Au­thor searches for mean­ing in peace-seek­ing CIA agent’s death

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Dou­glas J. John­ston

ON April 18, 1983, a sui­cide bomber be­long­ing to a nascent group that be­came Hezbol­lah det­o­nated a truck packed with ex­plo­sives out­side the U.S. em­bassy in Beirut, Le­banon. Sixty-three people, Amer­i­can and Le­banese, died in the blast. One of them was CIA coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer Robert Ames, the sub­ject of this fine bi­og­ra­phy. The book’s ti­tle tele­graphs Pulitzer Prizewin­ning Amer­i­can au­thor Kai Bird’s view of an un­usual CIA op­er­a­tive who spent his ca­reer build­ing bridges to the Arab world. Ames was that rare bird — an Amer­i­can agent on the ground who not only spoke Ara­bic but had a for­mi­da­ble grasp of Arab cul­ture. He used his Arab con­tacts to fur­ther Amer­ica’s in­ter­ests but also to try to carve out a sem­blance of peace in the Mid­dle East. And in a twist only com­pre­hen­si­ble (sort of) in the labyrinthine com­plex­ity of Mid­dle East­ern pol­i­tics, the ar­chi­tect of the em­bassy bomb­ing that mur­dered 17 Amer­i­cans now lives in Amer­ica, a guest of the U.S. govern­ment. Bird names Ali Reza As­gari, an exbri­gadier gen­eral of the Ira­nian army and for­mer deputy min­is­ter of de­fence, as the mas­ter­mind of the em­bassy at­tack. As­gari later fell out of favour with Tehran’s mul­lahs and spent 18 months in an Ira­nian prison. In 2007, he de­fected to Amer­ica, where he was granted asy­lum and given a new iden­tity. The U.S. govern­ment de­cided, at the high­est lev­els of the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, that the “in­tel” he pro­vided was worth more than the lives of Robert Ames and 16 other Amer­i­cans. To give the life and death of Ames their due, and a proper back­story, Bird maps out the maze of sec­tar­ian and re­li­gious groups and shift­ing al­liances that make up the re­cent his­tory of Jordan and Le­banon and, to a lesser de­gree, Syria, Egypt and Iran. You need a pro­gram to iden­tify the play­ers in the blood sport of Mid­dle East­ern pol­i­tics, and Bird does an ad­mirable job of pro­vid­ing one, even as he seam­lessly weaves this in­for­ma­tion into a com­pelling nar­ra­tive. There’s a con­fu­sion of mo­tive and va­ri­ety of hu­man tex­ture at play in Mid­dle East pol­i­tics and vi­o­lence. The os­ten­si­ble good guys (the CIA and the U.S. State Depart­ment) of­ten have crip­pling weak­nesses and in­tel­lec­tual my­opia. The vil­lains (the PLO, Hezbol­lah, Is­lamic Ji­had) on rare oc­ca­sions dis­play re­deem­ing virtues. And then there are the Is­raelis — usu­ally he­roes, but some­times cru­elly op­por­tunis­tic, in Bird’s telling. Sur­pass­ing the U.S. em­bassy bomb­ing as the most blood­ily vi­o­lent event de­scribed in the book is the 1982 slaugh­ter of 2,500 to 3,000 un­armed Pales­tini­ans (al­most all women, chil­dren and the el­derly) in the Sabra-Shatilla refugee camp near Beirut. Though car­ried out by Le­banese Chris­tian Pha­langist mili­tia, an oc­cu­py­ing Is­raeli army stood by and watched, tac­itly sanc­tion­ing the slaugh­ter by its ally. A later Is­raeli com­mis­sion of in­quiry into the mas­sacre rec­om­mended the army’s chief of staff, Ra­ful Ei­tan, be dis­missed — a rec­om­men­da­tion the Is­raeli govern­ment fol­lowed. Who’s wear­ing the white hat and who’s wear­ing the black hat in any given se­ries of as­sas­si­na­tions, bom­bard­ments, bomb­ings, in­va­sions and oc­cu­pa­tions con­stantly shifts. And through it all, Bird strains might­ily to find re­demp­tive mean­ing in Ames’s mur­der. “Robert Ames be­lieved that a real peace was pos­si­ble,” he writes in the clos­ing chap­ter. “The Mid­dle East need not re­main a peren­nial bat­tle­field. He used his in­tel­li­gence and charm to be­gin the peace process in the shad­ows of Beirut.” But the ev­i­dence Bird pre­sents sug­gests the very con­trary, sadly of­fer­ing lit­tle hope of Mid­dle East peace in the fore­see­able fu­ture. Dou­glas J. John­ston is a Win­nipeg lawyer

and writer.

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