The London Spectator
The American who dreamed of peace for the Arabs – but was murdered in their midst
A review of The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, by Kai Bird. One of the best nonfiction books ever written about the West’s involvement in the Arab world
Matthew Walther 31 May 2014
The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames Kai Bird
Crown Publishers, pp.437, £20, ISBN: 9780307889751
‘Arabist’ is fast becoming an archaism. Perhaps it is already one. These days the word conjures up enchanting visions of racy manuscripts examined over sharbat in the great domed residences of sympathetic chargés d’affaires and lone camels bumping along like single-masted cutters on a sand-dune ocean. At the age of six I dreamed of becoming one after watching David Lean’s great film for the first time. (A few weeks later I saw Jurassic Park on video and decided that I fancied palaeontology instead.)
It is tempting, even for those of us who take an Israeli line, to think that had the creation of a massive pan-Arab state followed the Paris Peace Conference, the last 100 or so years would have been much the better for it. Today’s jihadist ideology is very much a 20th-century beast. The barbarous anti-Semitism that pervades much of the Middle East today and the general backwardness into which the Arab-speaking world has fallen are the unfortunate consequences of a people’s having long been under the spell of the wrong leaders — not, as certain hawkish intellectuals have hinted, the default condition of anyone who considers the Koran the word of God.
While the partitioning of the Ottoman empire may have broken T.E. Lawrence’s heart, it did not spell the end of Arabism in the English-speaking world. Among the most distinguished Arabists after Lawrence was Robert Ames, a CIA man whose career overlapped with the Munich assassinations, the Iranian revolution, the civil war in Jordan, and the rise of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). I say ‘distinguished’ though I realise that Ames’s is far from a household name. If he is remembered at all these days it is as one of the 63 people killed when a Hezbollah terrorist drove a delivery van armed with 2,000 pounds of explosives into the American embassy in Beirut in 1983.
There are two significant trends in biography these days: one which obscures the role of the author and his research in an attempt to create a novel-like atmosphere, the other, nearly but not quite its opposite, making the hunt for sources and documents a kind of second narrative parallel to the life. The Good Spy, Kai Bird’s compelling biography of Ames, is a successful hybrid of these approaches: half spy thriller, half narrated bibliography. Here the suspense begins on page xi, before the first chapter, when we are teased with the knowledge that many of the figures in the American, Israeli and Palestinian intelligence community whom Bird has interviewed must appear pseudonymously. We also learn early on that as an adolescent Bird, whose father was a Foreign Service officer, was Ames’s neighbour in Dharan, Saudi Arabia.
Bird makes quick work of Ames’s early life, carrying us from his childhood as the handsome, encylopaedia-devouring son of a Philadelphia steelworker to his stint in Army intelligence in Eritrea in the late 1950s in a mere 12 pages. By 1960, having taught himself Arabic, Ames had joined the CIA. Two years later he was in Saudi Arabia, where Bird tells us he was known for going on amateur archaeological excursions and giving off-the-cuff historical lectures to the natives. Within a decade he was unanimously considered the agency’s chief asset in the Middle East, and with good reason. He distinguished himself not only by his intelligence and linguistic ability but by his sympathy for the people of the region.
It was this passionate but never patronising interest in the Arab world that made possible what was perhaps Ames’s most remarkable achievement: making contact and, eventually, a sort of covert alliance with Ali Hassan Salameh, the so-called ‘Red Prince’ who was assassinated by Mossad agents in 1979. (Salameh’s death was a great setback for Ames, of course, and, some would argue, for the peace process, but one can hardly blame the Israelis for stamping out the planner of the Munich massacre: this is the sort of moral dilemma the reader faces on almost every page of The Good Spy.) Through Salameh Ames was secretly introduced to Arafat in 1977 in a meeting whose far-flung consequences may well include the creation of the self-governing Palestinian National Authority.
Along the way we meet other fascinating characters, including Mustafa Zein, an old PLO hand who to this day refers to Ames as ‘the enlightened one’, and Georgina Rizk, Lebanon’s only winner of the Miss Universe pageant and the second wife (after being the mistress) of the Red Prince. But all the while we are moving toward the inevitable conclusion in Beirut. Bird’s account of the attack and its aftermath is worthy of John le Carré, who visited the ruined embassy two days after the bombing. If Zein’s word is to be believed, the man who planned the operation, one Ali Reza Asgari, is alive and well — living in America of all places.
Ames ‘was no Lawrence of Arabia’, one CIA agent tells Bird early in this book. Perhaps. Certainly there is no parallel here to Lawrence’s heroic (and somewhat exaggerated) 49-hour crossing of the Sinai peninsula in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. And it is hard to imagine a film about the humble Pennsylvanian Ames starring the late Peter O’Toole. Yet Lawrence and Ames dreamed the same unrealisable dream: of peace and civilised existence for one of the great peoples of the world.
This may be one of the best nonfiction books ever written for a popular audience about western involvement in the Arab world. It is certainly among the most engaging and (while the superlatives are rolling) the saddest.
Kai Bird is the new Executive Director for CUNY Graduate Center's Leon Levy Biography Center
Crown books (Random House) has signed Kai Bird to write a biography of President Jimmy Carter's White House years.