The British have just been caught out in an extraordinary story — no, outright fiasco. Some genius supervising the decline of this once great country had the notion of sending a seven-man team of Special Servicemen to Libya, accompanying an MI 6 agent — that is, someone in foreign intelligence. Unannounced, they flew into Libya by helicopter in civilian clothes and went to the rebels in Benghazi. When the rebels discovered that these fishes out of water were armed, they naturally took them into custody. The British ambassador to Libya had to telephone the rebels to plead that there had been a “misunderstanding.”
His pitiful euphemisms, his stuttering and lying, were recorded and have now been broadcast to the deep shame of every British person. After the boot-licking, the Libyan rebels were lordly enough to send home this sad team with their side-arms and civilian clothes.
Once I was asked by the Daily Telegraph to report on Libya. Qaddafi was still something of an unknown quantity. I arranged a meeting in the Libyan embassy with the official responsible for issuing my visa, and spent an afternoon drinking coffee with him and exchanging greetings of Ahlan wasahlan. I was instructed to return another day, and well understood that they were checking up in case I might describe Qaddafi as the repulsive murderer he is.
Alas, I happened to run into the only friend I had who worked in the Foreign Office, and alas again, I told him about my Libyan visa delay. He would have a word with the Middle East chaps, he said, and the thing would be a formality. So there I am drinking coffee and saying Ahlan wasahlan all over again in the Libyan embassy. Then the telephone rings. It is the Foreign Office, the Libyan official explains happily. Having staged this little scene, he invites me to listen in while the chap on the Middle East desk advises that I am unreliable, altogether on the wrong side, not to be trusted and therefore denied a visa. What can I do? said the Libyan official, even your own people think you should be kept out of our country.
So Libya is one of the two Arab countries I have never visited (the other being Saudi Arabia). But I have made sure ever since to avoid all contact with the Foreign Office. Year after year, generation after generation, the Middle East desk proves incapable of anything except getting it wrong.