Libyan Quagmires and Academic Pilgrims: Media Communication in Closed Regimes
Now that the regime of Col. Moammar Gaddafi, after 42 years of despotic rule internally and fomenting disorder internationally, has seemingly come to a permanent halt, it is a good time for governments -- both in and beyond the NATO alliance -- to review accommodations and agreements made with this regime. It is also time for the academic social policy community to examine its own behavior, especially as the family dictatorship drew to a close and sought ways to assuage democratic nations like the United States and the United Kingdom that the Lion of Libya had become a Middle East Angel of Mercy. This is intended to remind a very small corner of the international relations community of our need to distinguish and separate empirical analysis from political ideology.
Social scientists have the same right as any other American citizen or British subject to proclaim and advocate political views. Indeed, the history of specialists, especially in international relations, is of people with strong views in favor of, or in opposition to, the full panoply of "isms" -- from communism, fascism, and socialism to all sorts of intermediate positions ranging from libertarianism, liberalism, conservatism, and points east, west, north and south. Why then is there now a furor within certain academic professions, especially in international relations and political science, about a show of support for Moammar Gaddafi and the now fragmented end to his rule in Libya?
To be sure, it might be argued that despite a continuing pattern of totalitarian rule, commercial air shoot-downs, and anti-Semitic fulminations, the Gaddafi regime curbed its nuclear program, created a modest level of economic stabilization, and even asserted its human rights proclivities at least within the halls of the United Nations and leading universities. So then what were the murmurs by several foreign policy experts raising the need for moderation in the care and feeding of a harsh and repressive regime? More than a few such experts saw hopeful signs of such economic openings in places as distant from each other as China and Cuba, without arousing similar academic discomfort and even ethical repugnance.
At stake here is not a modest measure of support for dastardly rulers, but the essentially moral issue of what is covert and overt about financial support and its influence on those who write and speak about a regime such as Libya. The most obvious concern is the fact of participation of the United States in the NATO effort of "rebels" against the regime in an attack against Gaddafi's air and ground push. The very uprising and civil war period that has taken place might itself be viewed as a critical factor calling attention to Libya, and its unusual social science supporters, or at least camp followers who have offered rationalizations with few verifiable predictions. The actual course of military affairs itself may be a factor in how we respond to social science predictions and evaluations and their impact on public policy.
It is perfectly valid to say, as Professor Joseph Nye has reported, that having face-to-face contact with dictators and unsavory political characters can be as useful as interviewing democratic leaders in free countries. However, such a statement misses the point, which is the critical reception to past meetings of distinguished professors with Colonel Gaddafi of Libya. Criticisms can readily be summarized as deriving from the failure to distinguish between interviewing and supporting (admittedly somewhat tacitly and even tepidly), and also the failure to disclose the sources of funding and personal gain of such contacts. Journalists are paid by newspapers and wire service agencies -- not by the individuals being scrutinized. The failure of highly regarded academics to make such distinctions is at the core of the issue for those criticizing such previous academic beneficiaries of Gaddafi largesse.
The problem of taking money from a foreign government is that the trustworthiness of the statements made by the recipient becomes as contaminated as the funds are compromised. Thus the commentaries of Lord Anthony Giddens, made in 2007, which seemed fair and balanced at the time, now appear as tortured rationalizations. One can engage in debate on the meaning of democracy with just about any person of authority. Whether that engagement can take place on a level playing field when one party has received funding from the other is quite another matter. At the least, the exchange of funds even through a presumably third-party agency needs to be made part of the public record. It now has been. The New York Times reports (May 17, 2011) that "Anthony Giddens, eminent sociologist and former director of the London School of Economics and noted theorist of the Third Way, met Seif [Gaddafi] in 2006, paid two visits to Libya and debated democracy with Gaddafi senior in 2007. The Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, chaired by Saif, later donated £1.5m to the London School of Economics Global Governance research centre, of which it received $300,000."
Giddens' own commentaries speak loudly:
Gaddafi used to be as anti-Western as they come. He would affirm the superiority of his system of government over all challengers. In 2003 however, he decided that the country should open up. Libya was suffering as a result of UN sanctions; but Gaddafi also seemed to have decided that Libya must emerge from isolation. He renounced his programme for developing nuclear weapons. Libya has not formally accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie disaster, but has paid reparations to the relatives of those who died. What are the chances of effective reform? It was to explore these questions that I went to Libya with David Frost and Professor Benjamin Barber, a celebrated theorist of democracy, to engage him in debate.
Giddens did just that. Correctly affirming his disdain for dictatorship, he goes on to say that "Libya needs a new constitution, and representative government must play a significant part in it." He notes that "on economic change, Gaddafi was less equivocal. He was not negative about globalization, as so many politicians in developing countries are, and recognized that Libya must change to prosper. He accepts the need to reform banking, diversify the economy, train entrepreneurs and dismantle inefficient state-owned enterprises. Impressive progress has been made towards these objectives in the past three years. As one-party states Libya is not especially repressive. Gaddafi seems genuinely popular."
Joseph Nye also strikes a "soft" tone in explaining the despot. Speaking of his first trip to Libya with his colleague Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame and also of Harvard, he replies to his critics thusly:
Bad leaders are as interesting a topic for research as good leaders, and I later used some of the interview material in my book on leadership. I spent several hours with him, which I described as surreal, but as factually as possible in an article in the December 10, 2007 issue of The New Republic ... Since this was a period when Gaddafi had given up his nuclear program, was inviting American government officials to Libya, and appeared to be changing his international strategy, I thought my impressions were worth reporting. I initiated the article, and it was not at the behest of Monitor, whose staff was somewhat skeptical of the idea.
Nye continues in the same vein.
As anyone who reads the article will see, I emphasized that Gaddafi seemed to be changing his foreign policy, but I also referred to him as an autocrat with little respect for human rights and with a record of sponsoring terrorism. I told him that if he wanted improved relations with the U.S., he would have to improve his record on human rights. I asked in the article if Gaddafi had really changed, and concluded that, while it was difficult to know for sure, one thing about Gaddafi, however, has not changed: Even as he takes a softer approach to the exercise of power abroad, he remains a domineering figure at home.
The position of Benjamin Barber, self-described as a "democratic theorist" in an April 2011 piece in The Huffington Post, was more vigorous in its statements of hopes and expectations for the future of Libya under Gaddafi than those of either Giddens or Nye. He is far more concerned with "the dangerous incoherence of American policy in Libya" than with the threat of a forty-two-year-old dictatorship of Gaddafi to his own nation or the world. It is thus a perfectly valid statement in response to his critic at The Nation when he says that "it is not who pays you that are important but whether they are paying you to do what you do, or you are doing what they want you to do because they are paying you." But omitted in this clever syllogism is what lawyers like to call "motive." Payment of fees cannot entirely be removed from the purpose of the payment. Gaddafi is not entirely wrong for expecting some sort of recompense on his family investment in what turned out to be a failed future -- intellectual or otherwise.
As a critic notes in Harper's Magazine, "[n]ot since Leni Riefenstahl filmed Triumph of the Will has an intellectual so cravenly toadied up to a dictator." The actual Washington Post op-ed of Professor Barber claims that "[w]ritten off not long ago as an implacable despot, Gaddafi is a complex and adaptive thinker as well as an efficient, if laid-back, autocrat." Barber went on to declare that "[u]nlike almost any other Arab ruler, he has exhibited an extraordinary capacity to rethink his country's role in a changed and changing world."
In an interview with David R. Adler, even after hostilities began within Libya, Barber felt free to say the following:
Gaddafi himself is not detested in the way that Mubarak has been detested and rules by means other than fear. His second son Seif , with a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the London School of Economics and two supposedly forthcoming books focused on liberalism in the developing world has pioneered a gradualist approach to civil society in Libya, insisting along the way that "he would accept no office that wasn't subject to popular elections. No dynasty likely there.
The problem is that this self-styled gradualist, who served as guardian of the Gaddafi dynasty, was in fact not simply an "apprentice" but an architect of a tyrannical as well as terrorist regime. Bret Stephens in his op-ed piece on the global view in the Wall Street Journal of August 23, 2011) notes that Seif "freely admitted to al Jazeera that the confessions [of the Bulgarian nurses] had been extracted by torture. About the [Lockerbie bomber] [Abdel al-Megrahi] he was quick to say that the release was part of a quid pro quo with the British government involving lucrative oil concessions. About the Israeli artist Rafram Chadad he acknowledged the Libyans knew he was no spy but arrested him anyway to reap benefits. Seif, in other words, knew that his was a kingdom of cruelty." That esteemed figures in the field of international relations would be willing and ready to turn a blind eye to their key contact is not a factor in this furtive mess.
There is no question of the democratic persuasions of each of these three important figures in political science, nor of their shared disdain for totalitarianism. The problem is rather that such statements of an equivocating nature, though they were intended to create a climate of cooperation and consensus with the Gaddafi regime, are delivered with a serious price. To begin with, not a hint of predictive power was provided. There is no more sense of impending events among Messrs. Barber, Giddens, and Nye than there is in stories by other reporters or intelligence analysts. No amount of post-military struggles, or internal rebellions, or even scenarios of potential outcome, can disabuse the reader of believing that behind such high thoughts and policy recommendations in the Gaddafi regime was acquiescence in a regime purchased at a high, secretive price. The funds involved, whether given directly or through organizational channels, were indeed high: in the range of 2.5 to 4.0 million.
The amounts of funds transmitted are relevant, since this is not a matter of normal pay scales even at top universities, but abnormally large contributions made to a filtering agent, funds controlled by the supporter of Libya and like-minded tyrants in the region. The well-intentioned argument that administrations from Clinton to Bush made similar diplomatic overtures to Gaddafi is not relevant. There is not now or never was any imputation that these prior diplomatic overtures, which came from their respective governmental agencies in the United States or United Kingdom, benefited in monetary terms from policy recommendations or academic supports. This can scarcely be claimed in this latter-day situation.
Professor Barber, to his credit, in a response to The Nation, admitted that "asking where the money comes from is a legitimate question." However, the absence of any self-criticism in critiquing the actual conduct of the Gaddafi regime, much less responses from other nations, is no less legitimate. The complex issue of what happened to the predictive aspects of "science" in the social science when it came to the Libyan ruler remains largely unanswered by these political pilgrims. Anthropologists are sensitive to the need to address the positions and sentiments of those who are ruled no less than those who do the ruling. This seems less the case with political scientists and international relations experts who converse with rulers (in English) and have scant capacity to hear out those who are ruled (in Arabic). This is not a problem restricted to these savants, but is a pandemic issue for those who seem to instruct those engaged in practical politics from very high perches.
Publications that in earlier years trained their sights involving government funding for dubious civic action programs in Vietnam and now Afghanistan have taken seriously their belated but authentic concerns for the sources of many varieties of support for ill-thought-out policies. Intellectual pundits seem able and willing to defend the faith when the dictatorships often wear the patina of radicalism -- such as Gaddafi in Libya. Still, it is, after all, The Nation, The New Republic, Mother Jones, and Harper's, publications strongly identified with left political positions, that have taken the lead in publicizing these figures engaged in clandestine support for dictators. But given their hostility to American foreign policy, they are not uniformly clear in distinguishing the right to advocate dubious policy positions, and even military efforts, with which they may find contemptible values. The continuing issue of these intellectual figures is the need for transparency in reporting and public acknowledgments of doubts. Monetary support from private agencies is hardly a crime derive. But the need for disclosure works for the interviewer no less than the person interviewed.
One troubling but little-discussed new wrinkle to this old problem of clandestine derivation of politically inspired commentaries of despots is the use of third-party organizations and foundations. In the case of Libya, two United States consultancy firms -- the Livingston Group (a lobbying firm founded by former Congressman Robert Livingston in 1999 and located in Washington DC) and the Monitor Group (founded by Professor Michael Porter and eight entrepreneurs with ties to the Harvard Business School founded in 1983) -- loom as large if shadowy players. In a London Review of Books blog dated July 29, 2009, it was noted that their central task was "to lay out strategies for securing the Libyan leaders reintroduction on Capitol Hill." The consultancies dubiously claimed that their public relations efforts "thus far has led to a wave of positive coverage about Libya in the Western media and had many knock-on benefits."
What is particularly disturbing is that such sub-rosa agency of the recipients of funds from any claim of directly receiving honoraria from a foreign power serve to launder the media scene. They offer the risky prospects of providing foreign governments a fallacious measuring rod for the success of their activities. These foundations were proactive, speaking of future interviews and book projects including such extraordinary figures as Cass Sunstein, Richard Perle, and Bernard Lewis -- longstanding critics of totalitarianism and terrorism. Whether such probing ever achieved any success is hard to say. But these shadowy institutional support groups well understood that the issue was not the impossible task of converting such figures to the cause of Libyan dictatorship, but a simpler and more limited objective: to underscore the legitimacy of the authoritarian regime as such, which in turn was to serve as a prima facie proof of a "human rights" turn to its dictatorial ambitions.
The issues raised in this subplot of the Libyan Civil War are not dialectical jousting with the devil, and even less the idea that any of these scholars share in dictatorial beliefs. These individuals have unimpeachable credentials and operate under canons of personal integrity. But in an era of intense skepticism about the character and limits of academic performance, this is the time and place for examining monetary compensation or travel allowances in dialogues between scholars and scoundrels.
Specifically, it is perhaps time to make as an article of faith from where funding support derives -- whether they are the National Science Foundation or the Qaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation. In that way, recipients of information can decide for themselves as to the reliability of the reports or recommendations issued by well-placed academics. Until transparency as a standard of both ethical and cultural behavior becomes normative, a cloud of suspicion about academic and journalistic research cannot be removed from the interview process. In this, the leadership and forthrightness of scholars of high international profile and considerable influence writing in an age of electronic information dissemination and promulgation will be properly subject to review and, when called for, as in the case of Gaddafi, academic self-analysis, and clear rebuke. At stake in this Middle East sidebar to political discourse and academic legitimacy is not so much the wealth of nations as the poverty of analysts.
Irving Louis Horowitz is Hannah Arendt professor emeritus of sociology and political science at Rutgers University, and chairman of the board of Transaction Publishers. He is the author of The Rise and Fall of Project Camelot: Studies in the Relationship between Social Science and Practical Politics (MIT Press), Ideology and Utopia in the United States (OUP Press), and other writings on issues related to academic affairs and public policy.