You 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 connected themes, all of which appeal, once again, to the purported political realism of befriending Saif Gaddafi and the corresponding idealism and naivety of opposing such benevolent stewardship.
First, the attacks on the fortunate son have been “overwrought”, and have materially endangered the chances of peace by pissing him off. Second, Saif remains “a man divided, torn between years of work on behalf of genuine reform that at times put him at risk”, and thus still open to our charms. Third, he is even now working for civil society and democracy, pressuring his father to release journalists and in effect continuing the work of his foundation as a fifth column within the regime. Yes, Saif has been naughty (I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed), but his intentions are still at least partly good, and failure to achieve a better Libya through a rapprochement with him ultimately condemns we who would rather cling to the saddle of our high-horse than descend into the messy realities of progress.
The riposte is bold, and at least has the merit of maintaining the original analysis, no matter how much short-term developments may seem to degrade it. But the rationalisation, wrapped in what Anthony Barnett so aptly characterises as a ‘cult of sincerity’, falls somewhat short. The central meme, repeated by David Held, represents Saif Gaddafi as an enforcer-cum-reformer of near schizophrenic proportions. While it is (now) readily admitted that he is personally responsible for human wrongs, it also becomes necessary to insist on his internal, and magnificently cloaked, commitment to human rights. This may work for those who knew him personally and remain invested in his personal quirks and charms, but can hardly stand as a recommendation for his role as good faith mediator. As Barber himself argues (with a different intent and a suspect logic) if Saif is both revolution and reaction then he is also neither, and therefore a cipher for the projection of political fantasies.
These justifications repeat binaries of politics/morality and realism/idealism in dismissing critics (we were engaged in a calculated politics while you luxuriate in abstract ethics). Yet they also almost attempt, ham-fisted and inchoate, to escape them. After all, the defence is not that Saif is merely our bastard. Nor is it that he is a true rebel son, prepared to overthrow not only the personal dynamic of filial submission but also the political fatherhood of little green books, torture prisons and outré couture. He is said to be both, flickering and indistinct, as if this commends him. As if he can only change things because he is the natural heir of the old order. He moves between our worlds, you see. A Venn-diagrammed endorsement.
Moreover, this defence seems in thrall to a certain generosity of interpretation. We might take Barber or Held on trust, but what identifiable actions could confirm or refute their hopes? Barber provides no concrete details of Saif’s good offices, so I assume he is referring to the release of four New York Times journalists early on in the propaganda war. Yet even on Saif’s own account, this was hardly a move derived from universal principles, still less an indication of imminent negotiations. Apart from the fact that the release was the preamble to the Amanpour interview, he repeated that the Benghazi rebels are “terrorists”, “gangsters” and worse, and further explained that the journalists had been released only because they were Americans.
And yet Reporters Without Borders continue to document the disappearing of journalists of all stripes. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, the Guardian correspondent inconvenienced for only two weeks in a Libyan prison, reports that beatings and interrogations were the norm. Just today, Human Rights Watch released a list of journalists who remain missing. They also say that they spoke with Saif’s personal assistant (and those of his father and brother) on 7 April and were assured that the journalists in question were not only safe, but were to be released “soon”. As of writing, there is no further information as to their whereabouts or safety.
It may seem churlish to castigate Saif on these fronts. Caught between the sniping of an ingénue Western intelligentsia and the day-to-day travails of military logistics, he may not have had the time to secure these particular, minimal, freedoms. But perhaps we can suggest the following. If Saif cannot even live up to this thin and dubious defence of his present actions, if he cannot take the broadest of steps in protection of the free press and international civil society he has so publicly celebrated, then his capacity for securing meaningful reform has, to put it mildly, been hideously overstated. To go further, and endorse him as a kind of unity candidate and honest broker, seems obscene. He is either a central player, and hence irredeemably complicit in a project of militarised power consolidation, or he is a marginal and relatively powerless figure, and hence of little use except as a suitably ‘Westernised’ mouthpiece.
It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for him, having to carry the weight of so many contradictory expectations. But John Keane’s question bears repetition. Whatever happened to transnational activism alongside those marginalised, exiled and repressed by their governments? Why are those deemed worth talking to so firmly within the regimes they are expected to overthrow? Why must the whole process of academic engagement be lubricated with free trips and stuffed envelopes? And how is it that acts so readily interpretable as the covering actions for garden-variety personal interest are so easily taken up into a narrative of personal integrity and (continually deferred) democratic transformation? The academic fall-out from this particular connection has been appropriately bitter, but this remains one of the key questions transcending the Libyan moment.
The other one regards the character and future of relations between the academy and concentrations of state power. And lo!, Private Eye this week turns the knife some more on the LSE. Their accusations are strong ones, and the school’s fire-fighting response does not yet seem to have addressed them. The Eye has seen internal documents which it claims reveal the North Africa Research Programme is compromised in intellectual terms as well as financial ones. Its planning documents explain the development of research activities “in consultation” with Saif himself and with “experts” (the only expert actually named being a senior adviser to the regime itself). Dr Alia Brahimi (now rather silent on her previously warm relations with Saif) is also said to have offered generous cash incentives for academics willing to write papers on Libya, apparently for academic journals (£5,000 for a 5-6,000 word policy brief; £10,000 for longer works, since you asked), all (allegedly) intended as the primer for a conference on ‘political reform’ to further buttress Colonel Gaddafi’s international prestige.
This is a difficulty for those in favour of a direct political role for academics in democratic reform, however much Benjamin Barber may have mangled their case. Academics from across the spectrum are bound to spring to the defence of academic integrity, and to draw the line at any influence over what is actually studied and how. This has indeed been the central justification for accepting the initial Gaddafi gift, since it was claimed that “no academic constraints” were involved. But this line in the intellectual sand is surely at odds with the case for constructive engagement. If the fate of nations is truly in the balance, if the sniping of academics can genuinely shift the likelihood of ceasefires, if personal study sessions with despotic offspring can really incubate and foster a belief in democratic polities, then what would a few compromises on scholarly rigour matter? What is the replicability of statistical results next to the manifestation of liberty?
I wonder how it is that Barber and Held, in their articulateness and knowledge and commitment, are able to write about Libya in a way that makes the personal struggles and tribulations of Saif Gaddafi the central topic of conversation and the predominant cause of concern. It rather fills the mouth with bile. But it would seem that this response is precisely that which the new democratic realpolitikers wish to reject in the name of a more important project. The real question thus becomes how we could adjure the opportunity to intervene in the world and mould it to our ends. What standards, after all, should be allowed to restrict emancipatory openings, even personally lucrative ones?
Such are the wages of ‘realism’.