The Good Spy and the Good Story

The Good Spy by Kai Bird follows the life and career of CIA agent Robert Ames. After 9/11, I became fascinated with the middle east and Islam and terrorists. I devoured books about Pakistan and Afghanistan and Iran. I had not read much about Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinians. I had read very little about this region in the 1970s and 1980s, which, after reading this book, I have come to see was a mistake.

Kai Bird was a neighbor of Robert Ames when he was a boy. He became a writer and decided to chronicle Ames’ amazing career. Ames was an Arabist, which means he spoke Arabic and studied the middle east. He was stationed in Beirut before, during and after the decades-long civil war. He established a long-term friendship with Mustafa Zein, who was a rich businessman with ties to the PLO. Through Zein, he met Ali Hassan Salameh, who was a high-ranking PLO official. Ames even managed to meet directly with Yassar Arafat. He tried throughout his career to open communications between the U.S. Government and the PLO to try to bring peace to the region.

Ames was also posted to Iran and Yemen. He eventually became a National Intelligence Officer, who briefs the executive branch regarding intelligence issues. He was married and had six kids, who traveled to most of his postings with him.

Ames worked relentlessly to try to get both sides to sit down and negotiate for peace in the region. He thought that it was achievable, despite his colleagues thinking he was idealistic.
Ames was on temporary assignment in Beirut on April 18, 1983. He was at the U.S. Embassy when it was bombed by a suicide bomber. Ames was killed. Though Ames’ life ended on that day, Mr. Bird spends two chapters discussing his life, legacy and who was responsible for the bombing.
I loved this book. I was saddened to learn that peace was within our reach, only to be derailed by very powerful people. Mr. Bird does an excellent job of not only describing Ames and the CIA, but the innerworkings of our government. He manages to make Beirut and all of the people Ames encounters vivid. I learned so much from reading this book that puts today’s current Arab/Israeli conflict into a new perspective.

What is going on today, happened back then. And it will continue to happen as long as people do not learn from the past. Robert Ames was, indeed, a good spy. Had he lived, he probably would have been able to see 9/11 coming and would have been involved in trying to get both sides to the negotiating table. I am glad that Mr. Bird decided to tell his story because it was a grand story worth telling. In the book, someone makes the comparison between Ames and Lawrence of Arabia. I am not sure how apt that description is, but I do know that we lost someone who was truly irreplaceable.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the middle east, the CIA and the world of the 1970s and 1980s. It is a fantastic history lesson and a fantastic story.

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