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Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Good Spy: Robert Ames and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

History can be boring. Chronological accounts of past events written in uninspiring prose will often put one to sleep. That is why I (and I suspect many others) often prefer learning about history by reading biographies. For example, I often learned more about the history of Judaism and early Christianity by reading "Who's Who in the Bible" type books rather than by reading introductions to the Old and New Testaments (although the latter are quite helpful in separating fact from fiction).

Thus, it didn't come as too much of a surprise that I learned a lot about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from Kai Bird's, The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, a book about the CIA's Near East Director, who was killed in 1983 in the bombing of the American embassy in Beirut. Bird is an exceptional story teller; he co-author Martin J. Sherwin won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Here is an excerpt from Amazon's review of The Good Spy:
On April 18, 1983, a bomb exploded outside the American Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people. The attack was a geopolitical turning point. It marked the beginning of Hezbollah as a political force, but even more important, it eliminated America’s most influential and effective intelligence officer in the Middle East – CIA operative Robert Ames. What set Ames apart from his peers was his extraordinary ability to form deep, meaningful connections with key Arab intelligence figures. Some operatives relied on threats and subterfuge, but Ames worked by building friendships and emphasizing shared values – never more notably than with Yasir Arafat’s charismatic intelligence chief and heir apparent Ali Hassan Salameh (aka “The Red Prince”). Ames’ deepening relationship with Salameh held the potential for a lasting peace. Within a few years, though, both men were killed by assassins, and America’s relations with the Arab world began heading down a path that culminated in 9/11, the War on Terror, and the current fog of mistrust. 
What emerges is a masterpiece-level narrative of the making of a CIA officer, a uniquely insightful history of twentieth-century conflict in the Middle East, and an absorbing hour-by-hour account of the Beirut Embassy bombing. Even more impressive, Bird draws on his reporter’s skills to deliver a full dossier on the bombers and expose the shocking truth of where the attack’s mastermind resides today.
It is well-worth your time to pick up this book. Not only will you learn about a remarkable CIA operative, but you'll gain a greater understanding of what lies behind much of the turmoil in today's Middle East. It will also make you wonder if things would be different if Ames had lived.

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