Why do so many Americans believe that Saddam supported Al Qaeda when even the White House denies it? The prophecies of bestselling author Joel C. Rosenberg offer clues.

By Chris Lehmann

It’s hard to keep focused on the eager patter of a publicity agent when an enormous statue of the former head of the KGB is looming over his shoulder. But here I am in the upstairs foyer of the Washington, D.C., Spy Museum — a gadget-stuffed memorial to the Cold War heyday of espionage, run as a for-profit tourist destination by the same outfit that launched Cleveland’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame — fielding pitches from local publicist Peter Robbio.

It’s plenty disorienting just to see this famous statue of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, toppled in the final 1991 death throes of the Soviet Union, dangling from the ceiling like the novelty duck in Groucho Marx’s vintage quiz show “You Bet Your Life.” But the occasion for tonight’s gathering supplies a whole new layer of bewilderment: a book party sponsored by the evangelical newsweekly magazine World for the publication of The Last Days, evangelical thriller author Joel C. Rosenberg’s sequel to his 2001 blockbuster The Last Jihad. As the clutch of publishing and media hands, conservative policy advisers, and evangelicals continues to swarm outside the Venona Lounge, where the party proper is getting under way, it’s hard to avoid the queasy sensation that the 20th century’s gray and sanguinary clash of ideologies is morphing before my eyes into a 21st century battle royale of true believers.

Certainly no one here is discouraging this impression, least of all Robbio, a freelance publicist who represents a number of conservative religious authors. He ticks off the reasons behind Rosenberg’s enormous appeal as I continue to keep a wary eye fixed on Comrade Dzerzhinsky. Rosenberg’s book is a “fantastic” performer in Christian bookstores, Robbio tells me, but “we’re beginning to see mainstream media” follow Rosenberg’s work. (Indeed, just the week prior to the party, The New York Times ran an admiring profile of Rosenberg, stressing how his connections to the country’s conservative Christian media world have proved instrumental to his novels’ success.) But what ultimately will secure The Last Days a mass readership, Robbio says, are the book’s universal themes: “the nature of evil and the battle between good and evil.”

This is, among other things, a great conceptual leap forward for an author whose initial success owed much to a gruesome bit of marketing serendipity. Rosenberg’s maiden novel, The Last Jihad, was released in the spring publishing season, just after the Sept. 11 attacks; by sheer coincidence, the novel (which Rosenberg completed well in advance of the Trade Center and Pentagon attacks) opened with a militant Islamic terrorist flying an airplane into a presidential motorcade. Thanks largely to its seemingly ripped-from-the-headlines plot and a lot of conventional political thriller mayhem, the book catapulted to the No. 4 spot on the New York Times bestseller list, and remained on the list for 11 weeks; now in paperback, it has sold more than 800,000 copies.

Even bigger things are planned for The Last Days. Tor-Forge (a specialty trade house that traditionally specializes in science fiction and military history) has ordered an initial print run of 180,000 for the title after paying Rosenberg a seven-figure advance. In the heat of its breakout success, it was easy for readers to overlook or simply breeze by much of The Last Jihad’s theological agenda. Indeed, the author’s faith commitment expressed itself somewhat clumsily via a strict edict forbidding his characters to curse — in one climactic confrontation with an Israeli security detail, lead character Jon Bennet, a special presidential adviser handling negotiations Middle East, lets loose with the inapposite ill wish “Forget you!”

The Last Days is nowhere near so reticent about the place of Christian belief — and most especially of biblical prophecy — in world affairs. From its opening set piece, in which another militant Islamic suicide bomber kills Yasser Arafat and the better part of an American diplomatic delegation to the Occupied Territories, the novel draws a confident series of lines between its better-intentioned characters and its evil ones, and gradually projects that same division onto the stage of world history. Near the end, Rosenberg has a key character (who is, in what is truly an amazing piece of spiritual undercover work, a covert Christian senior officer with the Mossad) chart the accelerating pace of calamities in the birthplace of biblical prophecies along a grid of quotations from prophecy foretelling everything from the downfall of Babylon (i.e., Iraq) to the second coming of Christ and the Last Judgment.

In this sense, the Spy Museum seems the perfect venue for the tangle of political, spiritual and marketing forces that lay behind Rosenberg’s success. It was, after all, the pre-eminent Cold War theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who separated out the ideological battlefronts of his own day into the children of light and children of darkness — adopting in turn the terminology of the apostle Paul, who was also none too hesitant about grouping the world he was evangelizing into broad Manichean camps.

Yet it was Niebuhr himself who cautioned that every step along the path to seeming righteousness was beset with ironies out of the immediate sight of the pilgrim. It was also Niebuhr who famously cautioned that nation-states are, by the simple logic of their own recourse to mass manipulation and force, incapable of true moral action; that is, individual moral action that can best temper or counteract the immoral force of the state. Such nuances, however, have no place in the promotion of a thriller. Lest any of tonight’s partygoers somehow miss the cosmic moral subtexts in The Last Days, the cutaway promo poster for the event features Rosenberg standing in the foreground of a vista of Mt. Megiddo in Jerusalem, the site where the battle of Armageddon is prophesied to take place in the Book of Revelation. (The portrait is a cover shot from party cosponsor World, which has published Rosenberg as a political columnist.)

As I follow tonight’s crowd into the Venona reception room, I make the actual Rosenberg’s acquaintance. He, like many in the party crowd, looks the part of an information age Washington insider, sporting a brown hound’s tooth sportcoat over a stylish black sweater. And he looks the part because that is what he is, or what he was before his thriller series debuted. After voting for Dukakis in 1988, Rosenberg became an ardent evangelical conservative, working as a researcher for Rush Limbaugh and as a speechwriter for Steve Forbes and Benjamin Netanyahu. (One suspects that his covert Christian Mossad character is drawn from his own experience as a highly placed Christian among Netanyahu’s advisers.)

Like his novels and lead characters, Rosenberg is quick to derive a moral lesson from the crush of world events. “It was not a failure of intelligence that allowed 9/11 to happen,” he tells me, “but a failure of the imagination. . . .Let’s pretend that the government was able to get incredible access to the mind of a suicide bomber. We do have people who’ve been captured, people arrested, but that’s what we’re missing. In many ways, it’s a simpler psychological dimension. [The Sept. 11] terrorists thought they were heroes, they thought they would be getting seventy virgins in paradise.”

Rosenberg’s work — The Last Days in particular — indeed tries to get inside a suicide bomber’s mind. But interior psychological isn’t, as Rosenberg admits, his forte. “I’m not trying be John Steinbeck,” he avers when reminded that critics have found his characters flat and especially so when they are villains. As a result, the added details he brings to his portrayals of evildoers are less qualities of the moral imagination than of the political exigencies of Bush foreign policy.

Rosenberg makes an explicit point of connecting every dot along the trajectory of Middle Eastern evildoing, dots that are much more tightly connected in the character of Iraqi suicide bomber Douad Juma than they ever were in Colin Powell’s prewar case to the UN that the Iraqi terrorist threat was real and imminent. In The Last Jihad, too, the terrorists are Iraqi henchmen of Saddam, whose real-life aversion to militant Islamic observance is well-documented. “From the earliest days he could remember, he had been inspired by the Great Revolution led by Saddam and Yasser Arafat and the imams of his youth.” Never mind that these figures occupy wildly disparate positions in the Middle East’s political mythology and spiritual world — or indeed, that even in the logic of The Last Days’ plot, that Douad is working for the same terror cabal that in the novel’s opening pages arranged for Arafat’s assassination. In Douad’s — which is also to say Rosenberg’s — mind, Saddam was “not simply . . . a good friend of the Palestinian people. . . . Saddam Hussein had given the Juma boys the chance to wage jihad against the Jews and against all Americans.”

In other words, as is the case with the books that Rosenberg’s series draws the most frequent comparisons to — Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s 12-part blockbuster Left Behind series about the (highly speculative) interval of purgatorial human life on Earth between the Rapture and the last judgment — evil is less an attribute of individual human souls in torment than of monolithic world-historic delusion. It is quite literally, a cosmic miscalculation: People are evil in this fictional world because they possess the wrong sort of ardency, mistaking a self-evident path of destruction for a road to redemption.

And so it is with the forces aligned with the children of light. Like the Left Behind series, Rosenberg’s books teem with a total, exuberant fascination with technological gadgetry; indeed, sophisticated military hardware does much more in The Last Days than propel the plot forward by dazzling quantum leaps. The high-tech arsenal of America serves for Jon Bennett — an agnostic former Wall Street investment wizard now using his boardroom savvy to negotiate the foundation for a new Israeli-Palestinian peace accord — as crucial and literal evidence that God is on his side. At one point, a new U.S. superweapon vaporizes a vehicle full of terrorists that had been closing in on the van in which Bennett, his evangelical love interest-cum-Secret Service superagent Erin McCoy, and a pair Middle Eastern dignitaries are taking flight from the scene of Arafat’s assassination. Seeing the handiwork of this high-tech weaponry, Bennett stares at the smoking hulk that was moments ago a hot-pursuing Jeep of Evil, and thinks, “What had just happened? His enemies had been consumed by fire — but how? It was a miracle. That’s all he could think of, and he didn’t believe in miracles.”

He will soon enough, of course, thanks to the ministrations of the athletic and sexy McCoy, the Revelation-minded Mossad agent and lots and lots of additional firepower. But if such evidence of divine intervention seems distressingly prosaic and shallow, it’s ultimately Rosenberg’s account of evil that ups the luridness quotient in his fiction, and one can’t help but suspect, keeps readers coming back for more. But the evil half of Rosenberg’s theodicy is, unfortunately, no more persuasive than the delivery of goodness in narrowly timed missile strikes. As Andrew Delbanco argued in his 1995 study The Death of Satan, most earlier evangelicals ofCalvinist descent understood evil as a crippling form of cosmic negation, bespeaking the withdrawal of divine grace from the believer’s life. Thus evil was reckoned, like most things Calvinist, an occasion for intensive spiritual introspection, and for renewed efforts to conquer the self’s blind presumptions and abject weaknesses.

The popular evangelical depiction of evil in works such as Last Days and The Left Behind series places the problem of evil most decisively outside the self, as an occasion for overt political and cultural confrontation. At the Spy Museum, as World editor Joel Belz steps before the party to introduce Rosenberg, we see this same logic in the familiar register of cultural warfare. “It’s not easy to break through” to mainstream readerships if one is a writer of Rosenberg’s convictions, Belz offers. “There are a lot of people who despise what Joel does and a lot who don’t take him seriously. They want to say that ‘These are just those people over there.’ ”

When Rosenberg addresses the crowd, he picks up the theme: “What’s fascinating is what The New York Times did [in its profile of him]. The New York Times is just completely flummoxed by this.” Likewise, Rosenberg notes that when the shop I work for, The Washington Post Book World, published a review deriding The Last Jihad as “a terrorist assault on the reader’s brain,” Rosenberg’s publicity team “emailed that review across the country.”

Just as such mainstream journalistic scorn is a badge of honor, so are the distressing course of world events an occasion for a certain evangelical assurance that the Bible and the history of the world are very much operating on the same page. In this context, evil serves as a sort of geopolitical proof text. “In this new novel I have one of my characters say ‘To misunderstand the threat of evil is to be blindsided by it,’ ” Rosenberg tells the crowd. “The modern western secular mindset ignores and sets aside the fact that we are in a battle of evil. This war on terror we’re in is a war on evil. To ignore evil is to set out on a road to genocide . . . .I believe there’s evil in the world. This town too often misunderstands and denies it.. . . We live in strange times, and there are some who see it and some who don’t.”

It’s this odd conjunction of worldliness and chosenness that you see not just in popular fictions in the evangelical register, but in American movement conservatism at large. I pick up the same mood of privileged knowledge mingled with strong resentment as I move among the crowd, overhearing one pair of partygoers discuss how al Qaeda recruits among Muslim militants in Bangkok “They match you up with someone and dye your hair blond…” and other “threats”: “There are half a million illegal Chinese in the U.S. right now.”)

And at one point, as I am talking with Rosenberg, GOP strategist Grover Norquist drops by to congratulate Rosenberg on the new novel. When I greet Norquist, he announces that things have never been better: “We’re winning on all fronts.” I gesture over to Rosenberg and offer the mock protest “But he thinks the end of the world is coming.” At which point, Rosenberg mildly avers: “Not just yet.”

Chris Lehmann is deputy editor of The Washington Post Book World and author of Revolt of the MasscultThis is the third of a three-part series on marketing God. Part 1: “The Medium is the Messiah”; Part 2: “Picturing The Passion”

UPDATERichard Bartholomew adds more signs of the times to the story. Peter Robbio, Rosenberg’s publicist, ran Steve Forbes’ campaign in 1999 until he was arrested for pulling a gun on someone in a restaurant. Before that, he worked for Pat Buchanan, around the same time Rosenberg was working for Netanyahu. Of course, this kind of things requires a movie: Madonna’s former manager has bought the rights to The Last Days.