The Magazine

Dangerous Places

A fictional treatment of an all-too-real world.

Dec 25, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 15 • By NEWT GINGRICH
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Dragon Fire

by William S. Cohen

Forge, 384 pp., $24.95

Former secretary of defense Bill Cohen has had a fascinating career, and he continues it with this novel. I recommend it cheerfully to anyone interested in a good read. It contains a number of provocative thoughts about national security in the 21st century, and some tantalizing tidbits about power struggles in Washington.

One of the great virtues of fiction is it allows you to learn about and think about possibilities that have not yet occurred. For example, Tom Clancy, in one of his novels, had a fully-loaded 747 airliner crash into the Capitol long before 9/11. He outlined in detail the catastrophic impact of that much jet fuel on a building and the effect of that hot a fire. Cohen begins here with a series of targeted killings in Washington, including a secretary of defense. While you may have been reading about targeted killings in Iraq, assassinations in Lebanon, murders in Afghanistan, Thailand, Pakistan, and elsewhere, it may not have occurred to you that such a systematic campaign could be carried out in America's capital. It is a skillful and sobering opening.

Dragon Fire includes occasional chilling references to the danger of a war between the United States and the Iranian dictatorship. Cohen has the Chinese assert in a planning session among themselves:

"The United States," Li continued, "is unlikely to strike Iran. But Iran will strike at American targets all over the world, especially in America itself. It will be a worldwide war. One for which the American people are not prepared." Li seemed to find particular delight in this notion.

In these few words a former senator and secretary of defense communicates his sense that, in 2006, despite 9/11 and everything that has followed, the American people still have not come to grips with how dangerous the world is.

The very real danger of a nuclear terrorist threat is also captured in a brief exchange:

"Secretary Santini, I've read that in response to a reporter's question of what your biggest nightmare was, the thing that kept you awake at night, you said 'the threat of nuclear terrorism.'" Santini nodded. "A nuclear bomb, detonated in a major city would kill hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people instantly. Many more beyond the initial blast area would die of radiation burns and poisoning. Such an attack would have economic consequences beyond the monstrous human toll."

At a later point, Cohen notes, "The fear of more homeland attacks was not just a matter of paranoia. America had real enemies and they were waiting to strike at the least sign of inattention or weakness."

What better witness could we have to the need for the Department of Homeland Security to conduct several nuclear exercises a year to test our ability to survive a terrorist attack on an American city?

In passing, Cohen describes one of the greatest problems facing American planners in Iraq and beyond. He describes the challenge in unifying East and West Berlin and notes that, while the physical wall has fallen, "the wall, it is still there, the wall of the mind." In all too many places, we imagine that if we replace a corrupt, vicious, torturing, and murdering dictatorship there will spring forth a new, democratic, honest, and transparent system of self-government, pursuing happiness and living in peace. We underestimate the walls of the mind that remain long after the system changes. It is a useful insight into the challenges of the modern world.

Cohen's insights go from the larger world to the smaller world of Washington gossip, maneuver, and manipulation. He has been in the rooms in the Congress, the Pentagon, and the White House, and it illuminates his novel. As a novelist writing a thriller, he employs caricature: the weak president; the noble war hero-senator turned financier turned secretary of defense; the unscrupulous, endlessly ambitious national security adviser acting dishonestly and ruthlessly to undermine more honest people in order to manipulate his own rise.

Yet contained within each caricature there is more than a kernel of truth. There are people actually like this. They do operate in remarkably different ways, and march to remarkably different drummers.

The genius of America has been the very inefficiency of the system that enabled the honest to outlast the dishonest, and the noble to outlast the vicious. And in Dragon Fire, American idealism and sincerity once again triumph. Interestingly, they triumph over both bad Americans and bad Chinese.