I would consider this less a biography of Robert Ames than it is using the story of Ames to tell the much larger story of the Mid-East in the 1970s-80s, an era we've basically forgotten. There were lessons that we SHOULD have learned from that time, but we chose other directions.
Ames' story is intriguing and nuanced - he was navigating the difficult backrooms of diplomacy, trying to build relationships with high-level PLO officials that he was actually barred from talking with (unless they were paid 'agents' of the CIA). At the same time, Israel intelligence was actively opposed to these contacts, and was essentially trying to subvert any US moves toward normal interactions with PLO figures that Israel considered terrorists.
A parallel (and this is a tangent) is Nixon's approach to China, which put the Soviet Union on its heels a little bit. Israel clearly did not want to find themselves as the lesser member of a three-party discussion. So while discussions between the PLO and the US could have helped those nations/organizations come to an understanding, that was not in Israel's interest.
Readers who think history began on Sept. 12, 2001 would be well-advised to read carefully the history of Beirut in the 1980s, and some questions will be answered about how we found ourselves in the mess we're in.
By invading Lebanon to evict the PLO (after Ames efforts were flatlined by the asassination of his main PLO contact, Hassan Salameh), Israel created a power vacuum that led to the massacre of some 2,500 civilians in a Palestinian refugee camp. To put that in perspective, it's the same number of Palestinians, Shi'a Muslims, etc. as the number of US civilians who died on 9/11. What do you think the response to that would be? We have the answer - the destruction of the US embassy in Beirut that killed Ames and many others, and later the 241 Marines who died in the Marine barracks bombing.
Of course, that was 1982-83 - plenty of Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israel had occured for decades before that. Ames' contact, Salameh, was suspected of involvement in the 1972 Munich Olympics attack - so of course Israel would target him.
It's the perfect definition of a circle of violence, and we're still living in it today.
I think author Kai Bird does an amazing job of taking the reader through this convoluted and epically frustrating history. I think he leans a bit too heavily toward "what might have been" arguments that I'm not sure history supports. In the 1980s, neither Israel or the PLO were ready to engage each other - add to that Iranian hatred of the US that dated back to our support of the despotic Shah, and then add Syrian nervousness at a Christian, possibly Israel-aligned government on their border, and I don't think peace was coming - whether Ames had lived or not.
Another connection to the present day - while there's all sort of raving about "Benghazi!" a read of this book reveals the kidnapping and killing of several US diplomats. It happens. But, the US government - for much of it, the Ronald Reagan-led government - did little or nothing in response. Mainly because they didn't know who to target. While there was SOME response to the bombing of the Marine barracks, it was limited to salvos from the USS New Jersey - hardly an invasion of two countries like post-9/11. In fact, one response was a screwed-up car bomb that killed 80 civilians - and those casualties led to the dismantling of the entire 'revenge' effort; compare that to how we attack with drones today, where common civilian casualties are barely discussed. Do we think there will never be a cost? That the 'other side' is simply going to forget?
The 70s-80s governments had plenty of flaws, but Nixon, Carter and Reagan recognized that the US had global responsibilities and had to keep things in perspective - the nation could not go off half-cocked on crazed foreign misadventures. We had to take our lumps and navigate the rough water as best we could. Unfortunately, that lesson in perspective and unintended consequences was ignored by subsequent administrations; and look what happened.
Of course, had we responded more forcefully in 1983, maybe Bin Laden never rises above a local despot in an Afghan mountain town. Or maybe we bomb Russian ally Syria and it escalates into tactical nukes over Europe. You never know.
This is a great book, not just for the upclose look at an unheralded US agent, but for a history to which we would do well to pay better attention.