Reviews : The Good Spy : The Life and Death of Robert Ames

Michael Young review in The National (United Arab Emirates)


Robert C Ames and the death of an American view of the Middle East

One-page article

Beirut, April 18, 1983. I had just stepped out of Khayyat’s bookshop on Bliss Street when a truck bomb struck the American Embassy. Though the embassy and Bliss were separated by the American University campus, I could hear glass around me breaking from the force of the explosion. For inhabitants of Beirut reared on such violence, this was no ordinary blast.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Kai Bird has just published an outstanding biography [] of the most prominent victim that day, Robert Clayton Ames. At the time Ames was director for the Near East and South Asia in the Central Intelligence Agency’s Directorate of Intelligence, the analysis arm of the CIA, after having spent much of his career on the agency’s operations side.

Ames was visiting Beirut and in a career of more than two decades had become one of the CIA’s more charismatic figures – a man of integrity with a profound interest in and empathy for the Arab world. Much of Bird’s book is taken up with Ames’ signal achievement, the opening of a path to negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, through a dialogue he initiated (thanks to a Lebanese middleman, Mustapha Zein) with Ali Hassan Salameh, the chief of Yasser Arafat’s Force 17 security unit. Ames saw this initiative as, potentially, a step in American normalisation with the PLO, which could facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.

Yet Bird admits that the contacts with Salameh “played a small role in opening the path to negotiations”, and in that way Ames’ legacy “remains an unfinished story”. That is why his book is most rewarding less as an account of a vital individual, than as the story of two very different moments in the Middle East and American efforts to come to grips with them: the post-1967 interregnum, defined by Palestinian nationalism, so that Washington’s refusal to speak to the PLO became untenable; and the period after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when the old verities of the Arab-Israeli conflict were overtaken by Islamist militancy spurred by an Iran with regional ambitions, which had expanded into the Levant to confront America and Israel.

Bird is very effective at transforming Ames into a prism through which to survey a shifting region. Ames was perhaps the first American to establish a relationship with Abdel Fattah Ismail, the effective ruler of Marxist South Yemen until 1980. He was a regular visitor to Beirut before and during the civil war. Ames was in Iran in the early 1970s, as the country moved toward its revolution, and then right after – before working on the hostage crisis as national intelligence officer for the Middle East.

Two criticisms often levelled against Ames were that he was too analytical and that he had gone native in the Arab world. A number of colleagues, for instance, never forgave him the fact that he had not recruited Salameh, preferring to keep him as a privileged source rather than a paid agent.

Those levelling such accusations could never quite explain what was wrong with being analytical, and failed to understand the nature of ties in the Arab world. Against the American tendency to turn everything into a contractual relationship, Ames grasped that one could get more out of Salameh (who had twice rejected clumsy recruitment efforts by the CIA) by maintaining a personal friendship with him. He was also astute enough to realise that in a region where ambiguity can be the norm, the American compulsion to impose clarity could backfire.

But the critics may have had a point in one regard. Being an agent might have saved Salameh’s life. The Israelis assassinated him in January 1979, under the belief, perhaps false, that he had masterminded the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. In his memoirs, Muhammad Daoud Audeh, known by his nom de guerre Abu Daoud, a central figure in the Munich hostage takeover, always denied Salameh’s involvement, as well as that of others whom the Israelis killed in retaliation. But, as Bird suggests, the Israelis perhaps had another motive: to sever the link between the CIA and the PLO, which they would not have readily done had he been on the agency payroll.

Salameh’s fate struck somewhat closer to home for me, as both his mother and sister were neighbours in Beirut, whom my mother would frequently visit. Oddly, it is of them I first thought when watching ­Israeli soldiers deploying below our building after occupying West Beirut in September 1982. We had just endured a terrible three-month siege, and here was the two women’s very worst nightmare lounging at their doorstep.

Arabist sympathies in the CIA have been a recurring theme lately and were the subject of another fine book, America’s Great Game [] by Hugh Wilford, published last year. But Ames came from a later generation of CIA officers than that described by Wilford. By the 1960s and early 1970s, regional dynamics had been shaken up by the mobilisation of Palestinian refugee communities and, after the June 1967 war, the consolidation of an independent PLO. At the same time, the CIA had to deal with a political mood in America that had swung sharply in favour of Israel.

In this context, people like Ames were not only willing to go against the consensus, particularly on the Palestinian question, they did so at a time when the CIA was caught up in a period of great turbulence, facing congressional scrutiny and therefore not apt to take risks. Yet the Near East section managed to escape the turmoil and, to Ames’ credit and that of his superiors, the Palestinian channel was pursued, while Ames, pushed by the CIA director Richard Helms, rose in the agency.

These days it is difficult to persuade Arabs that they had early sympathisers in the American intelligence services, or that there were people such as Ames who regarded the region as valuable not simply because of what it meant for American power, but for what it was. How unlike today, with an American president and public rarely concealing their aversion towards an Arab world that hijacked American attentions for more than a decade.

Bird himself is a product of the American encounter with the Middle East. His father was an American diplomat who served in Jerusalem and Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Ames and his family were the Birds’ neighbours, so that Ames’ story is partly Bird’s own (which he recounted at greater length in a much-praised autobiography in 2010, titled Crossing Mandelbaum Gate[]).

For me, Ames’ death is associated with another that took place less than a year after the embassy bombing, and had similar symbolism. In January 1984 the president of the American University of Beirut, Malcolm Kerr, was shot outside his office. The assassin was never identified, but to many Kerr was a victim of the dynamics that had killed Ames: Iran and Syria, operating in tandem, out to undermine America’s policies in Lebanon.

Kerr, too, was a knowledgeable Arabist, born in Beirut of American missionary parents, whose passion for the region would make his own death especially poignant. In the preface to the third edition of his The Arab Cold War: Gamal ’Abd al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958-1970 [], Kerr had famously written that “since June 1967 Arab politics have ceased to be fun”. What he meant was that the violent breakers released by the Arab-Israeli war that year had engulfed the region. For someone “who all his life has had friendships and memories among the Arabs to cherish, I have found no relish in describing it”, he wrote.

Both men were victims of a world very different than the one in which they had come of age professionally. Gone was the idealism that had initially accompanied America’s first steps in the Arab world, and yet to the end Ames and Kerr appeared to retain some hope that they could improve things. Perhaps they were simply prisoners of Yankee optimism; or perhaps they really somehow believed in a region that still has trouble believing in itself.

Michael Young is the opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in ­Beirut. He is the author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle.


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