Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Good Spy

I had never heard of Robert Ames until I received this book as a Christmas present. Yet in The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, Kai Bird tells the remarkable story of a remarkable man, made all the more so by his down-to-earth ordinariness.

Bob Ames joined the Army in 1956 after graduating from college. Four years later he was recruited by the CIA, where he worked until he was killed in the Beirut embassy bombing on April 18, 1983. His specialty was the Middle East. Put another way, Ames joined the CIA when Eisenhower was president and served the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations. And in The Good Spy, Bird elegantly captures the complexities of this highly turbulent area, and our foreign policy, in an understandable fashion.

In a moment of realization that the world is smaller than we think, Bob Ames was killed in Beirut, the same city where Kim Philby was confronted. In an even weirder twist, Bob owned a trunk that had formerly belonged to Kim's father. Yes, the world of espionage is small, and even people who belong to different eras are connected.

What Ames excelled at, and what made him such an effective spy, was his ability to make friends and understand people and cultures. Contrary to the image of the spy as a quasi-military agent, Ames used his espionage and intelligence work to promote and further peace. His detailed intelligence work, and ability to create back-channel communications to people that the US government could not publicly admit it was talking to, helped to diffuse or contain situations before they escalated to military engagements.

Peace in the Middle East may be elusive, but so far, at least for the United States, Israel/Palestine has not become another Vietnam due in part to the work of Ames and people like him. It's easy to look at conflict zones and wish they were better; more difficult, yet just as important, is realizing that they could be much worse. The Good Spy demonstrates how certain ordinary people, often acting invisibly, can bring a sense of calm to tumultuous times. Robert Ames was such a person, and his murder in 1983 was a blow to both our foreign policy and peace.

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