious disease

Thanks to alarmist reporting, Americans are terrified that hemorrhagic diseases such as Ebola will “break out” and kill us by the millions. Shah patiently explains that much more common diseases are far more likely to pose threats to us, influenza and cholera in particular. A series of unfortunate mutations in either one could fashion a disease that is not just virulent (contagious) but also highly lethal. Today, for example, influenza kills only a small proportion of its victims. We tend to regard it more as a nuisance for most of us, a threat only to those who are most vulnerable. However, the “Spanish flu” (the H1N1 virus) that broke out in the final days of World War I infected up to 500 million people (between a fifth and a third of the world’s population) and killed between 50 and 100 million. Epidemiologists live in fear that H1N1 or one of the countless other varieties of influenza incubating in Southern China could put on a repeat performance — or worse. Cholera poses a similar threat.

Sanitation, Hippocratic medicine, and Christianity

One of the most fascinating passages in Pandemic is Shah’s account of the role of Christianity in fostering infectious disease for more than a thousand years.

History shows us that two thousand years ago the Romans piped clean drinking water to their cities through an elaborate system of aqueducts and made public baths available to one and all. Cleanliness was a virtue to them. That all began to change with the advent of Christianity a few centuries into the Common Era. Unlike the Jews and (later) the Muslims,  Christian clergy disdained personal hygiene, associating it with Roman polytheism and viewing cleanliness as superstitious. It was common for Catholic priests and the Protestant pastors who succeeded them in some parts to discourage their flocks from bathing. For many centuries, the vast majority of people in Christian lands lived side-by-side with their animals atop pits filled with excrement and cooked with smelly water drawn from contaminated streams or wells.

When disease struck, as it did with increasing frequency as population grew and gravitated toward the cities, the physicians who purported to combat it were in the thrall of the Hippocratic school of medicine, which attributed all disease to an imbalance in the four “humors” within the body and in external factors that exacerbated it. For example, cholera, which sickened hundreds of millions through the centuries and killed half of them, was blamed on the inhalation of what the ancient physician Galen termed “miasmas” (offensive smells). The nineteenth-century physicians who practiced medical “science” based on these beliefs “increased [cholera’s] death toll from 50 to 70 percent.” Though the germ theory of disease was first proposed in the sixteenth century, it wasn’t until three centuries later, on the cusp of the twentieth century, that practicing physicians began to accept the role of microorganisms in causing disease.

Meanwhile, progress toward improved sanitation and the availability of clean drinking water was even slower. As Shah explains in chilling detail, the construction of London’s sewer system was not prompted because public health officials understood that water used for drinking and washing was dangerously contaminated. The reason they proposed the effort was that they thought it was essential to pipe all the smelly sewage into the Thames, the source of the city’s drinking water! Only in the twentieth century did it become common for municipalities to regard drinkable water as a necessity of life.

Why is contagious disease more of a threat today than ever before?

In Pandemic, Shah describes the role of contemporary trends in making the threat of epidemic disease greater than ever. Five stand out: climate change, continuing urbanization, ever more accessible global transportation, resistance to vaccines, and the encroachment of development on previously virgin lands, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and the Amazon. The result is that an increasing number of unknown and unpredictable new tropical diseases is emerging and making their way into more and more crowded cities further and further north on the globe. All the while, diseases previously thought conquered, such as polio and measles, rise up in communities around the globe.

About the author

The daughter of Indian immigrants, Sonia Shah is an American investigative journalist who has reported from around the world, principally on corporate power and gender inequality. Pandemic is her sixth book. Though her parents are both physicians and she lives with a molecular biologist, it appears that the impetus for writing this book came from a painful personal experience with MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), which she contracted from her son. Shah describes her eye-opening experience at length in Pandemic.



Reimagining Saddam Hussein’s role in history

Saddam HusseinA review of Eye of the Storm (Sean Dillon #1), by George Higgins

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In Eye of the Storm, British thriller writer Jack Higgins reimagines the story behind the mortar attack on 10 Downing Street that took place in 1991 shortly after John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister. The attack took place during the early days of the First Gulf War, when Baghdad was under attack from the air and a land invasion was imminently expected. The Provisional IRA engineered the attack, which mirrored its tactics in Northern Ireland. Instead, Higgins puts the blame on a former Provisional IRA hit man named Sean Dillon working as a mercenary for the KGB and its client, Saddam Hussein.

Saddam Hussein gets the blame

Eye of the Storm reflects the historical record in many respects, including the details of the attack. The fanciful hinge on which the story turns is the role of Saddam Hussein, who appears as a minor character in the novel. The hardened mercenary Sean Dillon takes the honors at the center of the plot. Two other favorite characters from Higgins’ stable round out the cast: Martin Brosnan and even the now aging Liam Devlin, both of them reformed ex-IRA terrorists now reincarnated as university professors. The three-way relationship among Dillon, Brosnan, and Devlin is at the heart of the story. All three, and even the many lesser characters in the novel, are brilliantly drawn; their personalities leap off the page. Higgins tells the tale with supreme command of pacing and momentum, building suspense steadily to a crescendo. He makes terrorism credible.

About the author

British novelist Harry Patterson has written most of his 84 novels under the pseudonym Jack Higgins. Though he began writing in 1959, his breakthrough came only in 1975, with the publication of The Eagle Has Landed, which sold fifty million copies. The book introduced the Irish terrorist Liam Devlin and was followed years later by three additional novels about him. Clearly, Higgins was enamored of Irish terrorists. Following his first appearance in 1979 in The Judas Gate, the younger IRA gunman Sean Dillon was the central character in twenty-one subsequent novels. Eye of the Storm, published in 1992, was the first of those.


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