From the American Century to the Organization Man to the Me Generation, David Ignatius’ spy thriller, Siro, charts the rise and fall of the CIA through three generations of its agents. The title comes from a State Department code word for the agency, which, in a typically caustic sentence from the novel, is described as sounding ”like the beginning of something interesting, like ‘seraglio’ or ‘sirocco’ but in fact meant nothing at all.”

Ignatius, the foreign editor of The Washington Post, has an insider’s grasp of recent world crises and an unusual talent for inserting CIA operatives into those events. His excellent first novel, Agents of Innocence (1987), described the meltdown of Lebanon during the early ’70s. This time the setting is 1979 on the Soviet-Turkish border, where Moslem nationalism — encouraged by a rogue CIA campaign-has begun to shake the Soviet Union.

Edward Stone, the man behind the plot, is a member of the CIA’s founding old guard of OSS veterans (with more than a soup-on-the-tie resemblance to William Casey). Stone is frustrated that the Carter-era CIA is missing out on a chance to deliver a knockout punch to the Soviet Union. To set the East ablaze he picks two operatives: the CIA’s base chief in Istanbul, Alan Taylor, a generation younger than himself, and Anna Barnes, younger still, just out of Harvard’s program in Ottoman history.

Ignatius has an exciting story in Siro, but the most original feature of this unusually good thriller is its depiction of the difference between generations of covert-action operatives. The first OSS recruits joined the CIA out of patriotism and ideological conviction; they applied what they had learned from Hitler about the danger of appeasement to the challenges of the early Cold War. The operatives of the 1950s who followed accepted the anticommunist ideology as doctrine and turned it into epic theater. For them, the game of Cold War thrust and counterthrust promised a lifetime of adrenaline rushes.

The third generation, a product of the ’60s and ’70s and represented here by Anna Barnes, was schooled to see the world in terms of personal — not superpower — politics. At first a refreshing change from the ideological obsessions of the older generations embodied by Stone and Taylor, Barnes soon seems even more adrift than they. She thinks she is a feminist, but for her, feminism simply means that she is entitled to whatever she wants, whenever she wants it: The CIA exists to give female yuppies such as herself a chance to have the kind of glamorous careers once reserved for men. The older agents are locked into outmoded superpower myths, but the younger ones are so obsessed with personal politics they are unable to feel the tug of loyalty to anything except their own careers.

In an entertaining way, Ignatius poses a question we will be pondering for a long time: The Soviet Union certainly seems to be falling apart, but did the West’s anti-Soviet policies — even ones better conceived than the sneaky-dumb CIA operation in Siro — have anything to do with it? B+

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