The Qaddafi Controversy

29 Mar

Saif Gaddafi (PhD, LSE, 2008) has lost a lot of friends recently. Even Mariah Carey is embarrassed by him now. The institution to which I have some personal and professional attachment is implicated in a number of intellectual crimes and misdemeanours, as may be a swathe of research on democracy itself. Investigations are under way, by bodies both official and unofficial. All of this now feels faintly old-hat (how much has happened in the last month?), even rather distasteful given the high politics and national destinies currently in the balance. So let the defence be pre-emptive: the academy has political uses, and those with some stake in it need feel no shame in discussing that. If crises are to be opportunities, let us at least attempt to respond to them with clarity and coherence. After all, our efforts are much more likely to matter here than in self-serving postures as the shapers of global destiny.

Saif’s academic predicament is both a substantive issue in its own right and a symptom. As substance, there is now a conversation of sorts around complicity and blame. Over the last weeks, David Held has appealed for calm and attempted a fuller justification of his mentorship (Held was not the thesis supervisor and Saif was not even a research student in his Department at the time, although he, um, “met with him every two or three months, sometimes more frequently, as I would with any PhD student who came to me for advice”). Most fundamentally, it was not naivety but a cautious realism based on material evidence that led a pre-eminent theorist of democracy to enter into what we could not unreasonably call ‘constructive engagement’. [1]

Held characterises the resistance of Fred Halliday to all this as reflecting his view that “in essence, [Saif] was always just a Gaddafi”, which of course makes him sound like someone in thrall to a geneticist theory of dictatorship. The actual objection was somewhat more measured, and, if only ‘in retrospect’, entirely astute:

While it is formally the case that the QF [Qaddafi Foundation] is not part of the Libyan state, and is registered in Switzerland as an NGO, this is, in all practical senses, a legal fiction. The monies paid into the QF come from foreign businesses wishing to do business, i.e. receive contracts, for work in Libya, most evidently in the oil and gas industries. These monies are, in effect, a form of down payment, indeed of taxation, paid to the Libyan state, in anticipation of the award of contracts. The funds of the QF are, for this reason, to all intents and purposes, part of the Libyan state budget. ‘NGO status’, and recognition of such by UN bodies, means, in real terms, absolutely nothing. Mention has been made, in verbal and written submissions to the School and in correspondence to myself, of the membership of the QF’s advisory board: a somewhat closer examination of the most prominent politicians involved, and of their reputations and business dealings, should also give cause for some concern…
…Perhaps part of the problem here is a misunderstanding by colleagues of the role of the ‘liberal’ wing within such states. It is not a question of whether or not they are ‘sincere’ – they may well be – but of what their function is: in Libya, as in such states as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran the primary function of such liberal elements is not to produce change, but to reach compromises with internal hard-liners that serve to lessen external pressure. So it has been, since 2002, with the various Libyan initiatives affecting LSE and the UK/US foreign policy establishment in general.

Of course, Halliday did not make these objections in retrospect, but in foresight. They were detailed, they were informed by a familiarity with the region others lacked, they were firm in their conclusion, and they came from someone willing to endorse other donations from unpleasant people. Don’t do it. That should take care of the defence from ignorance.

More troubling is the defence from good intentions. Despite the warnings, engagement seemed like it may yield fruits, and who in 2011 can sit in judgement of decisions taken in 2009 without tempting the smug fates? Enter our old friend, the rhetoric of ‘realism’. Surely only the most closeted academic could object to activism and outreach by those who study matters as essential to social progress as the character of self-determination. And so, by a strange trick of the light, a path of manifest failure is converted into one not only of decent motivation, but also of unimpeachable reasonableness and adjustment to the true nature of things.

There is a difficulty here in differentiating between two possible articulations of the defence from good intentions. On the one hand, a claim that academics promoting dialogue with Gaddafi were saying what they really thought (which was that Saif was a good egg and would deliver the goods). And on the other, a claim that they engaged in some light double-speak (Libya as the next Norway!) for decent political ends. The trouble is that the first option only takes us back to the charge of naivety and the second indicates something more sinister. As Mother Jones argued back when the story broke, that Joseph Nye (thanked in Saif’s thesis intro) visited Libya at the invitation and expense of the regime-at-one-remove at the very least allows for the appearance of impropriety since it “means The New Republic published an article sympathetic to Qaddafi written by a notable academic on the payroll of a company hired by Qaddafi to boost his standing in the United States”.

Under this interpretation academics were not so much engaged in honest and open intellectual exchange with all comers, but rather playing politics. Participating in however minor a way in dissimulation and strategic prostration. Much scorn has been piled on John Keane’s renewed questioning of Held, but at least one of his points demands some kind of response: why is ‘engagement’ always with the elites who have an obvious interest in using academics and well-heeled democrats to cover the tracks of their power? Why is ‘stay away from the dissidents’ such a frequently observed rule of engagement? If we are to believe that the relationship had nothing to do with the money, nothing to do with the fully-paid trips to Tripoli, nothing to do with access to power for other purposes than undoing a dictatorship, then what was it that led to such fulsome identification with the people at the top of the blood-soaked palace?

To witness academics deferring to ‘Brother Leader’ and engage in the euphemism of ‘world’s longest-serving leader’ is to invite the effects of Ipecac. Diplomats, at least, have a ready-made cover for such activities. Virtuous men sent abroad to lie for their countries. Are the tentacles of impact now so bold as to recruit Lord Professors for the conduct of foreign policy? Well-meaning scholars sent abroad to lie for democracy, perhaps? Questions quickly spiral. What could be the limit of such activities? What bodies, convened under what principles, could regulate and oversee such engagement? What are the relevant metrics and cost-benefit ratios?

But what of Saif as symptom? In the minimal sense, it is of course right to say that this cannot just be about LSE, that there were pressures at play from outside the academy and that plenty of others were also taken in. Indeed, it turns out that some traditional villains (Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, Francis Fukuyama, Bernard Lewis) have rather more to answer for than David Held. Moreover, although no one paid much attention at the time, it is worth underlining that the UK government regarded the Gaddafi Foundation as the appropriate body for discerning whether or not individuals renditioned to Libya were being tortured or not. The functional stupidity of it all! But academics now also speak of witch-hunts against them. This is misplaced hyperbole. It is unsurprising to find The Daily Mail indulging itself, but this doesn’t mean there isn’t a case to answer and a wider set of complicities to challenge and resist. We may not all be guilty, but we should all be alert.

When Meghnad Desai defended his own oversight, he invoked two other claims about realism: “An urban university that aspires to be one of the best in the world cannot sustain a research programme by relying on public funds alone” and “Rockefeller was a robber baron once, but we take his money”. Quite. The principle danger of the Gaddafi controversy is that it encourages an externalisation of an endemic crisis. By positing a single bad guy (Gaddafi-Libya) and a single institution (LSE), we allow the fiction that problems end with this single decision. The resignation of Howard Davies sutures the wound.

But the Gaddafi donation was not that horrific an exception. By many standards of contemporary academic practice it was ideal. The cash was from a charity, it was for work on democracy, it came with no explicit academic strings, it was from a regime the UK government looked on increasingly favourably, it opened doors to all kinds of powerful players, and, alongside the contract to train officials, it would most certainly have an identifiable ‘impact’. Which is why Fred Halliday’s stubbornness was so frustrating and ineffectual before a body convened to advance the standing of the LSE as a global player in what David Held so tellingly refers to as “the business of ideas“.

The challenge for both critics and over-defensive academics is to articulate principles and strategies of reform that might move us away from this kind of bargain. The university has to reproduce itself somehow, especially if academics will increasingly require special funding to buy them real research time outside of a cycle of intensive teaching and annual undercooked research papers. Monies may come less frequently from North African dictatorships (perhaps there will be none left to ‘reform’) but producing R&D value for BAE Systems is just as problematic. The persistent underfunding of UK higher education was pushing far-sighted academics-cum-CEOs into a Gaddafi Foundation logic long before the latest series of reformations. These associations (and there are many of them) make academics uncomfortable and are the stuff of office gossip and despair.

So what is to be done? In the long term, there seems no substitute for vigorous and engaged activity by academics of principle to make the case for as independent sources of funding as possible. The case of Gaddifi on the Aldwych can and should be used as an example of what can happen if research institutions are incentivised to chase pennies. And small acts of resistance are, after all, also possible. Saif wanted a PhD in International Relations and he wanted to do it with Fred Halliday. He was turned away. Moreover, models for increased workers control exist. The jewels in the crown of global knowledge already have their own bodies representing academics in governance (although I have no idea how well they work in practice). Others are discovering that their universities too have similar, if forgotten, statutes. In the absence of a more fundamental reassessment of funding, such bodies will not be able to end dodgy financial connections without signing their own suicide notes, but they will at least promote a degree of oversight and critical assessment of, we might even say ‘constructive engagement’ with, the emergent academic-financial-political complex.

p.s. A man of such articulateness (did he talk like this in the viva, I wonder?).


[1] The analogy with Reaganite-Thatcherite policy towards apartheid South Africa may seem heavy-handed but, so far as I can see, the content of the arguments are entirely the same, namely that accommodation to, and discussion with, elements of a ruling regime can deliver positive results and is to be preferred to an ‘idealistic’ but ineffectual posture of defiance or open opposition.


UPDATE (31 March): Anthony Barnett has written a further commentary on Halliday and Held, along the way introducing the apt phrase ‘cult of sincerity’ to skewer Held’s self-defence on these matters.

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2 Responses to “The Qaddafi Controversy”

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  1. The Qaddafi Controversy, Regurgitated « The Disorder Of Things - April 15, 2011

    [...] might have thought that the realities of muscular interventionism in Libya had by now trumped the apologetics of constructive engagement. But Benjamin Barber has other ideas. His counter-attack to the nay-sayers deploys several [...]

  2. The Poisonous Drivel of Dr Denis MacShane MP « The Disorder Of Things - May 21, 2011

    [...] May LSE-bashing is certainly in vogue. Following the travesties of GaddafiGate, some are eager to find further fault. Enter the Rt Hon  Dr Denis MacShane MP (PhD [...]

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