By: James S Henry
I recall one cold wintry Saturday evening three years ago in Vermont, and a dinner conversation among a small group of former business colleagues, including HBS Professor Michael E. Porter, the eminent competitive strategist.
He’d just returned from Tripoli, where he’d been working on what he told us was a “strategy project” for the Gaddafi regime with a raft of consultants from Monitor Group, the Cambridge-based consulting firm that he’d helped to found in the early 1980s. For about thirty minutes or so he shared with us how excited they all were to be working to reform the Libyan economy, and how Colonel Gaddafi and his sons now seemed to really “get it.”
Clearly Prof. Porter felt this was all pretty cool. When asked about the issue of democracy and the rule of law, he rather quickly brushed aside such concerns, suggesting that they were sort of beside the point – after all, as the case of China supposedly demonstrated, all those annoying traditional liberal values sometimes just need to get out of the way of progress.
At the end of all this, there was a brief silence. I suspect that most of those at the table were slightly discomforted by Prof. Porter’s blunt, hard-nosed neoliberal analysis, and certainly by his apparent intoxication with the infamous Libyan dictator. But he was, after all, an eminent Harvard professor. And unlike us, he’d not only been to the country, but had met its most senior leaders personally.
Finally, however, my friend Roger Kline, a wise old McKinsey partner, broke the silence with a simple, direct, slightly impolitic question, which would be answered only by the silence that it provoked from Professor Porter: “Doesn’t it ever bother you at all, Michael, to be working for a terrorist?”
As the spirit of doom hovers over the last remnants of Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year-long dictatorship, and most Libyans are celebrating his
departure with sheer delight, there is much less joy in a handful of top-tier academic and professional-class households in Cambridge, Princeton, Georgetown, Baltimore, East Lansing, and London.
For Mighty Muammar has indeed struck out — contrary to the hopes and expectations of some of our very best and brightest experts on “competitive country strategy,” “global democratic governance,” “the idea that is America,” and “soft power.”
After all, from their perspective, whatever Gaddafi’s flaws, his blood-stained but deep-pocketed regime was certainly not like that of Kim Jong Il.
Unlike Kim, Gaddafi had been willing to pay quite handsomely to hear them spout off about their aerie-faerie pet neoliberal theories of political and economic development.
Meanwhile, Gaddifi’s government also ordered up an expensive grab-bag of university grants, endowments, special education for Libyan police and diplomats, ginned-up degrees for his dim-witted family members, lots of slick lobbying and lawyering, plus a large number of custom press portraits by leading Western academics gurus – none of whom ever bothered to disclose the fact that they were all on Brother Leader’s payroll.
This sordid tale first began to trickle out about two years ago from the Libyan opposition, but it really picked up steam after the Revolution began in February 2011. The interested reader can look here, here, here, here, and here for the gory details.
But right now, just as the Gaddafis are about to take their rightful place in history’s waste bin, it is worth recalling the highlights for several reasons.
- First, we’d like to make sure that all of the leading academic collaborateurs who helped to legitimate Gaddafi’s abattoir receive their due: the very first installment of the “Milton Friedman/ “Putzi” Hanfstaengl Iron Cross Award.
“Putzi” – Harvard ’09
- Second, we’d like to require these collaborateurs to donate the millions of dollars of blood money and the thousands of frequent flier miles they accumulated as unregistered foreign agents for Gaddafi’s regime to Libya’s teeming hospitals and orphanages.
Together, these two simple steps might help to insure that this kind of totally uncool dictatorship rebranding is brought to a screeching halt.
This tale really began in 2003, when the Gaddafi regime, seeking to end an annoying economic boycott, gave its solemn word to swear off terrorism forever, cease dabbling in nuclear technology, pay compensation for the 1988 Pan Am 103/Lockerbie bombing, and “accept responsibility for the actions of its officials,” whatever that meant.
Not surprisingly, given Gaddafi’s horrific track record, most ordinary Westerners, not to mention the hard-pressed Libyan opposition, were deeply skeptical.
But Western leaders and policy experts were curiously much more receptive to Libya’s extraordinary effort to upgrade its image from “terror camp” to “the West’s best new pragmatic partner in the Middle East.”
Indeed, it turned out to be a very fertile time for this kind of rebranding effort.
First, even though Libya’s U-turn had largely been motivated by economic self-interest, George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Silvio Berlusconi welcomed it as a badly-needed victory in the “war on terror.” Berlusconi and Blair even flew directly to Tripoli to welcome the “reborn” Gaddafi back into the community of nations.
Nor, in the US, was the welcome committee just limited to Republicans. In July 2008, Democrats Carl Levin and (now Vice President) Joe Biden played a key role in guiding S.1330 through the US Senate.
This scurrilous bill, signed into law by President Bush, controversially granted Gaddafi complete legal immunity for the Lockerbie bombing, so long as he paid a (rather paltry) agreed-upon sum to the victims’ families.
Second, Libya’s U-turn opened the door to a whole bevy of Holy-Water merchants and academic medicine men. These instant Libyan “experts” were eager to offer Gaddafi not only absolution, but also their very latest pet theories about everything from “competitive clusters” and “strong democracy” to “the Third Way.”
They were also eager to see such theories tested out in Gaddafi’s living laboratory — especially if the dictator was willing to subsidize the clinical trials. Not since Boris Yeltsin, General Suharto, and General Pinochet have neoliberal academics had such a golden opportunity to test their theories on real live human subjects at country scale.
Third, to a large extent mainly for PR purposes, Western experts also made much of their opportunity to “dialogue” in person with real live Libyans. Well, perhaps not so much with the nascent opposition, which was mainly abroad, in hiding, in jail, or dead.
Of course, according to Gaddafi & Sons, confirmed by US intelligence officials like John Negroponte – who got much of his
info about Libya from his brother, who got it from Gaddafi & Sons (see below) – the Libyan opposition consisted of radical “al Qaeda” sympathizers or the members of “dissident tribes” in Libya’s supposedly “very tribal” society, anyway.
Their received image of Libya was curiously similar to the self-image that South Africa’s apartheid regime used to project – a deeply “tribal” society that required strong-armed rule to preserve it from the radical horde at the gates.
In any case, Western experts were generally quite happy to take the Gaddafis’ word — and his moolah – for all this, and to participate in hoary one-sided “dialogues” with Brother Leader Muammar himself whenever he was able to spare the time.
This delighted Brother Leader, not only because of his passionate interest in political theory, but also because it meant that prominent Western expert after expert would be flying thousands of miles to Tripoli and back just to help him flaunt his wares on Libyan State TV and lend him respectability.
Ultimately, the fact was that Gaddafi had all these neoliberal academics pegged to the tee. He understood from the start that the neoliberal academic policy maker’s wet dream – the absolute dictator, able to test pet theories on command, without any need for messy democratic processes.
Indeed, his power was so complete that Gaddafi did not even bother to give himself a formal title.
From 2004 on, therefore, Tripoli became a kind of alternative, secular Mecca for a veritable “Who’s Who” of leading Western intelligentsia. Among the key interlocutors were Professor Porter; Cambridge University/LSE’s “Baron” Anthony Giddens and George Joffe; LSE’s Director Sir Howard Davies (now resigned), and Professor David Held, its leading expert on “globalization;” and Monitor Group’s Rajeev Singh Molares (now at Alcatel), Mark Fuller (recently resigned as its Chair), and Bruce J. Allyn (formerly the head of Monitor’s Moscow office).
Others who tagged along for the camel ride included Ann-Marie Slaughter, Dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School; Princeton Professors Bernard Lewis and Andrew Moravcsik; the insidious neo-con Richard Perle (2 visits); MIT Professor Emeritus Nicholas Negroponte (several visits), brother of US DNI John Negroponte.
and the former head of the MIT Media Labs, who was very eager to get Libyan funding for his ill-fated pet “One Laptop Per Child” project; a flurry of other Harvard profs, including the Kennedy School’s Robert Putnam, Joseph Nye, and Marshall Ganz, an organizer-guru who became involved in another tidy little dictatorship, Syria; and Johns Hopkins’ “end of history” champion Francis Fukuyama, who made history himself by pulling down a record $80,000 for a single audience with Brother Leader.
Nor were journalists entirely immune from the attractions of the Libyan honeypot. Here, the Monitor ringmasters also went for high-profile celebrities, including Al Jazeera’s David Frost, who collected $91,429 for a single visit. They also nearly recruited several others before the project got terminated. One Monitor project memo reports, for example, that:
“Monitor approached (Fareed) Zakaria who said that he is very interested in travelling to Libya in order to meet with the Leader….Monitor also approached ( the New York Times’ Thomas) Friedman who said that he was interested in travelling to Libya at some point in the future.”
Collectively the academics, the consultants, and their minions made dozens of such Gaddafi-tour site visits, logging tens of thousands of First Class miles and receiving millions of dollars in fees to commune about the “New Libya” – all the while helping to launder the regime’s blood-stained image.
This activity seems to have gone far beyond simply helping Libya to restructure its economy and political system along more open, competitive lines. Indeed, it is now clear that the regime probably never seriously intended any meaningful reforms, but was mainly trying to curry influence and favors. The experts’ task list included such dubious activities as ghost-writing Saif Gaddafi’s PhD thesis; helping to design a “national security agency” for Libya (!), quite probably with inputs from folks like the Negropontes and Richard Dearlove, the Monitor “senior advisor” who ran the UK’s MI6 from 1999 to 2004; offering to ghost-write a puffed-up version of Brother Leader’s collected works; and, all along, orchestrating a flurry of favorable press coverage in influential papers like the Washingon Post, the New York Times, the International Herald, and the Guardian.
All of this was done without without ever bothering (until this Spring, in the case of Monitor) to register as what many of these folks truly turned out to be: foreign agents of the Government of Libya.
There are many glaring examples of outright shilling for the Gaddafis by these brown-nosing academic and consulting mercenaries, but a handful captures the essential odor.
One good example is Baron LSE Professor Emeritus Anthony Gidden’s bold March 2007 speculation in the UK’s Guardian newspaper that Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya might soon turn out to be “the Norway of North Africa.” The piece mentioned Lord Giddens’ impressive academic credentials, but it neglected to mention the fact that he had received $67,000 in fees from Libya, plus First Class round-trip travel expenses for at least two hajjs to visit with Brother Leader and his staff in Tripoli.
Another example is Rutgers Professor Emeritus Ben Barber’s even more wildly enthusiastic August 2007 Washington Post endorsement of the “surprisingly flexible and pragmatic” Gaddafi and his “gifted son Saif.” Of course Saif is much more familiar to the rest of us now for his blood-curdling “rivers of blood” speech on February 20, 2011, which contributed mightily to the subsequent polarization and bloodshed.
Professor Barber’s piece reminded his readers that he was a best-selling author and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the think-tank Demos. But it neglected to mention the fact that he’d also made multiple all-expense-paid trips to Tripoli, for which he’d been paid at least $100,000 in fees by the Libyan Government.
A third example is HBS Professor Michael E. Porter’s February 23 2007 Business Week interview, in which he reported that he had “taken on” a consulting project in Libya, as if this were some kind of beneficent act. Gaddafi, he maintained with a straight face, wasn’t really a dictator after all: “In a sense, decision-making is widely distributed in (Libya). People [consider Libya] a dictatorship, but it really doesn’t work that way. That is another reason for optimism.” (Emphasis added).
Prof. Porter neglected to mention the fact that he and Monitor Group, the Cambridge consulting firm that he, plus HBS grads Joe Fuller and Mark Fuller, had founded in the early 1980s, were not only earning several million dollars for their Libyan strategy work, but were also up to their proverbial eyeballs in a second multi-million dollar PR project to bolster Gaddafi’s image.
All this salacious material is interesting. But did it really have any harmful impacts on Libya? Or is all this mere second-guessing and caviling?
The answer is that this kind of orchestrated academic air-brushing of the Gaddafi regime by leading Western consultants and academics was indeed not only enormously harmful to the interests of most Libyans, but also that these negative impacts were entirely foreseeable – and, indeed, were anticipated by many critics who had the same intuitive reaction as Roger Kline.
- First, in hindsight, all the academic air-brushing helped to conceal the fact that the Gaddafi regime was enormously unpopular with its own people – that the opposition was broad based, that high-level corruption was rife, and that the “tribal”/al Qaeda paradigm of the Libyan opposition was simplistic and dangerously misleading, not to mention self-serving for the Gaddafi clan.
- Second, the academic air-brushing also contributed to the misleading view that “reforming” Libya was mainly just a technocratic exercise for the insider-elite and their Western advisors, to which fundamental political matters like elections, rights, the rule of law, and genuine popular representation could take a back seat.
- Third, the bevy of big-name Western intellectuals and consultants who courted the Gaddafis not only inflated their egos even larger than they already were, but also encouraged them to believe that they could easily buy influence, as well as arms, in the West.
So, in the waning hours of the Gaddafi regime, it is important for us to recall that Brother Leader and his band of thugs did not simply become a menace to Libya’s people and the world on their own.
Nor was his particular brand of madness simply due to the “usual suspects:” anti-Western radicalism and liberation ideology, his own imperialistic ambitions in Africa, his idiosyncratic version of political Islam, or even too much time spent frolicking in the desert sun with Ukrainian nurses.
No – while Gaddafi’s buddies in Venezuela still portray him as a stalwart opponent of Western imperialism, the fact is that in recent years he actually continued to increase his power and influence in the West only with the really quite extraordinary assistance of quite a few prominent, high-priced, incredibly smart, but ultimately rather gullible Western “friends.”