March 25, 2011
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.
"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.
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.