An oft-quoted reality check by the physicist Carl Sagan suggested that if you wanted to make an apple pie by scratch, you’d have to first invent the universe.
When does anything truly begin? History is a sequence of causes and effects that sometimes are irreducible to a defining moment.
Just think about the Middle East. Arab and Muslim nations have numerous reasons to mistrust the West, especially the U.S., France and Great Britain, going back at least to the years of World War I, when the great European powers secretly divided up the Arab lands and promised a Jewish state in Palestine.
The creation of that state, Israel, in the late 1940s displaced Palestinians and set off a series of wars, standoffs and conflicts that continue, of course, today.
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Into the midst of that forever conflict strode an American intelligence officer, Robert Ames, whose service for the CIA on the ground in the Middle East began in the early 1960s. Ames was an Arabist -- he learned the language -- and a rather brilliant, mild-mannered operator. His story -- both fascinating and tragic -- is told superbly by Kai Bird in the recent book, “The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames” (Crown Publishers).
Ames’ reputation was largely based on his ability to listen to people, including people and operatives who otherwise were considered enemies of the U.S. (and Israel). He had a long-running and often fruitful (for the U.S.) backchannel relationship with Ali Hassan Salameh, a Palestinian believed to be involved in some way with the terrorist killings of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
Bird’s book peels back the tragic nature of the seemingly insoluble Middle East peace process. It ends after the bombing, in 1983, of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, whose victims included Ames. This was six months before terrorists killed 241 U.S. servicemen in a truck-bomb attack on a Marine barracks in Beirut.
Bird argues that the embassy bombing was the beginning of the rise of a radicalized Islam, whose reverberations are all too real today.
Here’s a key excerpt:
“The April 1983 Beirut embassy bombing is a largely forgotten moment in the history of America’s presence in the Middle East. But it was a signal moment. It was the beginning of America’s deadly encounter with a political Islamist movement. It was also the birth of a Shi’ite political entity that we now know as Hezbollah. As a 1984 declassified CIA document noted, ‘The  Iranian revolution ... and the Israeli invasion of predominantly Shi’a southern Lebanon galvanized the Shi’a and set the stage for the emergence of radical groups prone to terrorism.’ Young Shi’ites in southern Lebanon traumativzed by the Israeli invasion saw the Americans as allies of the Israelis. It’s easy to see how American became a target. ‘We were very much identified with the Israelis,’ testified Ambassadort Robert Dillon in 2003, ‘particularly among the Shi’as. There was huge resentment of the Israelis by this time in Southern Lebanon.’...
“To be sure, Americans had lost their lives before in this troubled part of the world. Ambassadors had been assasinated. But April 18, 1983, was the first time a truck bomb was used against a high-profile target like an American embassy. President Reagan and Secretary Shultz tried to talk tough in the wake of the embassy tragedy. Reagan publicly called the bombing ‘a vicious ... cowardly act.’ Shultz said, ‘Let us rededicate ourselves to the battle against terrorism.’ But these words were mere bromides. There was no talk of retaliation, because no one was quite sure who’d carried out the attack. Privately, Reagan confided in his diary, ‘Lord forgive me for the hatred I feel for the humans who can do such a cruel but cowardly deed.’ But he knew there was nothing to be done.”
So where do we mark the beginning of these crises? And is it inconceivable that we will ever end them?