Ever read a book that challenges the way you think about the world? Like who the good guys and the bad guys are? If you're Christian, you probably think of Israel as one of the "good guys," and shake your head at what they put up with from "those who hate them." I can't count the number of times I've heard people admiringly tell how "Israel doesn't take crap from anyone," and they aren't afraid to go after their enemies wherever they are. We sometimes claim to admire Ghandi's nonviolent resistance, but more often we cheer the heavy-handed force of standing up for yourself. But of course, there's always two sides to every story (and this book really only mentions the other side, and doesn't moralize about the conflict).
Actually, it's really a book about spies, but not the James Bond type. Because Robert Ames didn't fit the image of a spy. He was a family guy with six kids and was faithful to his wife. Nonetheless, he was probably the most influential operative the CIA ever had in the Middle East. He was fluent in Arabic and grew to love the people and customs of the area. He didn't "recruit" many agents, but the friends he made were some of the most important people in the region... even if they were terrorists.
One of those friends was Ali Hassan Salameh, a Palestinian who was Yasser Arafat's right-hand-man. But the PLO was considered a terrorist organization and Salameh (aka, "The Red Prince") was head of the Black September group that was responsible for kidnappings, hijackings, and even the assassination of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Ames convinced Salameh to stop attacks against Americans with the hope of US support for Palestinian refugees. But Salameh was assassinated by Israel in 1979 and Ames was killed when a suicide bomber (a tactic which was still uncommon then) blew up the American embassy in Beirut in April 1983, killing 63. When 299 died in October in the attack on the US Marine barracks, America lost its appetite for intervention in the region.
The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames
by Kai Bird is an excellent portrait of not just Robert Ames but of American involvement in the Middle East in the 60s thru the early 80s (including the Iranian hostage crisis). And Bird makes a good case that if we ever had much influence in the region, it was because of Bob Ames. He understood the feelings on both sides, and the friendships he made (particularly Mustafa Zein and Salameh) gave America influence with Arafat at a time when even speaking to the PLO would have created a political scandal. Having only been in high school at the time, I found the book especially enlightening. Lebanon was constantly in the news back then, and the news was never good, but now I think I understand why a little better.
But lest you think this is an anti-Israel book, it actually feels like a more balanced perspective. Ames may have been overly sympathetic to the Palestinians, but he wasn't blind to their crimes. And Bird points out that Israel has only itself to blame for the creation of Hezbollah, and the roots of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks can be traced back to some events when we didn't condemn the brutalities perpetrated by our ally. I thought it was an interesting read on how the events of the late 70s and early 80s shaped events that have happened since, and it's really caused me to think. And mostly I think it's unfortunate events couldn't have turned out differently. (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)