How academia protects intellectual independence

March 25, 2011

In News

Thu Mar. 3, 2011 1:01 AM PST

In February 2007 Harvard professor Joseph Nye Jr., who developed the concept of "soft power," visited Libya and sipped tea for three hours with Muammar Qaddafi. Months later, he penned an elegant description of the chat for The New Republic, reporting that Qaddafi had been interested in discussing "direct democracy." Nye noted that "there is no doubt that" the Libyan autocrat "acts differently on the world stage today than he did in decades past. And the fact that he took so much time to discuss ideas—including soft power—with a visiting professor suggests that he is actively seeking a new strategy." The article struck a hopeful tone: that there was a new Qaddafi. It also noted that Nye had gone to Libya "at the invitation of the Monitor Group, a consulting company that is helping Libya open itself to the global economy."

Nye did not disclose all. He had actually traveled to Tripoli as a paid consultant of the Monitor Group (a relationship he disclosed in an email to Mother Jones), and the firm was working under a $3 million-per-year contract with Libya. Monitor, a Boston-based consulting firm with ties to the Harvard Business School, had been retained, according to internal documents obtained by a Libyan dissident group, not to promote economic development, but "to enhance the profile of Libya and Muammar Qadhafi." So The New Republic published an article sympathetic to Qaddafi that had been written by a prominent American intellectual paid by a firm that was being compensated by Libya to burnish the dictator’s image.

Presumably, Nye was sharing his independently derived view of Qaddafi. Yet a source familiar with the Harvard professor’s original submission to the magazine notes, "It took considerable prodding from editors to get him to reluctantly acknowledge the regime’s very well-known dark side." And Franklin Foer, then the editor of the magazine, says, "If we had known that he was consulting for a firm paid by the government, we wouldn’t have run the piece." (After an inquiry by Mother JonesThe New Republic added a disclaimer to the Nye story acknowledging the details of Nye’s relationship with Monitor.)*

"Did I realize that I was working within an autocratic regime and the odds of making change were low? Yes."

The Nye article was but one PR coup the Monitor Group delivered for Qaddafi. But the firm also succeeded on other fronts. The two chief goals of the project, according to an internal document describing Monitor’s Libya operations, were to produce a makeover for Libya and to introduce Qaddafi "as a thinker and intellectual, independent of his more widely-known and very public persona as the Leader of the Revolution in Libya." In a July 3, 2006, letter to its contact in the Libyan government, Mark Fuller, the CEO of Monitor, and Rajeev Singh-Molares, a director of the firm, wrote,

Libya has suffered from a deficit of positive public relations and adequate contact with a wide range of opnion-leaders and contemporary thinkers. This program aims to redress the balance in Libya’s favor.

The key strategy for achieving these aims, the operation summary said, "involves introducing to Libya important international figures that will influence other nations’ policies towards the country." Also on the table, according to a Monitor document, was a book that Monitor would produce on "Qadhafi, the Man and His Ideas," based in part on interviews between the Libyan dictator and these visiting international influentials. The book supposedly would "enable the international intellectual and policy-making elite to understand Qadhafi as an individual thinker rather than leader of a state." (Monitor’s fee for this particular task: $1.65 million.) This volume never materialized. But one primary outcome of Monitor’s pro-Qaddafi endeavors, the operation summary said, was an increase in media coverage "broadly positive and increasingly sensitive to the Libyan point of view." 

It worked: Several thought-leaders were brought to Libya by Monitor to chat with the Leader—including neoconservative Richard Perle (who then briefed Vice President Dick Cheney on his visits), political economist Francis Fukuyama, and conservative scholar Bernard Lewis (who briefed the US embassy in Israel on his trip)—and a few of the "visitors," as Monitor referred to them, did write mostly positive articles, without revealing they had been part of the Monitor Group’s endeavor to clean up Qaddafi. Some might not have even known they had been recruited for an image rehabilitation reffort.

In 2006 and 2007, Benjamin Barber, an author specializing in democracy studies and a senior fellow at Demos, a pro-democracy think tank, took three trips to Libya as a paid consultant to Monitor. On these visits, Barber met with Libyan lawyers, officials, and activists interested in democratic reform—and Qaddafi, too. "We went," he says, "in the hope we might be able to reinforce elements inside Libya interested in change, looking to engage civil society and create a foundation for a movement." Barber served on the international advisory board of Qaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, which was overseen by Saif Qaddafi, the second-eldest son of the Libyan dictator, who supported the foundation’s work on human rights and democracy-promotion projects and who seemed a reformist himself (until last month, when he sided with his father in declaring war on the protesters). "Did I realize that I was working within an autocratic regime and the odds of making change were low?" Barber remarks. "Yes."

After this piece was posted, Nye complained to Foer about Foer’s characterization of Nye’s disclosure. Following that, Foer submitted this statement to Mother Jones:

Joseph Nye has just found the draft of the piece he submitted to TheNew Republic. In that draft he wrote, "I was in Libya at the invitation of a former Harvard colleague who works for the Monitor Group, a consulting company which has undertaken to help Libya open itself to the global economy. Part of that process is meeting with a variety of Western experts whom Monitor hires as consultants." Based on that information, TNRshould have prodded him to include a more explicit disclosure in the final version of his piece. Re-reading that draft, it’s clear that my quote to you was far too categorical. 

In an email to Mother Jones, Nye wrote,

I answered your questions honestly about whether I had been paid by Monitor, but you then wrote something different that was not true. You…accepted one source about whether I told TNR that I had been paid by Monitor without checking back with me. I attach the July [2007] draft of the article that I submitted to TNR. You will see that on line 9 I said that the consultants had been "hired" by Monitor. Hired means paid.

Nye did include a reference to paid consultants in his original draft, but this was not a clear statement that he had been paid directly by Monitor—and it certainly wasn’t a disclosure that he had been paid as part of a Monitor project designed to clean up Qaddafi’s image.Moreover, according to TNR editors, Nye didn’t object to the final version of The New Republic piece, which, after extensive editing, no longer included a mention of Monitor paying outside consultants to engage in "meetings" in Libya. Asked whether he had objected to the final version, Nye told Mother Jones, "All I know is that I alerted them that I was paid."

Barber says he believed that the main aim of the Monitor Group’s Libya project was to stir reform there—trying to "turn Libya from a rogue state into a better state." He was encouraged by small steps he saw in the country. And in August 2007, Barber wrote an op-ed for TheWashington Post, noting that Libya had finally released five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who each had been condemned to death for allegedly infecting children in a Libyan hospital with HIV. In the article—headlined "Gaddafi’s Libya: An Ally for America?"—Barber wrote that his one-on-one conversations with Qaddafi had convinced him that the Libyan leader had arranged for their release to show his desire for "a genuine rapprochement with the United States."

"Libya," Barber noted, "under Gaddafi has embarked on a journey that could make it the first Arab state to transition peacefully and without overt Western intervention to a stable, non-autocratic government." He reported that Qaddafi, whom the United States and other governments had identified as a possible ally in the war against Al Qaeda, had been "holding open conversations" with Western intellectuals.

But Barber did not mention in the Post piece that he himself had been a paid consultant for the Monitor Group. Was this an oversight? "I don’t think so," Barber says, adding that he assumed he was on the payroll to help Monitor promote reform in Libya, not sell Qaddafi in the United States. (According to a blog post he wrote for the Huffington Post on February 22, Barber and all the members of the international advisory board of the Qaddafi Foundation resigned in response to the Qaddafi’s regime’s violent reaction to the uprising in Libya.)

Other intellectuals squired to Libya by Monitor also chronicled their experiences in articles that bolstered the notion—for which there was a true basis at the time—that Qaddafi was heading in a positive direction. After being escorted to Libya by Monitor in 2007, Princeton University professor Andrew Moravcsik (who did not meet with the Libyan leader) contributed a long article to Newsweek International—"A Rogue Reforms"—that concluded, "Kaddafi may have no desire to surrender power himself—but he has come to see that embracing modernization and globalization is the best way to assure his survival. Thus the historical irony: after three decades of isolation, Libya may be emerging as the West’s best hope in the turbulent Middle East." Asked about his trip to Libya and his relationship with Monitor—and whether he should have disclosed any connection in the Newsweek article—Moravcsik initially refused to comment; a spokeswoman for him said, "He is not available to discuss this issue." But this spokeswoman subsequently said that Moravcsik was not paid by the Monitor Group.

Anthony Giddens, a leading British intellectual, made two Monitor-guided trips to Libya in 2007. According to Monitor documents, he published two articles about Libya after each trip. In one of those pieces—"My chat with the colonel," posted by The Guardian—Giddens noted, "As one-party states go, Libya is not especially repressive. Gadafy seems genuinely popular." He observed, "Will real progress be possible only when Gadafy leaves the scene? I tend to think the opposite. If he is sincere in wanting change, as I think he is, he could play a role in muting conflict that might otherwise arise as modernisation takes hold." The article did not mention the Monitor Group. (A Monitor document notes, "Giddens regularly plays tennis with George Soros, and they are known to have discussed Libya a number of times.") Giddens did not respond to an email request for comment.

Harvard professor Robert Putnam also traveled to Libya in 2007 under the auspices of the Monitor Group and spent several hours with Qaddafi in his tent in the desert. He, too, wrote about this experience—but not until last week, after the Libyan uprising had begun. In anarticle for The Wall Street Journal—"With Libya’s Megalomaniac ‘Philosopher King’"—Putnam disclosed that "an international consulting firm that was advising the Libyan government on economic and political reform" had asked whether he would go to Libya and discuss his research on civil society and democracy with Qaddafi. He noted that "my hosts were willing to pay my standard consulting fee." In Libya, Putnam recounted, he spent two hours talking political philosophy with Qaddafi, who dismissed Putnam’s celebration of civic groups and freedom of association, noting that adopting any of this in Libya could cause profound disunity.

Putnam wrote,

Was this a serious conversation or an elaborate farce? Naturally, I came away thinking—hoping—that I had managed to sway Col. Gadhafi in some small way, but my wife was skeptical. Two months later I was invited back to a public roundtable in Libya, but by then I had concluded that the whole exercise was a public-relations stunt, and I declined.

In a statement, Monitor contends that its Libya project, which ended in 2008, "focused on helping the Libyan people work towards an improved economy and more open governmental institutions" and "was undertaken during a period that was widely perceived as holding meaningful potential for reform within, and new opportunity for, Libya." Indeed, at that point, a measure of reform in Libya appeared possible. But, according to Monitor’s agreement with Libya, its project was more about peddling Qaddafi overseas than pitching reform to Qaddafi. Were Monitor officials slyly using the opportunity to enhance Qaddafi’s image as a chance to promote change within his autocratic regime? (Or is that too charitable?) Monitor did not reply to questions from Mother Jones about its intentions in Libya, about its payments to consultants, or about the various articles that were written by the academics it brought to Tripoli.

"We do not discuss specifics of our work with any client," the Monitor statement says. "That said, we are deeply distressed and saddened to witness the current tragic events in Libya." The group did not say whether it regretted mounting, on behalf a brutal dictator who proved to be no reformer, a behind-the-scenes PR campaign that snared prominent intellectuals hoping for the best in Libya.

David Corn is Mother Jones’ Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He’s also on Twitter and Facebook. Get David Corn’s RSS feed.

Siddhartha Mahanta is an editorial fellow at Mother Jones. Got story ideas? Email him at smahanta (at) motherjones (dot) com. For more of his stories, click here. Get Siddhartha Mahanta’s RSS feed.