Libya’s Collateral Damage: Red-Faced Royalty, Shamed Soldiers

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“There is no such thing as bad publicity—except your own obituary,” joked the Irish writer Brendan Behan. Since I blogged on Friday about the controversy surrounding Prince Andrew aka the Duke of York and his role as trade envoy for Britain, initially sparked by his contacts with Saif Gaddafi but quickly shifting to his private friendships with a range of controversial figures, the British press has been writing the Duke’s obituary as an official representative of his country. My views on the imbroglio have not changed—as a trade envoy, the Duke has done what’s asked of him by the political classes who installed him in the role in full knowledge of the playboy proclivities that had earned him the nicknames “Randy Andy” and “Air Miles Andy”. They also set priorities that saw the Duke cosying up to some pretty dodgy regimes.

He’s perfectly capable of getting himself in trouble without government help, witness Sarah Ferguson’s damaging revelation that her ex-husband acted as middleman on a deal that saw his chum Jeffrey Epstein, a financier who served a prison sentence for soliciting prostitution, clear a tranche of her debts—the same debts that saw her drunkenly hawking meetings with her former spouse to an undercover reporter.

But the circus around the Duke not only obscures the contributions he has made to British trade under the terms set out for him, but also deflects attention from more serious questions: about Britain’s trade objectives and its dealings with those dodgy regimes, for example. There’s also the little matter of what Britons expect of their monarchy—not just how best to occupy the Queen’s otherwise unemployed second son but what a cost-benefit analysis of the relationship between the taxpayer and the Windsors and government and the Windsors.

The circus also means that despite the newly restated support of Prime Minister David Cameron and a freshly-minted [UPDATE:  old] list of endorsements from 17 captains of industry for the Duke’s work as trade envoy (Neil Reynolds, the Managing Director of Biwater Europe gratefully acknowledges the Duke’s help with the water treatment company’s “projects in Abu Dhabi and Libya”), the Duke’s ability to carry out the role must now be compromised. When I watched him doing his thing for Britain in China, it was clear that Chinese officials and British entrepreneurs alike felt flattered by his attentions. After the latest round of publicity, his contacts might instead wonder about the wisdom of associating with a man whose relationships now more than ever fall under the media spotlight.

Another British icon that prefers working in obscurity finds itself sharing unwelcome headlines with the Duke after The Sunday Times yesterday broke the news that a number of Britain’s elite—and highly secretive—SAS soldiers and “a junior diplomat” had been captured by Libyan rebel forces in eastern Libya. A slightly different version of the story emerged in the Daily Mail today: the Libyan rebels were farmers and the British team included members of Britain’s espionage service MI6. According to the report, a 20-year-old farmhand, slight of stature and armed with an AK-47, helped to capture the heavily armed SAS unit. The sting of humiliation may feel all the sharper since the SAS first gained its fearsome reputation during World War II, as a special fighting force operating behind German General Rommel’s lines in Libya.

Hard information on the purpose of the mission and the exact composition of the group is scarce. The British government never comments on special forces. This afternoon Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague told the House of Commons that he had authorized “the dispatch of a small British diplomatic team to Eastern Libya.” He continued:

“They were withdrawn yesterday after a serious misunderstanding about their role leading to their temporary detention. This situation was resolved and they were able to meet [the President of the Interim National Council of opposition groups] Mr Abdul-Jalil. However it was clearly better for this team to be withdrawn. We intend to send further diplomats to eastern Libya in due course.”

Nobody would deny that the British government—indeed all governments contemplating offering any kind of assistance to the Libyan uprising—need sound information from the ground in Libya. Misplaced trust in self-proclaimed Iraqi opposition figures led to many of the most egregious mistakes in planning for the Iraq war and its aftermath, and fueled the hunt for mythical weapons of mass destruction. It seems likely that Libya is swarming with spies and special forces in search of useful intelligence. However, according to some reports, Libyan opposition groups feared Muammar Gaddafi would seize on the SAS mission to raise the specter of foreign interference and boost his regime’s fightback. Like sending the Duke of York to bang the drum for British trade, such deployments carry potential risks that may prove to outweigh the benefits.