Libya, intellectuals and democracy: an open letter to Professor David Held

John Keane asks David Held to look back over events and reconsider his reactions to a dissimulator. Was this an error of theory or of practice? Hasn’t the LSE Libya affair done damage to the scholarly credibility of research programmes in the area of democracy?

Dear David Held,

Just a few hours by air from where you live, Colonel Gaddafi is stepping up war against his own people. His use of propaganda, terror, mercenaries and imported heavy weapons remains headline news down here in the southern hemisphere, where I now live. Stories of your links with Libya are news here as well. The reports suggest that you have handled yourself with fair-minded openness. Yesterday’s statement in openDemocracy strengthens that impression.[1] That’s why, in the same spirit of candour, I trust you will let me ask you further questions about the wider significance of what you have done and how you might handle the trouble that has come your way.

Your consociation with Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, a man whom you befriended and mentored, and from whose charity your LSE Global Governance centre took a sizeable sum of research money, produced unwelcome news. ‘I have come to know him very well and I must say I have come to like him a great deal’, were the words you used to introduce him at last year’s controversial Ralph Miliband Lecture. You went on to describe Saif al-Islam as ‘someone who looks to democracy, civil society and deep liberal values for the core of his inspiration.’[2] His bloodcurdling speeches and sudden fall from grace means that you’ll regret those words for the rest of your life. [3] No more edifying is your remark that here was ‘a young man who was caught between loyalties to his family and a desire to reform his country’, and that your support for him, from the time he was a student at the LSE, ‘was always conditional on him resolving the dilemma that he faced in a progressive and democratic direction’.[4] The remark surprised me. Scholarly life isn’t like that, or so most of us still think. Students should not be told what to think; rules of political correctness should not be applied to them. When that happens, it is condescending, dismissive of their intelligence, corrupting of university life. And isn’t it inconsistent with the spirit and letter of your principles of democratic autonomy?

Many people have pointed out, and I’m aware from first-hand experience, that plenty of other professors made the mistake of linking up with the Libyan dictatorship. I’m not greatly surprised by your own consociation, and not because you chose to take advantage of the Blair governments’ policy of rapprochement with Libya. The fact is that scholars in our field were much sought after by its dictatorship; unusually, some of its officials seemed to like political thinkers, especially those with a long-standing interest in the subject of democracy. The point was confirmed by an important WikiLeak. [5] It revealed how ‘leadership and management training’ and mobilising intellectuals in other countries formed part of the regime’s velvet glove policy of clawing its way back from isolation - and doing so by nurturing what public relations industry people call reputation management.

The Libyan authorities came knocking on my door quite early, towards the end of 1998, when I was still Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy in London. It was just before the suspension of UN sanctions - the ban on flights and sales of oil equipment and the freezing of some Libyan assets - was lifted after the dictatorship agreed to hand over two suspects in the Lockerbie bombing. The encounter, mediated by a doctoral student (it turned out) who doubled as a Libyan diplomat, proved stranger than fiction. There was talk of first-class airfares from London to Tripoli (such flights didn’t exist at the time). Then came promises of fine food, access to ‘civil society’ organisations, unspoiled deserts and beaches, trips to unexplored Greek and Roman ruins, even hints of a possible meeting with the Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution.

I’d been educated a decade earlier by my cat-and-mouse battles with the ruling authorities of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia, and was deeply suspicious. I smelled rats. Front organisations and flattery, manipulation mixed with trickery and hubris, none of this is my thing. So when I explained that the purpose of my visit was scholarly, and that minimally I required proper travel documents and an official itinerary, which had to be discussed and agreed in advance, the authorities in Tripoli faltered. Twenty-four hours before my planned departure, still with no itinerary and everything the subject of diplomatic muddle and practical confusion, I pulled out. Those handling my visit, at least those who had wanted me to come to their country, were reportedly furious. I joined the blacklist in their Green Book.

By the time they tracked you down at LSE Global Governance, the Libyan authorities were clearly more practised in the delicate arts of seduction. I hope you’ll see in a moment that your consociation with Saif al-Islam raises awkward questions about political dissimulation and front organisations. That’s why I’m curious to know how exactly you were introduced to Saif al-Islam. The details matter. Exactly how many other fellow Libyans did you meet, and over what period? Were there dollops of flattery and promised perks, of the kind I’d encountered? Was there talk of your favourite subjects: liberal principles of autonomy, models of democracy, cosmopolitanism, governance and global covenants? Did you ever raise questions on behalf of Libyan dissidents, or about Libyan political exiles? I wonder what the Libyan files say, or will in future reveal, supposing they aren’t destroyed, by will or by war?

I don’t know how many times you visited Libya or to what extent your consociation with Saif al-Islam was supported directly by the Blair governments, whose policy of rapprochement was fuelled by various motives, including lucrative business deals for companies such as BP and the missile manufacturer MBDA. Was the British Council involved? Or the Monitor Group, a consulting firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts? Who at the LSE favoured your consociation? And what Libyan funds or privileges, if any, were you personally or professionally offered, and by whom? Aside from the reported donation to the LSE of £1.5 million by Saif al-Islam’s charity (that seems to have happened in the summer of 2009, when you were still among its trustees), did you accept, from him or others in the dictatorship, anything else?

I table these harsh-sounding questions because, as you know, it’s now on record that plenty of intellectuals who co-operated with the Libyan authorities were provided with consultancy fees, gifts and perks. They were granted access to chauffeur-driven cars and to the best things offered by life in Libya, including one thing that money couldn’t buy. For several professors - you were too sensible to be among them - visits to the Big Tent of the Brother Leader seemed to have been among the memorable pinnacles of their career.  

The sight of tented intellectuals edging close to power, swooning and sipping fresh goat’s milk, surrounded by female bodyguards, is not pretty, especially when the thinkers in question are avowed democrats. Don’t you find the thought nauseating, if only for the reasons given long ago in excellent books by David Caute, especially The Fellow Travellers? Our colleague Zygmunt Bauman has shown that fellow travelling, the bad habit of cuddling up to power, has long been a curse of our profession. But in your case the Libyan oligarchs went further, by offering your research centre big money for programmes on ‘global governance’, ‘civil society’ and ‘democratisation’. I read in the minutes of an LSE governing council meeting that you argued vigorously against those (was Fred Halliday a lone voice?) who were opposed to co-operation with Saif al-Islam. You insisted that a ‘public signing ceremony had been undertaken and a U-turn at this juncture might affect the School’s relations with Libya and cause personal embarrassment to the chairman of the foundation.’[6] And so the Faustian deal was struck.

When troops loyal to the Brother Leader finally opened fire on his people, Saif al-Islam publicly sided with the dictatorship to which he belonged. Video footage posted on the website of Foreign Policy even shows your benefactor brandishing a Heckler and Koch assault rifle (used by the German army) before an adoring, blood-thirsty crowd of supporters.[7] Luckily, eighteen months earlier, for reasons of conflict of interest, you had been asked to resign from the board of the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation. Its website favoured a quotation from the Qur’an: ‘Verily Allah has purchased of the believers their lives and their properties for (the price) that theirs shall be the paradise.’[8]

Your resignation spared your conscience from facing the painful irony buried in these words, especially after your acquaintance began talking of fighting ‘to the last bullet’ and ‘rivers of blood’. The insinuendo was too much for you. You foresaw that unless something dramatic now happens the current military crackdown will result eventually in the death of tens or possibly hundreds of thousands of innocent civilian democrats. So you did the good and honourable thing. You distanced yourself from Saif al-Islam. ‘The man giving that speech wasn't the Saif I had got to know well over those years’, you said.[9] In your openDemocracy statement you say that your ‘cautious engagement’ with his Foundation ‘was a mistake that is deeply regrettable’.

Some say these remarks are too little too late, but you did at least do the decent thing. You won my respect. You chose not to let yourself grow angry and to look foolish on the BBC, as our mutual acquaintance and fellow democratic theorist Benjamin Barber did a month ago when trying to justify publicly his own errors of judgement. Elbowing aside the suspicion that he had been a useful idiot of a police state, Barber confirmed he had no regrets. In another interview, he said that Saif al-Islam resembled the good-guy figure of Michael (‘Mikey’) Corleone in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. He deserved a chance to succeed. He still does. Besides, under his father’s rule, Libya had put an end to tribal rivalries, introduced popular councils, renounced a nuclear weapons programme, re-joined the international community and improved the country’s human rights record.[10]

The alibis bordered on buncombe, I think. Things never felt like that to the vast poor majority of Libyan citizens, as we now know from the brave outpourings and death-defying cries for help from the streets of cities such as Benghazi, Tobruk and Ras Lanuf. Some will speculate that the reasons that lay behind Professor Barber’s unrepentant reasoning have quite a lot to do with his bipolar focus on ‘Jihad’ and ‘McWorld’, perhaps even with his consultancies in Syria, another police state. Let’s leave such speculation aside, for the important point here is that your explanation of your links with Saif al-Islam was different - though no more persuasive.

Here are your words at the time of the ‘rivers of blood’ speech: ‘Saif arrived at the LSE very set in his opinions. I was of the view that here was a relatively unformed young man, struggling to make sense of his life as a member of the Gaddafi family and someone who was also increasingly aware that the democratic reform of his country was essential to its continued existence. Over a period of time, however, he showed every sign of being committed not just to opening up his country but reforming it on liberal democratic principles.’ You added: ‘Watching Saif give that speech - looking so exhausted, nervous and, frankly, terrible - was the stuff of Shakespeare and of Freud: a young man torn by a struggle between loyalty to his father and his family, and the beliefs he had come to hold for reform, democracy and the rule of law.’[11]

Though I’m not sure exactly what you meant when citing Shakespeare and Freud, you tried hard to pin down and make sense of Saif al-Islam’s character. Perhaps he was a guy nicer, say, than his high-living party-animal brother Muatassim. But still I harbour suspicions, if only because your acquaintance never saw himself as a divided self, in the way that you do. Look again at his Foundation’s website: I have an excellent relationship with my family, and I’ve always been clear and forthright about my commitment to a democratic future, support for transparency, and vision for economic opportunity for the Libyan people.[12]

In your statement to openDemocracy you repeated the point about the thwarted good intentions of Saif al-Islam. When at the LSE he ‘talked the talk of liberal values and democratic standards’, whereas now he has become ‘his father’s son in every respect’. Sincerity and consistency of character are clearly important working principles for you, aren’t they? Do you think they might have badly misled you?

Your acquaintance is evidently a complex political character caught up in a desperately complex political situation. Saif al-Islam is a clever person with many selves. You say he was a sincere liberal democrat struggling to come to terms with his despot father. Yet others have noted how well he talked as a technocrat, and as a free-market businessman. Others saw in him a multi-millionaire rich kid who pretended to come from ‘a very modest family’ (that’s what he told Christiane Amanpour [13]). And, in recent weeks, we have seen that he is a champion of violence, a bald-headed liar and a confabulator. Something much more complex than a divided self and split loyalties to family and principles is at work here, don’t you think? Isn’t one trouble with your sincerity test and your reliance on Shakespeare and Freud the way it ignores the fact that from the first moment you met him he was a dissimulator? 

Liberal democrats often find dissimulation an ugly word but its force should never be underestimated, in theory or practice. You and I learned from Machiavelli, Guicciardini and other advisers to princes that early modern state builders were acutely aware of the constant need to camouflage their tracks, especially when dealing with suspicious opponents. So why have you ignored its role in your dealings with Saif al-Islam, especially when he, the man of many selves, seems to be an exemplar of its ways and means?

You’ll rightly ask what I mean by dissimulation. I’d say it’s the art of psychology, the knack of knowing others’ minds as well as one’s own, the ability to move freely between these two realms, ultimately the clever ability to be ‘present’ and ‘absent’ at the same time when engaging others, for instance by convincing them in conversation that what is said is what is meant, even though the truth is the opposite. Everything I read and hear about Saif al-Islam reminds me of Machiavelli’s advice on ‘the art of the state, the art of preserving and reinforcing the state of the prince’. Machiavelli was sure that prudence and dissimulation were interchangeable arts. The secret of power is the ability to use power secretly. True, rulers and their supporters should act as forceful lions, and they must do so openly, since the whole point of violence - as your acquaintance has made clear in recent weeks - is that it must be wielded openly for maximum effect. But violence alone cannot guarantee the power of a state over its subjects and clients. Rulers must be foxes as well. The state must be a theatre of cunning with the prince as its charming principal player. ‘He who best knows how to play the fox is best off’, wrote Machiavelli, ‘but this must be kept well hidden, and the prince must be a great simulator and dissimulator’. He added: ‘people are so simple, and so concerned with present necessities, that whoever wishes to deceive will always find those who will let themselves be deceived.’ [14]

Although written five centuries ago, that’s still a pertinent chilling point, don’t you think?

There’s another thing that bothers me about your Shakespeare and Freud explanation of why you joined forces with Saif al-Islam. It is that until yesterday you regularly kept your silence about the nature of the Libyan regime. Why was this? Was it that the bio-chemistry of your personal friendship with Saif al-Islam convinced you that what he and his ‘charitable’ activities represented was a countervailing force for good, a check upon the despotic power of his father?

In your openDemocracy statement I detect a shift of emphasis. You speak of the ‘fragmented’ quality of the Libyan state and the opportunities it provided for working: ‘countries, even the most repressive, are not just single or monolithic structures. They are often fragmented, with spaces that open up for the nurturing of dissent and the expression of anger. In a country like Libya, these spaces were most often small and vulnerable. They exist nonetheless...’. You went on to say that Saif al-Islam’s Foundation served as ‘a space for reform’ and ‘an umbrella of protection’ for reform-minded individuals and groups.[15] Your words reminded me of what many professional Sovietologists used to say: stay away from the dissidents, operate from within the structures and from above, find well-positioned figures with open minds, work with them for the sake of freedom and democracy so as to prise open the authoritarian power structures.

Among the lessons of the 1989 revolutions in central-eastern Europe is that such advice was both mistaken and a political failure, principally because it misjudged the unbreakable monism of Soviet-type regimes. Libya is of course not Czechoslovakia, or Poland, but might you have made a similar misjudgement? We know how easy it is to be wise with hindsight, to say that the massive hidden violence of the Libyan regime has finally been exposed, that its true character is now fully on display, with the whole world watching in horror. But does it not bother you that well before your first encounter with Saif al-Islam many scholars and independent monitors of Libyan politics and society had been pointing out that this was a smoke-and-mirrors regime of power, a fear-ridden police state protected by well-armed security militias that helped destroy civil society, independent political parties, trade unions and free-standing professional associations? Were you not warned about the sophistication of its front organisations? Did you consider the possibility that the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation was an example? To what extent did it aim to cover the regime with a ‘mist of normality and respectability’ (the words of Hannah Arendt)? I’m not saying you were conned. But didn’t Fred Halliday have a point when he emphasised that the Foundation was not a civil society organisation, that its independence was but a legal fiction, and that in states such as Libya and Saudi Arabia the primary function of so-called ‘liberal’ front organisations is not to produce changes, but instead to forge compromises with internal hardliners to lessen external pressures on the regime[16] Put bluntly: didn’t you ever lay awake at night worrying that Libya was ultimately an oil-and-gas kleptocracy, a petro-dictatorship that had abolished the old European principle of no taxation without representation, so enabling it to be ruled by a Charismatic Brother Leader, a lion who until this day still thinks he is loved by his imaginary People, a fox capable of using his front organisations to play the language games of democracy and civil society, human rights and global governance?

These key terms in our scholarly vocabulary prompt a parting question to you. It is the least tangible but most concrete of all: do you think the LSE Libya affair has done damage to the scholarly credibility of research programmes in the area of democracy? I’m not the only one worried about the long-distance fall-out effects of this saga. I’m told there is an atmosphere of despondency within the LSE, and that more than a few teachers and researchers feel unfairly distracted and compromised by the University’s Libya connections. Hopefully the resignation of your Director and the current internal enquiry led by Lord Woolf will help clear up the mess. But cynics are already saying that the Libya affair just goes to show that the key terms in use at LSE Global Governance are suspect, that they are fine-sounding, will-‘o-the-wisp categories that functioned in effect to camouflage the contemporary brute ‘realities’ of power and violence of our world, beginning with the Libyan dictatorship itself.  

You will reject such cynicism, as I do. I guess you would add that current developments in Libya strongly confirm the conviction of the citizens bravely refusing to bow down to Gaddafi and his killers that police and military violence are anathema, that new jobs and wealth redistribution are mandatory, and that the practical development of a Muslim civil society, public respect for human rights, fair and free elections and government kept clean and chastened by independent monitors are now life-or-death imperatives.

But is that the end of the matter? Can you rest content, safe in the arms of the conviction that your theories are fine but the practise of them, well, was ignored by the promising but wayward son of a fanatic? I don’t think you can. For have you thought that your ‘deeply regrettable’ attraction to the heir apparent of the Libyan regime was more than just a case of the pride and vanity of intellectuals, the generous perks and the acceptance of an oil tanker load of research money in a cash-strapped, near-bankrupt university system? In other words, might the most precious categories within the operative frames of reference of LSE Global Governance have had corrupting effects? Was it purely a coincidence that Saif al-Islam, with or without a ghost writer, managed a second-rate dissertation that sings the anthems of your institution?

In recent days, for the first time, I’ve been reading its verses and listening to its songs. It’s poor entertainment, for sure. I cannot judge the veracity of press reports now coming in that Saif al-Islam recruited a ghost-writing team based at Garyounis University in Benghazi. For what it’s worth, if I had been External Examiner, I would have questioned its in-house orthodoxy, the way it’s littered with key terms (‘civil society’ ‘democratisation’, ‘global governance’) and flattering clichés drawn from the works of you and your colleagues. I would certainly have queried its authenticity, including its multiple plagiarisms, which at the time could easily have been tracked down by the clever algorithms of search engines on the Internet, where they are now posted in all their glory.[17] At a minimum, and for reasons quite different than those given publicly by Professor Meghnad Desai, who said the dissertation needed more ‘realpolitik’, I would have demanded extensive revisions or outright rejection of the revised draft, even though, or so I understand, the option went uncanvassed by the examining committee, which included one of your co-authors, Anthony McGrew.

I am aware of the strict rules governing the acceptance or rejection of dissertation revisions, but why didn’t the LSE examining committee push things to the wire? Your openDemocracy statement says nothing about the matter. Was too much at stake for the examining committee? If the framework of Saif al-Islam’s dissertation had been subjected to radical questioning then more than a failed doctorate would have resulted, surely? Wouldn’t rejection have been a boomerang, a sharp blow that deprived LSE Global Governance of much more than money, requiring it as well to question, or to correct, its own sense of purpose?

The questions about language and power I’m raising here have nothing to do with imaginary conspiracies or (say) the crudities of the Lysenko affair of the 1930s. The LSE Libya affair shows that our times are different and more nuanced. The scandal reminds us of something that should be obvious, but is often forgotten: in scholarship on democracy, language really matters, sometimes to the point where the intellectual horizons it frames are pimped. The scholarly language we use to speak about democracy is never neutral. It always has consequences. It shapes the way we think. It determines what we can think about. So aren’t there times when it can be abused by others, for instance to fuel their dissimulation and to seduce us, along the way soiling our intentions? To put things crudely: was your consociation with the heir to the throne of the Libyan despotism oiled with the language that you and your colleagues loved to speak?

The question is intentionally vulgar, but I hope you’ll ponder the point, certainly before the Woolf enquiry has ended and the job of airbrushing the digital links of your institution with Libya has been completed (who’s charged with carrying out that work, by the way?) Maybe you’ll think my line of questioning is fanciful, or false. But consider for a moment some recent examples of the pimping effect of language frameworks in research on democracy. Bruce Russett and his colleagues were dismayed when their ‘democratic peace’ thesis was used against them by the administration of George W. Bush. They were Bushwhacked: if there was indeed something like a ‘law’ that states that democracies never go to war with other democracies (The Life and Death of Democracy shows there is no such law in the history of democracy) then launching war on a dictatorship in the name of democracy would bring peace dividends.

Now let’s look at intellectuals who’ve recently worked with the Libyan dictatorship. Is it mere coincidence that Joseph Nye Jr., proponent of the notoriously woolly, buzzword concept of ‘soft power’, unanchored in any clearly defined moral system, found time to be associated on soft-power terms with the Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution? Is it just an accident that the champions of ‘deep democracy’, themselves no lovers of democracy in representative form, found themselves attracted to the regime’s blather about its unique system of ‘rule of the masses’ (jamahiriya) and ‘direct democracy’ based on popular committees that obviated the need for political parties and free elections?

There’s no space here to discuss the way these much-feared committees in reality lionised Colonel Gaddafi’s iron-fisted grip on the country, controlled daily life in cities, towns and villages and generally crushed dissent and destroyed the institutions of civil society. Instead, I’d like to ask you analogous questions about your own work. Did some of your pet terms fit hand in glove with the propaganda of the Gaddafi regime? Were you fooled or seduced by your own theoretical language, for instance ‘participatory democracy and deliberative democracy’, phrases that are central to your Models of Democracy? And here comes the flipside question: does your overall approach contain key terms whose fuzziness enabled Saif al-Islam to fool and seduce you? Suspect terms like ‘governance’, which in the past (Sir John Fortescue was the first to use it in the English language) meant top-down manipulation and control of subjects and today, by contrast, has come to mean all good things to all people? Or what about references to the ‘principle of autonomy’, a high-flying principle to which nobody except curmudgeons could object in principle? Or what of the surprisingly parochial, heavily Eurocentric formulae of ‘global covenants’ and ‘cosmopolitan democracy’, a strangely other-worldly phrase ill-suited to times in which the spirit, language and institutions of democracy have become worldly in such complex ways that they defy virtually all the orthodox canons of our subject?

The purpose of this open letter is to raise fresh concerns about your ‘cautious engagement’ with a violent dictatorship, to convince you that there are still some unanswered questions about the foul nature of the Libyan regime, the political dangers of dissimulation and the corrupting effects on intellectuals of money, hubris and the scholarly language we use. I trust you will not be personally offended by the points I have raised. My hope is that you will see that in this letter, at every point, my aim has not been to vilify, but instead to clarify, to push you to give account of yourself, to explain more fully than you have done so far several matters that are vitally relevant for anybody who shares your concern with the past, present and future of democracy.

From Sydney I send you my warmest wishes,

John Keane

19 March 2011

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1. David Held, ‘Dealing with Saif Gaddafi: naivety, complicity or cautious engagement?’, openDemocracy (16 March 2011) 

2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ME5GGfU-iPE&feature=player_embedded

3. http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/03/02/saif_al_islams_fall_from_grace

4. ‘Personal Statement by David Held on Gaddafi’s LSE Donation’ (February 21, 2011) 

5. ‘LSE head quits over Gaddafi scandal’ (March 4, 2011) 

6. ‘Gaddafi Foundation gives £1.5 million to LSE’, The Beaver (12 January 2010)

7. http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/03/02/saif_al_islams_fall_from_grace

8. http://www.gicdf.org/index.php

9. ‘Gaddafi’s son ‘will be in turmoil’ says LSE professor who acted as adviser’, The Guardian (February 21, 2011)

10. The BBC Newsnight interview (24 February 2011) and ‘Understanding Libya’s Michael Corleone’ (March 7, 2011)

11. ‘Gaddafi’s son ‘will be in turmoil’ says LSE professor who acted as adviser’, The Guardian (February 21, 2011)

12. http://www.gicdf.org/index.php

13. ‘Exclusive: Amanpour Interviews Gadhafi’s Son’ (February 27, 2011)

14. Niccolò Machiavelli, Il Principe, in Le grandi opera politiche, eds. Gian Mario Anselmi and Carlo Varotti (Turin, 1992), volume 1, pp. 102-103

15. David Held, ‘Dealing with Saif Gaddafi: naivety, complicity or cautious engagement?’, openDemocracy (16 March 2011) 

16. ‘Memorandum to LSE Council’ (October 4, 2009) 

17. ‘The Role of Civil Society in the Democratisation of Global Governance Institutions: From “Soft Power” to Collective Decision-Making?’. Compare: http://saifalislamgaddafithesis.wikia.com/wiki/Plagiarism

About the author

John Keane is Director of the newly-founded Sydney Democracy Network (SDN) at the University of Sydney and Professor of Politics at the WZB in Berlin. He is the author of Democracy and Media Decadence (2013) and his The Life and Death of Democracy (2009) has just appeared in Japanese translation.