The Wealth of Nations and the Poverty of Analysts

Irving Louis Horowitz

It is hard to imagine a body of men of letters attempting

to withstand the bourgeois classes instead of flattering them.

It is still harder to imagine them turning against the tide of

their intellectual decadence and ceasing to think that they

display a lofty culture when they sneer at rational morality

and fall on their knees before history.

—Julien Benda, La Trahison des Clercs (1927)

Now that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi1 is dead and his forty-two years as despotic ruler of Libya and fomenter of international disorder has 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 his regime. It is also time for the academic social policy community to examine its own behavior, especially during the period in which the Gaddafi family dictatorship drew to a close and sought ways to convince democratic nations such as the United States and the United Kingdom that the Lion of Libya had become a Middle East Angel of Mercy.

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 scholars with strong views for or against the full panoply of “isms”—from communism, fascism, and socialism to all sorts of intermediate positions.

Furthermore, 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.

At stake here is not a modest measure of support for dastardly rulers, however, but the essentially moral issue of covert and overt financial support and its influence on those who write and speak about a regime such as Libya. The actual course of military affairs may also be a factor in how we respond to social science predictions, evaluations, and their impact on public policy. The most obvious concern is the fact of United States participation in the NATO effort to assist the “rebels” in an attack against Gaddafi’s air and ground push. The uprising and period of civil war that took place is a critical factor that demands attention to Libya and the unusual social science “camp followers” who have offered rationalizations of Gaddafi’s actions with few verifiable predictions.

It is perfectly valid to say, as Harvard professor Joseph Nye has reported, that 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 of concern about the meetings that some distinguished professors had with Colonel Gaddafi. It’s not the meetings but the failure to distinguish between interviewing and supporting (admittedly somewhat tacitly and even tepidly), and to disclose the sources of funding and personal gain of such contacts. Journalists are supposed to be paid by newspapers and wire service agencies—not by the individuals under scrutiny. The failure to make such distinctions by highly regarded academics who benefited from Gaddafi largesse is the core of the issue.

The problem with taking money from a foreign government is that the trustworthiness of the recipient’s statements 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 exchange can take place on a level playing field when one party has received funds from the other is quite another matter. At the least, this transaction—even if presumably through a third-party agency—needs to be part of the public record.

It now is. On May 16, 2011, the Guardian reported that Anthony Giddens,

Eminent sociologist and former director of the London School of Economics and noted theorist of the Third Way…met Saif [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 LSE’s Global Governance research centre, of which it received $300,000.2

Giddens’s own commentaries speak loudly:

Gadafy used to be as anti-western as they come. Libya supported the IRA and other terrorist organisations. 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 Gadafy also seems 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.3

Giddens did just that.

During their meeting, Gaddafi fulminated against representative government and Giddens had “no time for that…and said so.”4 Affirming his disdain for dictatorship, he insisted that “Libya will not progress if the current system remains intact. Libya needs a new constitution, and representative government must play a significant part in it.” Giddens notes, however, that

on economic change, Gadafy was less equivocal [than about democracy]. He was not negative about globalisation, 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 go, Libya is not especially repressive. Gadafy seems genuinely popular.

Given Giddens’s position as former director of the London School of Economics (LSE) and his role in sponsoring Saif Gaddafi—who received a doctorate in political philosophy from LSE in 2008—the comments made in the two hundred-page Woolf Report: An Inquiry into the LSE’s Links with Libya and Lessons to be Learned, released in October 2011, are significant.5 While avoiding harsh language or condemnation, this extraordinary narrative—prepared under the direction of the able Right Honorable Lord Harry K. Woolf of the House of Lords—said the following words about Giddens’s place among these dark academic shadows (the Monitor Group referred to is a Boston-based, Harvard-linked consultant firm hired by Libya for advisement on public relations):

Lord Giddens told me that his work with [the] Monitor [Group] had nothing to do with the LSE, he was engaged as a “free floating intellectual” and indeed his work after he left the LSE is entirely his own matter. However, from the perspective of the LSE and its reputation, work done by a former Director and an Emeritus Professor of the Centre which received the gift from Saif could undoubtedly be perceived as a link between the School and Libya. If known to the LSE it should have been treated as part of cumulative perception of closeness between Libya, the Centre and the School.6

Joseph Nye, while sparing his audience the audacity of invoking Karl Mannheim’s notion of a “free floating intellectual,” meant to illustrate the absence of attachment of members of the cultural class from institutional sources of livelihood, also strikes a “soft” tone in explaining support for the despot. Speaking of his first trip to Libya as a paid consultant of the Monitor Group, a trip he took with Harvard colleague Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame, Nye replies to critics:

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 TNR….Since this was a period when Qaddafi 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.7

Nye continues in the same vein:

As anyone who reads the article will see, I emphasized that Qaddafi 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 Qaddafi had really changed, and concluded that, while it was difficult to know for sure, “One thing about Qaddafi, however, has not changed: Even as he takes a softer approach to the exercise of power abroad, he remains a domineering figure at home.”8

In an April 2011 Huffington Post piece, Benjamin Barber—a self-described “democratic theorist” who was also a paid consultant of the Monitor Group—was more vigorous in his declaration of hopes and expectations for the future of Libya under Gaddafi than either Giddens or Nye. He is far more concerned with “the dangerous incoherence of American policy in Libya” than with the threat of Gaddafi’s forty-two year dictatorship to his own nation or the world.9 It is thus a perfectly valid statement, in response to Jon Weiner at The Nation, to say “it is not who pays you that is 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.”10

Omitted in this clever syllogism, however, is what lawyers like to call “motive.” Payment of fees cannot entirely be separated from the purpose of the payment. Gaddafi is not entirely wrong for expecting some sort of recompense—intellectual or otherwise—on his family investment in what turned out to be a failed future.

In a Washington Post op-ed published after his meeting in Libya, Barber wrote, “Written off not long ago as an implacable despot, Gaddafi is a complex and adaptive thinker as well as an efficient, if laid-back, autocrat.” He went on to declare that “Unlike almost any other Arab ruler, he has exhibited an extraordinary capacity to rethink his country’s role in a changed and changing world.”11 As Ken Silverstein remarked in Harper’s, “Not since Leni Riefenstahl filmed Triumph of the Will has an intellectual so cravenly toadied up to a dictator.”12

Even after hostilities began within Libya, Barber felt free to say that:

Qaddafi himself is not detested in the way that Mubarak has been detested and rules by means other than fear. His son Saif, with a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the London School of Economics and two 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.13

The problem is that this self-styled gradualist, who served as guardian of the Gaddafi dynasty, was in fact not simply an “apprentice,” as per the ironic title of a Wall Street Journal Global View op-ed of August 23, 2011, but an architect of a tyrannical as well as terrorist regime. In that op-ed, Bret Stephens notes that Saif

freely admitted to Al Jazeera that the confessions [of the Bulgarian nurses] had been extracted by torture. About [the Lockerbie bomber] 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.14

That esteemed figures in the field of international relations would be ready and willing to turn a blind eye to their key contact is not the main factor in this furtive mess. And there is no question about the democratic persuasion of Giddens, Nye, and Barber, all important figures in political science, or about their shared disdain for totalitarianism. The problem is that their lofty thoughts and policy recommendations intended to create a climate of cooperation and consensus with the Gaddafi regime were delivered at a serious and secretive price. The funds involved, whether paid directly or through organizational channels, were indeed substantial: The Monitor Group, for example, operated under a $3 million dollar a year contract, as reported by Jon Weiner in The Nation, although the exact amounts that went to recipients have not been disclosed.

The hopeful argument that administrations from Clinton to Bush made similar diplomatic overtures to Gaddafi is not relevant. “Nobody criticized Condi Rice for shaking hands with Qaddafi,” Barber told Weiner.15 There is not now nor ever was any imputation that diplomats who worked for their respective governmental agencies in the United States or the United Kingdom benefited financially from policy recommendations or from lending academic or intellectual support to certain regimes. This can scarcely be claimed in this situation.

In response to Jon Weiner’s criticism in The Nation, Barber, to his credit, admitted that “asking where the money comes from is a legitimate question.”16 However, it is also legitimate to ask why Barber doesn’t criticize himself for failing to be open about the actual conduct of the Gaddafi regime. Moreover, what happened to the predictive aspects of social “science” when it came to the Libyan ruler? There is no more sense of impending events among Barber, Giddens, and Nye than there is in stories by other reporters or intelligence analysts—no indication of the internal rebellions to come. Political scientists and international relations experts tend to 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 pandemic among those who instruct those engaged in practical politics from very high perches.

It is notable that The Nation, The New Republic, Mother Jones, and Harper’s—publications strongly identified with leftist political positions—have taken the lead in publicizing the involvement of these scholars in clandestine support for the Libyan dictator. Given their hostility to American foreign policy, such publications are not uniformly clear in distinguishing the right to advocate policy positions and even military efforts with which they may disagree. Publications of all political stripes should be aware of the need for transparency in reporting. Monetary support from private agencies is hardly a crime, but the need for disclosure exists for the interviewer no less than the person interviewed.

One troubling but little discussed new wrinkle to this old problem is the use of third-party organizations and foundations. In the case of Libya, two United States consultancy firms have surfaced and loom as large if shadowy players: the Livingston Group, a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm founded by former Congressman Robert Livingston in 1999, and the Monitor Group, mentioned above, founded in 1983 by Michael Porter and eight entrepreneurs with ties to the Harvard Business School. A July 29, 2009, London Review of Books blog post noted that these firms’ central task was “to lay out strategies for securing the Libyan leaders ‘reintroduction on Capitol Hill.’”17 These firms dubiously claimed that their public relations effort “thus far has led to a wave of positive coverage about Libya in the Western media and had many positive knock-on benefits.”

Such sub rosa agencies whitewash media output and shield the recipients from having to make any claim of receipt for honoraria from a foreign power. They offer the risky prospect of providing foreign governments a false measuring rod for the success of their activities. These firms have been proactive, speaking of future interviews and book projects that involve such extraordinary figures as Cass Sunstein, Richard Perle, and Bernard Lewis—longstanding critics of totalitarianism and terrorism. Whether any of these efforts/plans have borne fruit is unclear. But these shadowy institutional support groups well understood that the issue was not the impossible task of converting Sunstein et al., to the cause of Libyan dictatorship, but a simpler, more limited objective: to underscore the legitimacy of the authoritarian regime as such, and to support the idea that his human rights record was improving.

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, it’s time to reexamine the compensation and travel expenses of scholars engaged in dialogue with scoundrels. Specifically, it is time to make it an article of faith to disclose where scholars derive funding support—whether it comes from the National Science Foundation or the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation. Recipients of this information can then decide for themselves whether the reports and recommendations issued by well-placed academics are reliable.

Until a standard of transparency for both ethical and cultural behavior becomes normative, a cloud of suspicion about academic and journalistic research will pervade the interview process. In this, scholars with an international profile and considerable influence writing in the age of electronic information 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 integrity is not so much the wealth of nations as the poverty of analysts.

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