Rupert Wieloch’s new book, Liberating Libya, colourfully charts the relatively underknown history of Libya and its relationship with Britain. Bringing to bear the author’s full foreign policy expertise, personal knowledge of Libya and extensive research, it is a professionally-told piece that offers both sharp insight and enjoyable narratives. As he argues, this is a history we must engage with if we are to learn from British intervention in Libya in 2011-2012 and the tragedy of the Manchester bombing.
The book is split into four sections: the early period up to Ottoman rule when British consuls in Libya exercised a crucial role in negotiating Western influence, the period from the late-nineteenth century when Ottoman rule collapsed under internal and rival colonial pressures, the key years of the Second World War in Libya, and the subsequent process of its independence.
Though lacking in Arabic language sources, Wieloch draws upon a vast body of primary and secondary literature allowing him to furnish the overall arc with many smaller sub-plots which brings a personal element to the great movements of history. This reflects a point that he is keen to emphasise – amongst the formal relations of Britain and Libya, real human relationships are built between the people of these two countries. The afterword given by Jason Pack, a leading analyst of Libya today, is a testament to the enduring strength of British-Libyan partnerships.
The author’s clear grasp of the various aspects across many levels that make or break any military action gives great depth to the battles and wars described within Liberating Libya’s pages. It allows him to apportion credit, luck and misjudgement accurately and fairly in the success and failure of these military actions. However, a special focus is given to the brave actions of specific individuals and units. In the book’s most heart-wrenching moments, not only is every Victoria Cross awarded in Libya described, but many other medals and medal-deserving instances are detailed as well.
Yet, this is not just a military history. Wieloch also discusses the role of a range of politicians and travellers in shaping the story of Libya. Indeed, the book is perhaps at its most incisive when it highlights the critical junctures of Libyan history when political mistakes were made. British foreign policy regarding Libya is certainly not completely exonerated.
Beyond this, numerous fascinating dynamics are drawn out from the centuries of Libya’s history. Life in Libya has greatly differed in the coastal towns, in the oasis settlements and in the desert. The country itself was forged from two provinces leaving a distinction between east and west. Ethnic and religious differences have existed between Arab, Berber and Jewish populations. And, in this respect, the book provides an interesting picture of the history of the Sanussi, a Sufi grouping of enormous political significance in the modern era.
Rupert Wieloch’s Liberating Libya is an exciting tour through a shared British-Libyan history from someone who cares deeply about this North African land. This is a history in a classic, straightforward style – great events combined with little anecdotes, politics and war, and a clear message lying beneath the narrative. The book does much to shine a light on an underestimated historical relationship. And, in the wake of the catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan, one whose lessons cannot be ignored going forward.
Liberating Libya! British Diplomacy and War in the Desert by Rupert Wieloch is out now and published by Casemate.