"Sleeping with the Devil" by Robert Baer. Crown/New York, 2003
Robert Baer, author of Sleeping with the Devil, not only claims to be a veteran of decades with the CIA, but writes with the irksome swagger stateside readers expect from a Langley man. I had to laugh at the farcical caricature of noir prose with which he begins his first chapter, as his trained eye picks up subtle clues that the Israeli resort he's visiting is full of Russians:
"The marble palace perched amid the olive trees...looked like a lot of other posh resort hotels I'd seen around the Mediterranean... It didn't take me long, though, to notice that a couple things were out of place: the pack of little blond boys running around on the front lawn, shouting in Russian, and the young girls wearing identical bandeau bikinis, reading glossy Moscow weeklies by the pool. When the bellboy greeted me in Russian, I knew I had landed in one of those Russian beachheads I'd heard so much about."
Baer's purpose in this extended description is to show the reader right at the start that he's in the hands of a trained intelligence agent, capable of sifting a mass of apparently meaningless detail for a few key clues. Let's try to follow the dazzling process by which Baer realizes he's walked into a Russian hotel.
"[a] pack of little blond boys...shouting in Russian";
"young girls...reading glossy Moscow weeklies [i.e., printed in Cyrillic script]";
"the bellboy greeted me in Russian."
At this point, Baer tells us, "I knew I had landed in one of those Russian beachheads I'd heard so much about."
We had an expression at my elementary school used in response to insights like this: "No shit, Sherlock!" Baer or his ghostwriter actually seems to think that the reader will be awed by this display of sleuthing, when in fact it reads like Leslie Neilsen's opening voiceover for the next Naked Gun.
To be fair, though, the passage did achieve one of its presumed aims: it convinced me that the author actually was a CIA veteran. Mere civilians rarely combine so much arrogance with such radiant stupidity.
Reading Baer's book means spending hours listening to a macho braggart of the sort you hoped you'd left behind in high school. This is a pity, because his topic could make a great tale: the inside story of America's long, doomed collusion with a corrupt, gangrenous, self-destructive Saudi Arabian oligarchy. Baer's thesis is simple: the Saudis are going down, and we've so overcommitted ourselves to them that we're going down with them. When the Muslim Brotherhood crazies who've been coddled by the devout, feeble Saudis finally turn on them and take over the oilfields, the world economy will crash, and we'll face a Jihad without even enough gas to go get a good look at our burning cities.
It's a simple, cinematic thesis, well suited to the corny noir menace of Baer's prose. The trouble is that Baer does little but strike Philip Marlowe poses, muttering about how it's all going to come crumbling around our ears any day now. He calls his argument "Devil's logic," a phrase which for all its adolescent strutting does get at a fatal flaw in his case: it's merely "logic," and when history goes up against logic, history -- chance, anomaly, chaos -- tends to win. Here, from the conclusion of his second chapter, is Baer's clearest summary of his case, in all its specious "logic": "If you've followed this devil's logic so far, then it's a small step to the conclusion that we in the West and the Saudi rulers themselves are in serious trouble. All the ingredients of upheaval are in place [in Saudi Arabia]: open borders, the availability of arms, political alienation, the absence of a rule of law, a completely corrupt police force, a despised ruling class, plummeting per capita income (and fabulously wealthy rulers to remind the poor exactly how poor they are), environmental degradation, surly neighbors, and a growing number of young home-grown radicals who care more about righteous murder [i.e. Islamic terrorism] than they do about living. The kingdom's schools churn out fanatics faster than they can find wars to fight. Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Angola, Somalia, and Sierra Leone succumbed to chaos under less volatile conditions. Why should Saudi Arabia escape this fate?"