New York Times Savages Dirty Diplomacy 2

The NYT does not seem very impressed by Dirty Diplomacy:


Published: December 9, 2007

A diplomatic posting to Tashkent may not sound glamorous, but it has been an important assignment in recent years. Craig Murray, who served as British ambassador to Uzbekistan from 2002 to 2004, explains in “Dirty Diplomacy” how the country has played a crucial role in the war on terror. Thousands of American troops have been stationed at the Karshi Khanabad air base, known as K2, and in 2002 American officials approved $140 million in aid for Uzbekistan. Murray found himself caught between geopolitical considerations ?” the strategic partnership between Uzbekistan and the United States and Britain ?” and his concern for the people living under a despotic leader. In his memoir, he incorporates political argument as well as personal reflection.

In 2002, Murray is a chubby 43-year-old Scot prone to wearing kilts. He will make a big impression on people. A Turkish diplomat says: “You are different. You just refuse to play by their rules. You tell them to their face what you think. You know, you would be surprised at some of the people in this town who admire you.” A former Tory member of Parliament calls him “fearless.” A former Australian foreign minister says he is known to be “the best-informed ambassador in Tashkent.” Girls like him, too. The hot-looking women in his posse ?” barmaids, belly dancers, a piano student, a Tatar nanny ?” are continually jumping up, giggling, grinning “fetchingly” and looking at him “with wide eyes,” bosoms heaving. It helps, Murray says in a passage about his “sexually predatory” lifestyle in places like Central Europe and Africa, where he lived previously, that he has more money than “anyone whom they might normally meet.” To his credit, he respects boundaries. When an Uzbek dancer refuses to sit at his table in a nightclub, a government official offers to “compel” her to join them. Murray demurs. “A true British gentleman,” the official says.

Clearly, the bar is not high. Nevertheless, Murray has standards: he believes torture is wrong, and he speaks out against it. He finds disturbing evidence of abuse in Uzbekistan: a University of Glasgow pathology report shows one man “died of immersion in boiling liquid” after being seized by the authorities. Post-mortem photos of an 18-year-old Samarkand resident reveal similar marks: “The right hand looked like cooked chicken.” In addition, Murray writes, “one technique was widespread throughout the country ?” they would strap on a gas mask and then block the filters. I presume that the advantage of this was that it would suffocate without bruising.”

Uzbek officials seemed to use coercive techniques routinely during investigations, he says, yet there was little outcry from the Americans or the British. The executive director of Freedom House, a Washington-based organization that monitors political rights and civil liberties, tells him in 2003 that the group has decided to back off from its efforts to spotlight human rights abuses in Uzbekistan. The shift in policy occurred, she explains, because some Republican board members (in Murray’s words) “expressed concern that Freedom House was failing to keep in sight the need to promote freedom in the widest sense, by giving full support to U.S. and coalition forces.” Meanwhile, British officials insisted that information from coercive interrogations was valuable and that relying on it did not violate the United Nations Convention Against Torture. “That is my view of the legal position,” a Foreign Office legal adviser tells Murray in London. “I make no comment on the morality of the case.”

Murray is furious ?” and continues to investigate abuses, interviewing an 84-year-old woman who was “beaten mercilessly with clubs” and meeting with human rights activists. One of them tells him she repeatedly tried to visit her son after he was sentenced to death. Finally, she was taken to a waiting room. “Then she heard a single shot,” he writes. “The guard returned and told her, ‘You won’t see him now, we’ve just shot him in the head.’ ” These stories are interwoven with accounts of a tumultuous extramarital affair (Murray’s mistress was staying with a G.I. in a Sheraton, where, he tells us bitterly, she made “a determined attempt on the world oral sex record”) and dubious anthropological findings: “In Uzbekistan bread itself is treated as holy. … You must not swear or argue in the presence of bread.” And: “British journalists are decent people with perhaps the strongest ethical code of conduct of any profession.”

Unfortunately, the book is a mess. It elicits two reactions: First, it’s great that someone is telling the truth about Uzbekistan. Second, it’s too bad the someone is Murray, who seems to give the same weight to girlfriend troubles as to arbitrary arrest and detention. Still, he manages to present startling facts about Uzbekistan: More than 99 percent of its trials end in conviction. At least 7,000 people are in prison for religious and political beliefs. This grim reality could be altered, he says, if Westerners worked for systemic reform.

Murray eventually faced charges of sexual misconduct and wrongdoing ?” stemming from a campaign against him that seems politically motivated ?” and was fired. For some, it was a foregone conclusion: during an investigation of “murder and violence against small farmers” in “a pretty little town,” Murray met with the manager of a collective farm. “I don’t suppose you will come back,” the manager says. “Nobody ever does. Tomorrow evening you will go away, and I will still be in control here. That is what matters.”

This seems to be an accurate observation ?” and it is heart-rending.

Tara McKelvey, a senior editor at The American Prospect, is a frequent contributor to the Book Review and the author of “Monstering: Inside America’s Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War.”

Sadly the liberal intelligentsia in the States tends to be dull and balls-achingly politically correct, so what Harry Barnes sees as

his typical blend of seriousness and enjoyment.

is to the worthy Tara McKelvey “a mess”. If you are involved in politics in the US, you must never admit your home life is less than perfect. Interestingly, it is a long-term theme of Tara’s reviews to complain that memoirs contain too much mess and focus on the personal life of the memorialist.

I wonder if her desire for life to be clean, sanitised, depersonalised and not “A mess” results from some underlying psychological problem? Or maybe she’s just very boring.

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2 thoughts on “New York Times Savages Dirty Diplomacy

  • writeon


    You were unlucky that your book was reveiwed by Tara Mckelvey. The "mix" you adopted just wasn't her cup of tea! Too much about your personal life and girlies. In America this emphasis is highly controversial.

    Hey, on one page this guy is talkin' 'bout gusy getten' boiled in oil, an' on da next page he's bichin' 'bout not gettin' laid, ferchristsakes!

    I imagine she thinks the "mess" that is life, detracts from the serious message about conditions in Uzbekistan, and that it's unfortunate, distracting and essentially frivolous.

  • Cide Hamete Benengel

    There seems to some weird professional jealousy at work in this review.

    Tara McKelvey is at pains to convince us that "First, it's great that someone is telling the truth about Uzbekistan. Second, it's too bad the someone is Murray…" Now, why is it so desperately important who that someone is?

    Ah, but if you are the author of "Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture…" and writing about human-rights abuses is your livelihood, it's very important! People might start reading more Craig Murray, and pay less attention to … Tara McKelvey.

    People can get territorial about the strangest things….

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