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Why America Needs Good Spies Like the CIA's Robert Ames

Courtesy the Reagan Library

I've just been sitting up all night reading "The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames," a fascinating biography by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Kai Bird. Ames was a remarkable CIA officer -- and a colleague -- who played a key personal role in U.S. intelligence and policymaking on the Palestinian-Israeli issue between the 1970s and 1980s. Ames died in 1983 in a massive blast at the American Embassy in Beirut when a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden truck into the entryway.

By a cruel twist of fate, Ames just happened to be in the building at that precise moment, on a visit from Washington. Sixty-two other people died, including many CIA officers.

The history of the bloody period between the 1970s and 1980s in Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Jordan has been written about before, but Bird's treatment of this complex period takes on the powerful aura of a novel as seen through the life of the signal protagonist Ames.

Bird captures the acrid taste of regional politics and offers a perceptive portrayal of the internal workings and interplay of personalities within the CIA at the time.

The book is an enthralling read for anyone interested in Middle East politics and real world espionage. Several things leap out at me.

First, I'm struck by the fact that, despite the widespread violence in much of the Middle East around then, that era today comes across as almost strangely naive when viewed from the perspective of today's world: post-9/11, post-Global War on Terror, the age of American wars in the Middle East not even yet over and the rise of the American security state.

Those who lived in and knew the region were vividly aware of its pathologies, sufferings, frustrations and angers. All along we felt that these demonstrably rising tensions could only presage an eventual upheaval in the region -- but exactly what, when, where and how could not be precisely foreseen.

Rising radicalism -- secular, religious, societal and personal -- under increasingly radicalizing conditions reflected the widespread regional anger by people who hated their own authoritarian regimes as well as U.S. policies. It finally crystallized for the first time outside the Middle East with 9/11.

Yet American refusal to deal formally with the only significant Palestinian political organization, the PLO, and the exercise of an Israeli veto over virtually all matters relating to U.S. diplomacy in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Palestine and beyond, as well as U.S. support for pro-American dictators, all planted the seeds for 9/11.

As a former CIA operations officer myself -- and Bird notes how my own career in many ways was a mirror-image of Ames' own (and there were others) -- I am still struck today by the blindness of U.S. policymakers -- at times almost willful -- in failing to grasp the real dynamics of the Middle East and its smoldering fires. It was all seen as something regrettable, but far away, nothing that money, small military operations by local allies and assassinations by Israel's Mossad could not take care of.

To Americans, the outrage of 9/11, apart from its horrific toll, was that foreign events could now actually visit us at home; we thought we could play loosely in overseas games with angry peoples, confident that none of it would ever reach our shores.

The chilling message I draw from the book is the reminder of how these early events all helped engender the radical jihadi movements that eventually did bring us 9/11. And that our heavily military responses to 9/11 unleashed even greater dangers for the U.S. and led to the loss of American prestige, blood, treasure and ability to lead in the region. Nor is it all over yet: it is still defensive military and security considerations that dominate the American agenda rather than responding to the needs and aspirations of the region's peoples and their core problems.

The book makes clear the critical importance for America to field intelligence officers and diplomats who possess hands-on familiarity with the region, its languages, cultures, and societies. Ames was brilliantly successful in cultivating sources in the Arab world because of his exceptional empathy for the region and its people. Those were the qualities that enabled him to establish critical dialogue even with figures hostile to U.S. policies.

Ames' understanding of the region was viewed by top policymakers in Washington -- even by the president -- as exceptional and indispensable. Yet in many ways, it really represented the unsurprising fruits of years spent in the area talking to people, listening to their perspectives in order to grasp their mentality, aspirations, resentments and above all, likely motivations to action.

Empathy for foreigners is not some warm and cuddly virtue; it lies at the heart of a realistic and granular understanding of foreign nations, peoples and what drives them. The U.S., highly nationalistic at home, is singularly disinclined to understand or care about nationalistic impulses in other countries.

This may be an operational hazard of great power, the belief that it is only what we do that really matters in the end. Today, acquiring first hand, face-to-face ground truth is vastly more difficult in U.S. embassies that now resemble fortresses with electronic moats in which casual mixing with local people by American diplomats is risky business.

We have helped create the conditions for our dangerous isolation; that in turn has led to wishful thinking and eventually to existence in our own American fantasyland and self-referential press about how we can control things.

Of course terrorism is a serious issue. But today's domination of American strategic thinking by a counterterrorism agenda does not constitute a foreign policy.

"The Good Spy" makes for gripping reading as it offers first hand insights into the world of living and breathing antagonists; it sets the scene for the train wreck that came to characterize American policy in the Middle East. It is far from over today.

Could today's CIA produce another Robert Ames?

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