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Libyan Money, Academic Missions, and Public Social Science

Craig Calhoun

In spring 2011, several famous social scientists found themselves caught up in unwelcome publicity. As fighting spread in Libya, attention focused on the trips Benjamin Barber, Anthony Giddens, Joseph Nye, Robert Putnam, and several others had made to meet with Muammar Qaddafi — and the flattering essays some had written afterward. Their invitations were part of a public relations campaign organized between 2003 and 2008 as the dictator sought to improve relations with the West. This was complemented by an expansion of business relations with the West, new diplomatic cooperation, and training contracts or placement of Libyan students in a variety of Western universities.

Qaddafi’s son Saif was at the center of this initiative, both personally and through the foundation he led, the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Fund (QF). It had material objectives like revitalizing the Libyan economy and improving political institutions, but it was centrally focused on remaking the image of Libya and the Qaddafi family. To carry out this public relations project, the Qaddafis relied on an array of foreign consultants and academics. The most prominent were recruited through the Monitor Group, a business consultancy formed by a group of Harvard faculty led most famously by Michael Porter, and the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), one of Britain’s most prestigious and globally oriented universities. Saif himself studied at the LSE during this period and received a PhD in 2008.

As Libya fell into civil war in the spring of 2011, these earlier undertakings became controversial and, for many, embarrassing. Whatever improvements may have been achieved in the Qaddafi family image were reversed. Muammar Qaddafi was killed after mounting a brutal resistance to insurrection. Saif went from glamorous cosmopolitan to bloodied prisoner. The work of the international intellectuals, the Monitor Group, and the LSE was subjected to critical examination. Were they naively overoptimistic or pursuing plausible projects rendered irrelevant by changing circumstances? Was it unethical to have worked with the Qaddafis at all? Was it poor management not to have recognized and mitigated reputational risk? The celebrity of the intellectuals and the prestige of the institutions joined with the entertainment value of the Qaddafis, the war in Libya, and the drama of their fall to promote a storm of media coverage.

This was a sideshow to the graver story of Libyan insurrection, civil war, and NATO intervention (not to mention the rest of the “Arab Spring”), but it was not insignificant. Commentary has veered between moral outrage at complicity with a dictator and schadenfreude at the embarrassment of the famous colleagues invited on trips to Tripoli; many of those directly involved have simply been defensive. In the present discussion I want to avoid each of these three attitudes, asking instead what issues go beyond idiosyncratic lapses—or indeed reasonable judgments that look less good in hindsight—to potentially recurrent concerns.

First, a growing number of academic institutions seek to work effectively on a global scale. This raises a plethora of complex ethical and practical questions in settings where administrators and most academics face shortages of information. Second, nearly all universities and many individual researchers must search for new resources in the face of cuts in public budgets and in the context of intensified competition. This puts pressure on those who must decide which funds to pursue or accept. Third, academic social scientists are rightly concerned to make their work useful. But problems arise when this is pursued through arrangements that either close knowledge to the public or potentially distort it by harnessing it to the projects of specific clients. Public social science is generally preferable, but problems also arise when this is approached as a matter of media comments only weakly related to scholarly research.

Universities should not withdraw from building global relations and cannot withdraw from fundraising. Individual social scientists should not withdraw from public engagement or efforts to make research practically useful. But both institutions and individuals need to make decisions informed by as much information as they can gather, by serious critical reflection, and where possible by open debate. Above all, to steer through the pitfalls of doing publicly important work in complex contexts it is crucial to maintain clarity about basic scientific and educational missions.

To situate this discussion we need to start by asking why the Qaddafis made a compelling media story in the West, why Western governments were interested in pushing for better relations with the Qaddafis early in the twenty-first century, why engagements with the Qaddafis were of interest to well-intentioned individual academics and institutions, and why the Qaddafis were actively looking for such engagements.

Qaddafi Comes Calling

Westerners long oscillated between seeing Muammar Qaddafi as comical and seeing him as a diabolical force for global evil. He was the longest-lasting of the military modernizers who came to power in postcolonial coups in the 1950s and 1960s. He initially seized power in 1969 as part of a “free officers movement” but quickly established more personal dominance. Qaddafi recast the coup as a revolution over the next few years, initially embracing the Arab socialism of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Following Nasser, he affirmed struggle to overcome Zionism and imperialism and provide every citizen with the chance to earn an honorable living. Parts of the international Left welcomed him as a leader in a hoped-for Third World Revolution; others more quickly saw him as a loose cannon.

Qaddafi’s politics drew on Arab nationalism that condemned the region’s “false frontiers” as a colonial inheritance. Like other nationalists, he was a thorn in the side of more “traditionalist” Arab leaders and their Western allies. With Nasser, Sudan’s Ja’afar Numeiri, and Syria’s Hafez al-Assad — each of whom led his own coup at about the same time — Qaddafi was central to the effort to form a Federation of Arab Republics. Though this project failed, the critique of false frontiers encouraged Qaddafi in repeated international interventions and also in a growing embrace of pan-Africanism. He meddled repeatedly in the politics of Chad, Sudan, and other neighbors and was active farther afield through a mixture of investments and political deals.

Libya had large oil reserves, and the income helped to finance Qaddafi’s projects. He was instrumental in the OPEC decision to impose production controls in order to raise prices in the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war (in constant 2011 dollars, crude oil cost $20 a barrel at the time of Qaddafi’s coup, and topped $100 a barrel by 1980). In Libya, oil money helped Qaddafi pursue a mixture of genuine improvements in public services, investments in infrastructure intended to promote development, and outright repression in the name of revolutionary unity. But Libyans also complained that much oil money went to finance Qaddafi’s adventures and investments abroad.

In 1973 Qaddafi both declared Sharia law and initiated a “cultural revolution” to transform schools, businesses, and public institutions. Qaddafi coined the term jamahiriya to describe Libya, transforming the Arabic word usually translated as “republic” — jumhuriya — by replacing the idea of “public” with that of “the masses.” His Little Green Book (first published in the mid-1970s) paid homage to Mao Zedong not only in its title and vision of a sort of pedagogical leadership, but also in its program for partially decentralized socialist decision making.Local councils would be self-organizing but joined together through the guidance of a single revolutionary party that would secure national unity; intermediate levels of state and civil society would be hollowed out or eliminated. The revolution—and the government—would not be institutionalized; Qaddafi combined personal power with a program of “statelessness.”1 In 1979 he gave up the office of prime minister and declared himself the “Brother-Leader” who would hold no office, but rather reflect the general will of the people (Qaddafi often echoed Rousseau); his leadership would constantly be affirmed in a kind of implicit plebiscite.

Through it all, the West couldn’t resist being entertained by Qaddafi’s shifting costumes. He appeared initially as something of a dandy in neat military attire, embraced safari suits and sunglasses in a Che Guevara phase, sometimes sported much gaudier uniforms with epaulettes and sashes, then turned to quasi-traditional robes that could be dressed up with gold trimmings or worn informally to give the impression of a ruler relaxed and at home.

Qaddafi at once embraced political Islam and repressed any attempts to form autonomous Islamist groups in Libya. His relations soured with both Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda. He repeatedly used violence against domestic dissent. Internationally, he backed a wide variety of revolutionary causes and terrorist actions, from Black Muslims in the United States to the Irish Republican Army. But he also earned credit with many—and Nelson Mandela’s loyalty—for backing the African National Congress in South Africa long before Western powers joined the struggle against apartheid. He was a recurrent disruption challenging of attempts by the world’s leading states to maintain global order. The Lockerbie incident—the 1988 bombing and destruction of Pan Am Flight 103—was a symbolically strong grievance.

But in 2003 the Libyan government and Muammar Qaddafi advanced a diplomatic initiative to reposition themselves as legitimate and constructive players on a global stage.2 This led among other things to an agreement to pay reparations for the crash and killings.3 The Qaddafi government announced that Libya was relinquishing all weapons of mass destruction. Qaddafi’s gestures were welcomed by officials in the West (who interpreted them mainly as their own diplomatic successes). By 2009 the United States had restored full diplomatic relations with Libya, removed it from the list of states sponsoring terrorism, and ended sanctions.4 Libya was also incorporated fully into UN activities, holding a Security Council seat for two years and—ironically and controversially—serving briefly as a member of the Human Rights Council before being removed by a General Assembly vote in 2011.

Qaddafi thus shifted his geopolitical tactics. For one thing, al-Qaeda had outperformed him in the flamboyant terrorism game. The invasion of Iraq was no doubt alarming. Sanctions may have taken a toll. There may simply have appeared to be good opportunities to benefit from playing a different global role, being useful to Washington and London as a source of intelligence and backer of security measures, being able to share more in a financial boom. Domestically, the Qaddafi government faced a stagnant economy for which oil compensated financially, but not in producing jobs or dynamism. There was growing dissent. Perhaps Qaddafi began to think more about legacy. This meant both institutionalizing more of his “achievements” and creating the economic dynamism that could sustain the revolution in a new phase. It also meant succession.

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  1. For accounts of Libyan history, see Lisa Anderson, The State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya, 1830–1980 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986); Ronald Bruce St. John, Libya: From Colony to Independence (Oxford: One World, 2008); and Dirk Vandewalle, A History of Modern Libya (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), who stresses Qaddafi’s policy of “statelessness — the avoidance of creating a modern state” (1).
  2. This was not an overnight shift in 2003. In 1999 Qaddafi started backchannel diplomacy with the United States and Great Britain. Dirk Vandewalle sees a “remarkable set of adjustments and compromises the Jamahiriyya embarked upon starting in mid-1999” and suggests that “careful observers of Libya had noted the beginning of this emerging pragmatism almost a decade before its government announced in December 2003 that it would abandon its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction” (A History of Modern Libya, 7–8).
  3. Neither the Libyan state nor Qaddafi ever acknowledged having arranged or ordered the bombing, and the state carefully hedged the wording of agreements. It accepted “civil responsibility” (but not guilt) and paid reparations in order to have sanctions lifted, be removed from lists of sponsors of terrorism, and resume full diplomatic relations with other countries. A Libyan intelligence officer was convicted of the killing and imprisoned in Scotland until his compassionate release (on grounds of terminal illness) in 2009 — which generated new controversy.
  4. The Qaddafi diplomatic initiative slowed dramatically in 2009. This may reflect success, but also worry by some in Libya that it had gone too far. Supporters of Saif Qaddafi began to report that his reforms were being blocked. The Monitor Group wound up its work, though a lobbying firm, the Livingston Group, remained actively engaged — for example, arranging a meeting between Mutassim Qaddafi and Hillary Clinton in April 2009. At the same time, the National Conference of the Libyan Opposition began to expose and attempt to debunk the public relations campaign, releasing leaked copies of memoranda between Monitor and the Libyan government. DocinEnglish/tabid/598/language/en-US/ Default.aspx.


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