The pen versus the sword

The Gaddafis enjoyed a political facelift from the West whilst carefully avoiding blowback – until now.

Gaddafi throwing up the peace sign
The so-called “Butcher of Tripoli”, Muammar Gaddafi, and his son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, hired Western consulting firm Monitor Group to help improve their image abroad [EPA]

The quill may be mightier than the sword. But this is a story of how some Western academics have succumbed to the power of the cheque book.

Which leads me to ask the question: is it money that makes the world go round? Whatever happened to the strength of liberal ideals, humanism, democracy and all that spiel?

There is a Libyan connection, which is the context of this story. Maybe Gaddafi, sons and henchmen have survived till now and may kill more Libyans due to the fact that many experts and academics, some brilliant voices of the global democratic agenda, have chosen  to accept the Libyan regime’s illicit funding over the ethics they preach to their own students.

Knowledge is power

It may be so that knowledge is power, but surely not when knowledge serves dictatorships.

I first wrote this story for Al Jazeera more than two weeks ago. A few months ago Libyan friends (who have lost loved ones in the fight for Zawiya and before for Benghazi) shared with me and others documents coming from Monitor Group, the Harvard-based global consulting group.

This is the firm which was hired by the Gaddafis to revamp their image. That was before the eruption of the current anti-Gaddafi uprising in Libya.

A few observations are noteworthy here.

The Gaddafis have missed the traffic of information circulated by Libyans within Libya recording the visits, payments, lectures, and visits to either the Gaddafis or the colonel’s so-called ‘Green Book Centre’. Libyans have been for some time questioning Western complicity in extending the life of one of the worst regimes in the region.

Colonel Gaddafi, more than anything else, has struggled and failed all of his political life to emerge on the world stage as a thinker. He failed dismally and no serious scholar has taken his ‘Green Book’ seriously.

I had occasion to read it when writing The Search for Arab Democracy, suffice to say that those hours have been lost forever.

However, Gaddafi and his sons fully appreciate the value of ideas for the Libyan state after the lifting of international sanctions. They, especially Saif al-Islam, realised that in politics, ideas are instrumental to the reproduction of power.

Saif, groomed by his father as political heir, was being educated by the best – the London School of Economics.

Saif has been on a long quasi-presidential campaign for years. He has been recruiting and cultivating loyal followers by funding their higher education in Western universities.

One of these is a former undergraduate student of mine who graduated several years ago from the University of Exeter. His name is Musa Ibrahim, a member of the Qadhadhifa, who now serves as a spokesperson for the regime while it wages an illegal war for survival against its own citizens.

Where did the West go wrong?

Let’s reverse this standard question Orientalists have traditionally asked in reference to Arabs and Muslims. Arabs are today knocking on the doors of tyrants to seek their own answers locally.

The collaboration of those Western global actors driven by self-interest or self-importance with authoritarianism warrants this question. Regimes like those ousted in Tunisia and Egypt survived because they were brutal – and the technology of violence at their disposal was Western.

Many Western governments may have practised democracy for longer, but they also did so via support of autocracy.

The killings going on right now in Libya display the extent to which the Libyan regime has been misjudged.

Under Bush, the neo-cons sought to re-order the region, including by force (e.g Iraq). Maybe Libya was intended to be remodelled by approving and grooming acceptable dynastic heirs (plausibly the same for Egypt).

Libya’s vast riches (40 billion barrels of oil reserves, potential business deals, well-stashed sovereign wealth fund), might have been what saved Gaddafi.

But the Gaddafi regime should have fallen at the turn of the new millennium, around the same time when Baghdad was sacked by the US-led ‘coalition of the willing’.

However, Western political establishments chose to subdue Gaddafi’s Libya and conquer it economically, thus giving Gaddafi’s failed state a longer lease on life. There is no surprise here: economic gain often prevails over moral principles in the international relations of the Middle East.

Western academics were complicit in all of this, giving the ‘butcher of Tripoli’ an undeserved respite.

Yet months after they prevailed over Saddam, the neocons’ message reached Gaddafi: he was ready to play ball with the West. In August of 2003, Libya agreed a $2.7 billion compensation package for the families of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing victims.

In December 2003, Gaddafi gave Bush an unusual Christmas present by renouncing terrorism and giving up his WMDs programme.

In early 2004 Tony Blair’s visit to the Gaddafis signalled the rehabilitation of the Libyan dictatorship. Whether Blair was or was not making business for BP or acting in an advisory or consultancy capacity to the Gaddafis and their Libyan Investment Authority is incidental.

What was particularly interesting is that the Gaddafis worked with the very man whose power play in Iraq led to the ousting of Saddam.

Enter ‘Monitor Group’: Reinventing Gaddafi!

Soufflés, it is said, do not rise twice.

Monitor Group (MG) is in the business of a different type of cooking: consulting governments and business.

In undertaking in 2006 to help Libya shed its pariah status and ease it into a zone of “enhanced economic development”, MG defined two goals for its Herculean task:

1. “enhance international understanding and appreciation of Libya and the contribution it has made and may continue to make to its region and to the world”

2. “to introduce Muammar Gaddafi as a thinker and intellectual, independent of his more widely-known and very public persona as the Leader of the Revolution in Libya.”

Harvard Business Professor Michael Porter’s expertise was sought to revamp the economy of a police state in which the likes of Gaddafi, his brother-in-law Abdullah Sanoussi – who dealt with MG – had their hands tainted with the blood of Libyans and foreigners.

Sanoussi is the man who had a part in the killing of 1,200 political detainees in the Bou Slim prison in 1996. The cabal advising Gaddafi on security included Musa Kusa, Touhami Khalid, and Abdullah Mansour. Two other associates, Matug Al-Warfalli and Abd Al-Qadir Al-Baghdadi, may be linked with the slaying of policewoman Yvonne Fletcher in April 1984.

This is hardly the kind of stuff that would be unknown to men and women of high learning.

The MG strategy aimed to “introduce to Libya important international figures”.

Once having been to Libya or met with Gaddafi and Saif, these high profile academics, journalists, politicians and businessmen are multi-tasked with “influencing other nations policies towards” Libya;  “making a contribution to economic development”; gaining “a more sensitive understanding” of the country; and becoming “part of a network building bridges between Libya and the rest of the world.”

The idea is that these international personalities share through major media outlets their knowledge about the ‘new Libya’ to combat stereotypes.

Is it Libya that these actors, and MG’s work, were packaging to the world? Saif did not consult with the Libyan people about his national economic strategy, which Porter was recruited to develop.

Note the similarity between Gamal Mubarak and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi in their preference of privatisation.

Anyone who reads MG’s ‘Executive Summary of Phase 1’ entitled “Project to Enhance the Profile of Libya Muammar Gaddafi” is left with no doubt that Saif was being groomed for taking over Libya’s leadership.

Note also that MG was helping Mu’tassim, Saif’s younger brother, in setting up a National Security Council.

Literati or spin doctors?

Richard Perle going to Libya is something. But why did Francis Fukuyama, Anthony Giddens, Bernard Lewis, Nicholas Negroponte, Benjamin Barber, Joseph Nye, and Robert Putnam meet Gaddafi?

Some of these names were guest speakers at the Green Book Centre. Libyans who criticise the Green Book end up losing their employment, freedom or both.

Lewis wanted to learn specifically about Gaddafi’s idea of ‘Isratin’ (a joint Israeli-Palestinian state). Lewis according to the ‘Executive Summary’ shared his findings with Israel and the US.

Barber was deluding only himself when his 2007 Washington Post article seemed to do exactly GM’s PR work, crediting Gaddafi with “an extraordinary capacity to rethink his country’s role in a changed and changing world.”

The several meetings with the Gaddafis, father and son, earned him a seat in the board of Saif’s Foundation for International Development, the very foundation that turned human rights the exclusive bastion of Saif – excluding, for instance, human rights activist Fathi al-Jahmi, amongst others.

Like Barber, writing in 2006 in the New Statesman, Giddens brags about Gaddafi, granting him audience for more than three hours, not the standard half-hour political leaders (supposedly like Blair) give their visitors.

Giddens makes it clear in his article that Gaddafi and he did not agree on the meaning of democracy. Nonetheless, and for some reason, Giddens left the Colonel, convinced of Gaddafi’s “conversion” away from terrorism and pursuit of disarmament.

His article observes GM’s packaging instructions. He talks about Gaddafi’s “global prominence”, “egalitarianism”, intelligence, and, of course, the Green Book.

Gaddafi younger – Saif – is today renamed by Libyan dissidents ‘Zaif’, meaning fraudulence. There are many names of Libyan professors linked with the writing of his academic work.

However, in many Western political and intellectual establishments he was treated as ‘the chosen one’.

Elisabeth Rosenthal’s piece in the New York Times in September 2007 heaps even more praise on Saif than Giddens, highlighting the rise of his political stardom, describing him as “un-Gaddafi”.

MG amassed so much brain power for its Libya campaign. Yet how could so much misreading of the Gaddafis come from leading scholars?

Saif’s February speech showed him to be a monster in the closet, not the democratic subjectivity the LSE reconstituted.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004), forthcoming Hamas and the Political Process (2011).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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