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Western public intellectuals have a bad habit of supporting unsavory regimes like Muammar Qaddafi’s not for money or intellectual rigor but because of vanity

Lee Smith
March 23, 2011
The wreckage of a U.S. F-15 fighter jet in Ghot Sultan, Libya, Tuesday.(Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)
The wreckage of a U.S. F-15 fighter jet in Ghot Sultan, Libya, Tuesday.(Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)

Contrary to President Barack Obama’s remarks, the European and American bombs that are falling on positions held by Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s forces in Libya do not herald a war of humanitarian intervention. No one really knows who the Libyan rebels are. These are not the peaceful men and women of Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution. They are not even like the members of the Muslim Brotherhood who will likely come out of Egypt’s uprising as the biggest winners. Some of them appear to be the same Islamic militants who made their way into Iraq to kill American soldiers and who are now being encouraged to fight by senior al-Qaida field commander Abu Yahya al-Libi. Even weirder, champions of this war are members of the same Western intellectual class who appeared to be in love with the nutty Libyan dictator only a few months ago.

The Obama Administration was compelled to join its European allies in going against Qaddafi, but what forced the Europeans to act were the scandals surrounding the British academic institutions—like Leeds University, Glasgow University, the School of Oriental and African Studies, King’s College London, and the London School of Economics—who’d enjoyed unseemly ties with Qaddafi. Most famously, Howard Davies was compelled to resign this month as director of the LSE, to which Qaddafi’s International Charity and Development Foundation donated £1.5 million (about $2.5 million), and which admitted to its doctoral program his son Saif al-Islam, now best known not for his academic endeavors, or even his expensive suits, but for exhorting his allies to “fight to the last man, until the last bullet” in a rambling speech that more closely recalled his father’s tirades than polite London dinner-party chatter.

These highly publicized scandals would make it very difficult for European governments to continue to deal with Qaddafi now that he has turned his country into a war zone. But the main problem for British Prime Minister David Cameron is that, as we recall from the recent spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the United Kingdom’s pension fund is tied to its BP portfolio, and BP has extensive deals with the Libyans. In other words, it is a vital British interest to get rid of Qaddafi, at the very least so that BP and London can continue their key relationship with a major oil-producing state.

The irony then is that it was the intellectuals whose peaceful outreach to Qaddafi made war against the Libyan strongman necessary. The U.K. intellectual and academic elite surely led the way, but their American colleagues weren’t far behind. They all congratulated themselves that they were shaping the dictator’s ideas.

For instance, Rutgers professor Benjamin Barber wrote just last week that he has “no doubt” that his engagement with Qaddafi “ameliorated the consequences of his rule and created conditions conducive to gradualist reform.” How Barber squares this assessment of his contribution to Libya’s future with events unfolding in the country is unclear. What is clear is that Barber turned a blind eye to Qaddafi’s past record, the murders, tortures, and disappearances that were the basis of Hisham Matar’s novel In the Country of Men, which was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize.

In the same category as Barber is Joseph Nye, the Harvard professor famous for his ideas about soft power, or “the art of projecting influence through attraction rather than coercion.” “Sometimes people say soft power is too soft to accomplish anything,” Nye told an interviewer. “It’s an important part of the arsenal of power. When you ignore it, as we tend to have done, it turns out to be quite costly.”

Nye knows that Qaddafi “has long been seen as a bad boy in the West”—a sponsor of terrorism with little respect for human rights—“but in recent years, Qaddafi has appeared to be changing. He still wants to project Libyan power, but he is going about it differently than in decades past.” Does that mean the Bedouin chieftain in the big tent is interested in Nye’s intellectual framework? “Sure enough,” writes Nye, “a half hour into our conversation, he asked how Libya might increase its soft power on the world stage.”

It was clearly lost on the Harvard academic that he is part of Qaddafi’s “soft power” campaign to whitewash his regime’s image. But the Libyan strongman had him at hello—“Qaddafi ushered [Nye] into his tent, where he had five of Nye’s books laid out on a table.” Thus are intellectuals bought off, by showing an “interest” in their work.

Perhaps even more troubling than Nye’s easy virtue is that this academic who specializes in interpreting the behavior of states does not seem to understand that what altered Qaddafi’s behavior—what got him to drop his nuclear program and stop sponsoring terror attacks—was the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Qaddafi didn’t want to be the next Arab leader after Saddam Hussein caught live on TV crawling out of a spider hole into the waiting arms of U.S. soldiers. In other words, it was hard power the old-fashioned way that brought Qaddafi to heel, and violence remained the central pillar of the regime long after Nye and Qaddafi exchanged signed editions of their books.

What’s interesting about the intellectuals-and-Qaddafi controversy is that most of the reports have focused on the sums exchanged—the payments that the Monitor Group doled out to Nye, Barber, and the rest, or the contributions Qaddafi made to the LSE. But the issue is not simply money, or else Lee Bollinger and Columbia University would’ve charged the Islamic Republic of Iran for use of the auditorium space that it provided Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the last two years.

The Qaddafi scandal is not an isolated case. Warming to violent rulers is the rule for Western intellectuals rather than the exception—and here the character type was made all the more irresistible by Qaddafi’s eccentric tastes: his Euro-Bedouin couture, the cadre of Amazon bodyguards, the bogus philosophical-political ramblings with third-world pedigree. But whichever way you cut it, this Pierrot of the Sahara is a murderer. If intellectuals can embrace Qaddafi, they will embrace anyone. The issue then is not simply the money.

To be sure, Libya and the rest of the oil-producing Arab states give tons of money to Western universities to promote their twisted versions of Islam and Middle Eastern politics. Cambridge has £8 million from Saudi Arabia and another £4 million from Oman, Kuwait donated $4.5 million to my alma mater, George Washington University, and so on. But if it were simply about cash, how do you explain why Harvard’s Arab alumni association chose to hold its 2011 Arab World Conference in Damascus, under the auspices of Asma al-Assad, wife of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad? Harvard’s vice provost for international affairs, Jorge Dominguez, will be delivering a keynote address in the city that the Syrian regime likes to call the capital of Arab resistance—which served as a transit route for foreign fighters like those same Libyan Islamists going in to Iraq to kill U.S. troops and Washington’s Iraqi allies. Syria has very little oil wealth, so that’s not why Harvard works with a regime that supports anti-U.S., anti-Israeli, and anti-Arab terror.

The relationship between the intellectuals and the regimes started with money, but in order to justify the cash the intelligentsia explained that they were not simply bartering their prestige but rather that the deal afforded them an opportunity to affect change. But what values do they have to share when the transaction has exposed their willingness to sacrifice their values?

This is not about money because no amount of it would enable these academic institutions to affect change among the societies they are engaged with, nor even to teach students from Arab societies. The problem here is not the Arabs, nor even their ruthless and often rich regimes—the problem is the intellectuals. The reason that the Western intellectual class is not able to judge a dictator by his actions is that it does not believe in the moral values that would give rise to the ability to make such judgments. The issue is simply vanity—by which I mean not merely an overabundance of self-regard but a deep and abiding emptiness. There is nothing humanitarian about the class that clamors for the end of a tyrant who had their prestige at a discount.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.