Review of “The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames” by Kai Bird

This is a very timely book, even though it tells the story of a man who died on April 18, 1983 in the suicide bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon.  That man was Robert Ames, a CIA expert on the Middle East.  In the course of telling his story, the Pulitzer Prize winning author also provides excellent background on the roots of the current problems in the Middle East.

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Bob Ames was highly regarded in the CIA because for one thing, he could speak Arabic fluidly.  He even acted as a translator at times for State Department officials in the Middle East.  (I find that to be a rather sad commentary on the qualifications and/or training of the Foreign Service.)  Ames was also attracted to the Arab culture generally and made it his business to interact with natives rather than just hanging around with other diplomats, as so many others did.

Bob Ames

Bob Ames

This admirable quality of Ames had the effect, however, of making him rather biased toward the Arab side of affairs.  He had little sympathy for Israel and seemed to consider himself an advocate for the Palestinians.  To that end, he made some close friendships with members of the PLO, including Ali Hassan Salameh, the so-called Red Prince, commander of Yasser Arafat’s personal security squad and chief of operations for the terrorist Black September group (the organization responsible for the 1972 Munich massacre and other attacks).

Bob Ames considered Salameh a “special friend” and even tried to get permission to give him a firearm as a gift.  He was denied that request, but he was able to arrange (with the approval of CIA Director George H.W. Bush) for Salameh to get an all-expense paid trip to Disneyland, New Orleans, and Hawaii with his mistress.  (This mistress, a former Miss Universe, eventually became Salameh’s second wife — the allowance of multiple wives being one of the few aspects of Islam to which Salameh paid obeisance.)

Ali Hassan Salameh (left) shaking hands with Pierre Gemayel, the founder of the Lebanese Phalangist party. Gemayel's son Bashir is between them. As-Safir newspaper, Beirut

Ali Hassan Salameh (left) shaking hands with Pierre Gemayel, the founder of the Lebanese Phalangist party. Gemayel’s son Bashir is between them. As-Safir newspaper, Beirut

Bird devotes a lot of coverage to Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and brutal massacre that same year in mid-September by Lebanese Maronite Christians of mostly civilian refugees in the camps at Sabra and Shatila.  The massacre was horrific, involving rape, torture, mutilation, and execution.  Oddly, the Maronite Christians were not the ones who were blamed for the outrages they committed.  Most Arabs blamed the Israelis, who were in fact in the area, and did nothing to prevent what happened.  But in addition, the U.S. had pulled out most of its forces shortly before the Maronites went on the rampage.  The U.S. preferred Maronite primacy in Lebanon to the increasing influence of Soviet-backed Syria.

In any event, the blowback from the murder of all the innocents in the refugee camps energized a number of terrorist groups who wanted nothing more than to wreak havoc on both Israel and the U.S.

The United States embassy bombing in Lebanon the following April was part of this blowback.   A car loaded with explosives drove into the lobby of the building and detonated.  At the time, concrete car barriers had been sitting in a storage area at the Embassy, yet to be put outside to prevent just such an occurrence.  Aside from Bob Ames, 62 others were killed, including a total of seventeen Americans.

US embassy in Beirut bombed in 1983 Photo: REUTERS/Stringer

US embassy in Beirut bombed in 1983 Photo: REUTERS/Stringer

One of the men thought to be a mastermind behind the attack, Imad Mughniyeh, went on to arrange a number of other suicide bombings for Hezbollah, and it was rumored that Osama bin Laden consulted with him in planning for the September 11 attacks.  Mughniyeh was assassinated in 2008 in an action that the CIA says was undertaken by Mossad, and Mossad says was undertaken by the CIA.

Discussion:  While incredibly well-researched, there is occasional repetitiveness in the book, which is surprising.  I can only guess it was rushed into publication precisely because the issues in the book are so relevant to today’s news.

Northern Gaza Strip, Monday, Aug. 11, 2014

Northern Gaza Strip, Monday, Aug. 11, 2014

That relevance relates to one of my biggest takeaways form from this book, which is that, if the past is any guide (and I have no reason to think it would be different now),  no one can say what is ever really going on behind the scenes with governmental players.  They not only have to present a certain face to the world for political and diplomatic reasons, but also a lot of their negotiations are highly dependent on secrecy and even duplicity.  Maybe you will find out the truth forty years later, maybe not.  But I think we can be fairly certain that whatever Obama, Netanyahu, Putin, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, King Abdullah, David Cameron, or anyone else says in public, it only has a 50% chance of reflecting what is really going on in private.

My second takeaway:  both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have legitimate concerns and grievances, and both sides have responded to each other irrationally.  But Bob Ames definitely sympathized with the Arab side, overlooking or justifying somehow their terrorist activities, and I think the author sways in that direction as well.  This was never conveyed by a discussion of the pros and cons of each side, if you will.  It was just simply always there, in the background.

Third:  One of the biggest tragedies with the situation between Israel and the Palestinians is that, while people in countries all over the world feel passionately about one side or the other, no one wants to allow either one to emigrate, so neither side really has anywhere else to go.  Furthermore, both sides are convinced (largely for religious reasons) that they need to be in that particular place.  (So much for the idea of Larry Ellison, who purchased an entire island of Hawaii, buying them each a place somewhere else ….)  There seems to be no alternative but for the two sides to find a way to get along with each other, but of course, that doesn’t seem to be happening….

At Hezbollah's "Museum for Resistance Tourism" in Lebanon, celebrating terrorism against Israel

At Hezbollah’s “Museum for Resistance Tourism” in Lebanon, celebrating terrorism against Israel

Evaluation:  I tended not to regard this so much as a biography but rather as a detailed examination of the operations of the CIA, particularly in the Middle East.  As such, it is an extremely valuable insider look of a part of U.S. operations that don’t often see the light of day.  

Rating:  4/5

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

Wow!  Rene Ruiz does a fantastic job.  He clearly did a great deal of research into the pronunciation of a multitude of Arabic names and Middle East places.  His intonation and pacing are good as well. 

Published unabridged on 12 CDs (15 listening hours) by Random House Audio, 2014

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8 Responses

  1. Such an interesting and emotionally-charged topic. I’d definitely need to go the audio route with this book.

  2. I love books like this (although I have found that they don’t always translate well to audio for me, because too much detail for my tiny brain to absorb). I love your takeaways, because you are right. It is complicated and I’m not sure if ANYONE (even the leaders) have the whole story. For a real eye-opening experience, I would strongly encourage that you read the graphic novel “Palestine”. They even use this book in university courses. Just gives a ground level view of another side of things.

  3. I have this one to read and you’ve made me want to hurry up and get to it. It’s so hard to understand what is happening in the Middle East and with the non-news we are given it’s even more difficult to understand. Sounds like this book gives us a good background. Thanks for sharing!

  4. That sounds fascinating and disturbing even if it is repetitious at times.

  5. My brain hurts. Obviously you are the Smart Jill.

  6. These kind of books are so important but they also tend to make me mad. I’d end up yelling at my audiobook — and probably at both sides of the argument.

  7. What a great and thorough review! This one has been on my radar screen for a while. I think audio sounds like the way to go.

  8. This is something that I might have glanced at and thought it looked interesting but not picked up because I was concerned it would be too dry. Sounds like that initial impression is one I should stick with.

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