Storm in the Desert: Britain’s Intervention in Libya and the Arab Spring

Author: Mark Muller Stuart.

Publisher: Birlinn. 392 pp., £25

Book Review by Ian Mitchell

Dinging One’s Chiels

The cynical version of the Libyan uprising in 2011 was always that it was “Hillary’s War”, designed to help get Mrs. Clinton into the White House one day by enabling her to position herself as a lady liberator in the tradition of Mrs Thatcher. Unfortunately, her effort brought disaster on most of those who got involved, including herself, and the sequel turned out to be more Iraq than Falklands. Gaddafi may have flamed out with a bayonet up the bottom in October 2011, but Hillary got the bum’s rush from Donald’s army of the dispossessed five years later and flamed out in a less gruesome but equally final way. You don’t have to have, like, dropped acid with Donovan on Iona in the summer of ’67, man, to see karma at work there.

This book is all about Libya in 2011 and it might have been sub-titled “Muller Stuart’s War”, because the author is another restless soul who wants to change the world, in his case by combatting cynicism in politics, one sweaty meeting at a time. His enterprise is obviously an infinitely more honourable one than Hillary’s, but—and this is the main conclusion that emerges, unintentionally, from this book—it is equally futile.

The reasons for that go to the heart of modern politics, and help explain why we would all be better off enjoying the amenities of Iona, so to speak, and leaving the sweaty meetings to those who want to meet other sweaty-shirted people at high carbon-footprint conferences held in tackily “up-market” hotels in faraway countries where angry poverty lurks little more than a bayonet thrust beyond the air-conditioned envelope.

Muller Stuart spends much of his time trying to do good in such places. He does not appear to enjoy the experience, but gives the impression that he feels it is a necessary part of the job of dislodging the wrong sort of people from positions of power in all countries great and small—“The Right Man’s Burden”, you could say.

Put briefly, part 1 of this book is about the author’s adventures in Libya-related conferences and meetings in 2011; part 2 is about the failure—of course!—of Britain’s policy in Libya and the Middle East generally, which is what made the conferences necessary in the first place; and part 3 is a short, dreamy essay about the possibly of holding these conferences in the more agreeable surroundings of the Scottish Borders. Muller Stuart thinks that international diplomacy could just as well be conducted by unrecognised non-state entities as by normal countries. It is hard to see how that might work given that international law is the law of nations, and has been since at least 1648 and the Treaty of Westphalia. This is therefore the most “challenging” part of the book. However, it is also the most interesting, and I will return to it below. First a few words about parts 1 and 2.

I will not attempt to summarise the sweaty meeting chronology in part 1, but instead make a simple point which I think relevant to the dreamy unreality of part 3. For Muller Stuart, paceBurns, facts are chiels that willding. One example will suffice.

The opening paragraph of the book describes the last moments in the life of a Libyan artist called Qais who is painting a mocking cartoon of Gaddafi on a wall in a place called Freedom Square near the harbour in Benghazi. We are told the weather was breezy and that Qais thought, “Good, the paint will dry quicker today.” Sounds reasonable until you read the next sentence and discover that, a moment later, a sniper shot Qais dead. Any reader paying attention will think, “Hang on, how does Muller Stuart know what Qais was thinking immediately before he was killed? He might have been planning dinner, or pondering a difficult verse in the Koran, or wondering whether ManU would beat Accrington Stanley that afternoon.”

It gets worse. A page later we are told that the author is unsure whether Qais really was shot while finishing his painting down by the harbour, or had in fact been killed in his car on the way to work. Nonetheless, Muller Stuart implies that, either way, it must have been one of Gaddafi’s goons who fired the fatal shot. How can he be so sure? For all he appears to know, it might have been a debt-collector or a traffic cop, or just been a mundane case of mistaken identity in some unrelated gangland feud.

Despite this, 150 pages later, Muller Stuart writes with unruffled authority that: “Gaddafi was a tyrant who was unable to countenance even the simplest form of artistic criticism without resorting to the cruellest form of physical censorship, as Qais found to his cost.” So much for the factual reliability of the narrative. Muller Stuart does not even establish internal consistency.

Part 2, about Britain’s contribution to Gaddafi’s downfall, is a Cook’s Tour of “trouble spots I have known”. They include Bahrein, Turkey, Kurdistan, Zimbabwe and eastern Ukraine. Inevitably each is dealt with superficially—after all this book is only 400 pages long. In no case does Britain emerge with credit on a diplomatic level. A possible reason for this is suggested in connection with a fascinating-sounding group within the Foreign Office known as the “Camel Corps”. That is the nickname for “a fast-dwindling band of seasoned ‘Arabist’ ambassadors” and specialists within the British diplomatic service.

“Steeped in regional language and expertise… all were Oxford-educated classicists” who had received intensive language training out in the Middle East, in the hills above Beirut. They had long been the backbone of the British diplomatic effort in the region. But in 2001 the whole idea of actual expertise was trashed by Sir Michael Jay, the then head of the Foreign Office, when he “deliberately reduced the weight previously given to knowledge of languages and geographical areas in favour of administrative skills.”

If Muller Stuart is right—and I am inclined to believe him on this point—it is a scandal. It is also typical of the arrogance of “cool Britannia” to think that Ahmed Foreigner does not need to be understood by experienced people who have knocked about the world a bit and have the sand of the desert in their shoes. Instead they can be “administered” by a team of pale-fingered paper-pushers led by a Winchester-educated mandarin with a house in Oxfordshire. As you’d expect, this happened on Tony Blair’s watch.

Part 3 of this book is the most interesting from a Scottish point of view, in that Muller Stuart floats the idea that the world would be a better place if it could take advantage of the famous Scottish ability to compromise, and to smooth over differences between apparently antagonistic groups. He quotes Neal Ascherson, the old-Etonian brain-box who once lived in Edinburgh, as saying: “Scots tend to be more progressive, egalitarian and democratic than the rest of Britain.” Of course we are, which is why, Muller Stuart says, “Scotland has a real and unique contribution to make in the field of conflict resolution, and promoting mutual understanding between nations and cultures.”

Quite. One thinks of the mutual understanding between the Campbells and the Macdonalds which was established over breakfast on 13 February 1692, or the way in which, in modern times, Rangers and Celtic fans are given to exchanging greetings in song on Saturday afternoons at Glasgow sporting venues. Muller Stuart writes about Scotland’s “vibrant, soft-power” qualities. We are, he says, one of those northern European peoples who “tend to support the use of soft rather than hard power to resolve conflicts”, which is why “Scots have led the field in international cultural diplomacy.”

Do I hear the sound of chiels dinging? Or am I wrong to think it was Scottish drug-traffickers—Jardine Matheson and their fellow cultural diplomats—who led Britain into war with China in the 1840s in order to be able to force helpless Chinese addicts to destroy themselves with opium for their company’s profit? Was it not Scots who invaded Ulster in the seventeenth century and whose international cultural diplomacy created the Irish sectarian problem that is still with us today? Was it not the Scots-Irish of Virginia that sustained the American Revolution, or formed the backbone of the Confederate Army in the Civil War? Were émigré Scots not at the heart of the original Ku Klux Klan soon afterwards? Was not Robert Burns himself, the original fact/chiel dude, preparing to ship out to the West Indies to help run a slave plantation just before he made a bit of money at home?

In order to promote his vision of a world in which Scots organise the lives of less happy people for their benefit, Muller Stuart started the “not-for-profit” organisation, called Beyond Borders Scotland, which he describes right at the end of part 3. Since 2011, it has operated out of Traquair House “in the idyllic Borders”. The website includes a picture of St Nicola Sturgeon with other Scottish peacemakers, as does the plate section of the book. The main achievement mentioned by Muller Stuart for his organisation is that Ms Sturgeon has “committed the SNP and the Scottish government to provide funds to train fifty female peacemakers and activists every year for the next five years.” Next time I see her and Ruth Davidson scratching each other’s eyes out in parliament, I’ll think about that.

The futility of all this dreaming, chiel dinging and—I would argue—simple self-deception is illustrated on the last page of the book. While watching Nicola Sturgeon telling an interviewer about how Scottish women are going to bring peace to the world, Muller Stuart finds himself thinking about the “New Libya” and “the belief its people expressed” in their country’s “ability to create a democratic state based upon the rule of law.” Suddenly, the image of Salwa al-Dighaili, a human rights lawyer, comes back to him.

“How I would have liked her to have been here,” he writes. “But it was not to be. Salwa was assassinated by jihadists not long after Chris Stevens [the US Ambassador to Libya] was murdered. After this Libya descended into further chaos.”

No wonder Muller Stuart prefers to operate in the idyllic calm of Traquair House. It’s been a while since that part of the world was the scene of murder, mayhem, cattle reiving, rape, robbery, abduction, arson, hamesukken and all the other arts of “international cultural diplomacy” that Scottish Borderers so famously promoted amongst their neighbours. In the sixteenth century they were known as the “Steel Bonnets”; today, their equivalents might perhaps be called “Hillarys.” The leopards have not changed their spots, only their sex.

Ian Mitchell’s other reviews, of books about Russia, the law and Scotland, can be found at this link: