This is quite possibly the worst-named book ever. The UK version was the very simple, stark, and compelling Murder in Samarkand: A British Ambassador’s Controversial Defiance of Tyranny in the War on Terror. Why did that not suffice? Why the obvious play for the stereotypical American reliance on alcoholism, sluttery, and moral preening? Oh yeah…
If anything, it can be said that Murray is a passionate man. “I am not an especially good man,” he admits, finally, on page 335, “but I tried to stay true to the basic values of human decency.” The other side of such admirable sentiment? Murray is a conceited prick. And that was his fatal undoing.
It would be a mistake of rehash the many years of blog-snark between the esteemed Nathan Hamm and Mr. Murray. You can see a selection of those posts here, here, here, here, and here. A brief summary is that Nathan disagrees with Murray’s angry-child approach of slapping police officers and publicly humiliating brutal despots who will throw out troublemakers and reverse mild progress at the slightest provocation. Murray insists his brief tenure as British Ambassador to Uzbekistan proved a confrontational attitude toward the authorities can be an effective policy tool for improving the plight of those crushed by tyrants.
Unfortunately, it is not until he is under investigation for rampant misconduct that Murray seems to realize that the role of an Ambassador is not that of a human rights activist with diplomatic immunity, but to represent his government’s wishes and policies. Similarly, hitting “send all” on the telegram machine lambasting one’s own superiors is not how a huge immovable bureaucracy like the FCO is moved into action; rather, that is how one flags oneself as a troublemaker to be marginalized—no matter the potential merits of one’s argument.
None of that phased Murray (or “William Wallace,” as he helpfully notes on page 232). His campaign to right the wrongs of his adopted country, whatever the damage to the long-term prospects of his friends in Uzbekistan (was Andijon a consequence of Murray’s crusades?), whatever the damage to the long-term strategic interest to his country (how much did K2 and the US/UK intelligence sharing agreement matter in comparison to the instant gratification of throwing a temper tantrum at the FCO?), and whatever the damage to his wife. A blind crusader might have noble intentions, but in Murray’s case, no matter how many times he notes the letters of praise from ex-pat businessmen or “We love you” from his staff, he simply comes off as an arrogant ass.
Or sexist ass? There are women in Murray’s world, but they are not people. They are props for his torture crusade, or for his sexual appetite (almost all women are described in overt sexual terms, unless they’re old or ugly), or for his career. His wife Fiona is never discussed in terms of love or regret—which one might expect for a woman he’s cheated on routinely—but as a career boost. His new girl-toy, Nadira, was found at a strip club where he handed her a wad of cash and his business card, along with an invitation to be his mistress (this, quite unironically after he expressed horror at the sexual exploitation of Uzbekistan’s women).
Indeed, Moe at Jezebel summarized the whole sordid affair quite aptly: “… it did not help that also, he was sort of a drunk who left his wife for an Uzbek heroin addict’s daugher who stripped at a North Korean club and was dating a 19-year-old American soldier when first she laid eyes on him.” Indeed, one should be (hopefully) forgiven for thinking Murray’s mad, impulsive quest to save the universe is driven from his wretched mess of a personal life.
It is also surprising, given how he flaunts his expertise in the country and region, that Murray doesn’t understand a simple, fundamental fact of life in Central Asia: rumor is fact. He gets angry when the FCO finds false accusations against his credible; Murray is smart enough to realize there is no difference between rumor and fact in much of the world, and especially there. That his life was sordid and uncontrolled enough to give such allegations even a sliver of credibility is unfortunate; as I’ve said on many occasions, and in contrast somewhat to Nathan’s argument, I don’t begrudge the man his belief in Uzbekistan’s right to be free of torture, just the ways he went about trying to end it. The charge of moral masturbation is not an extreme one.
But it is also important not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I am very happy Murray named names—repeatedly. The vileness of Gulnara Karimova is obvious, as are her many shady deals with Alisher “Don’t Libel Me Bro” Usmanov. Murray’s knack for relaying histories and tales is actually quite good—while no one really knows how truthful anyone was, there is little doubt that he believed them in good faith. Murray also does a good job of refuting the bogus allegations against him, and, I think, does an admirable job of exposing the rather vicious bureaucracy of the FCO (the moment he’s forced to stand in line in the freezing rain for a visa for Nadira, and realizes how haughty and imperious his own department can be is quite precious).
And Murray certainly has a love of Uzbekistan. It might seem like a small thing but it isn’t—though he skirts dangerously close to the “talking to hear oneself speak” end of the spectrum, I truly believe Murray cares about the trodden people of Uzbekistan. This book is his story, however, and thus I think opens itself to confusion should someone expect a treatise on human rights.
The trouble with the entire Murray affair, however, is precisely that. He seems to confuse himself for a human rights activist, and behaves like one for the first half of his tenure in the embassy. Such people make great whistleblowers—canaries in the coal mines, if you will. But they make terrible politicians and diplomats. In the real world, outside the pretty idealistic world of expat-NGO land (NGOs create their own economies, their own universes, wherever their members go… which is usually the latest trendy global trouble spot), you must make compromises to get anything done. The Head of State does not have the luxury of getting to yell really loudly and run checkpoints if he feels put out; he must carefully weigh an extraordinary number of variables and outcomes. Murray is consistently critical of the decision to safeguard the intelligence collaboration with the U.S. over the rights of Uzbeks not to be tortured. The charge can be answered with a blunt question: which country was he there to represent? He behaved as if it certainly were not Britain. No matter the lengthy justifications that his attention to business matters was sufficient, the fact that he made human rights the centerpiece of his tenure speaks to a dangerous immaturity—an assumption that the plight of ordinary Uzbeks matter to Downing Street.
Put simply, they don’t. Just as they don’t matter to Foggy Bottom. I share Murray’s conviction that they should—he is absolutely right that tyranny breeds terrorism—but when they’re not, he has to work within that framework. Copying three dozen embassies in a telegram accusing your own government of lying and intentionally covering up torture isn’t brave or principled, it’s posturing. A real crusader—one more interested in results than his ego—would have ensured he had the proper audience for his complaints. He would have channeled such disagreements to his superior, and on upward, and if his agency decided it did not find his concerns credible, he would resign in protest. That is the honorable thing to do.
Unfortunately, Murray doesn’t seem too long on honor. No matter his protestations to the contrary, he portrays himself as vain, selfish, peevish, and petulant. About the only good thing to come out of this book is that it will hopefully encourage an American audience to become more passionate about the choices their government makes: that it does not have to consent to torture or to despicable men so completely. I hope, on a grander scale, Murray can encourage some more people to become passionate about the fate of those who have no voice with which to speak. But Murray himself? I’m saddened he’s the best advocate available to regular Uzbeks.