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Intellectuals have a tendency to become whores. They are not especially well paid, and they resent the fact. But modest compensation is not the thing that bothers them the most. What they really crave is recognition, and in its pursuit they are apt to become slaves to fashion. But pursuing the latest intellectual fad is not the greatest of the sins that they are inclined to commit – for they are even more apt to adopt a servile and submissive posture when in the presence of political power. Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao all had an intellectual claque in the West. Fidel Castro still does. Even Kim Jong-il and Muamar Gaddafi have had such admirers.
As it happens, I am acquainted with the most prominent of those who cozied up to Gaddafi. I came across his name this morning in this connection when I googled Gadaffi, and on the website of my acquaintance, I read the following announcement – which was posted last Tuesday:
Dr. Benjamin R. Barber, the internationally renowned political theorist and Distinguished Fellow at the policy center Demos, released the following statement announcing his resignation from the governing board of the Qadaffi Foundation.
This gave me pause. For I had lost touch with Ben. I had no notion that he had gotten himself involved with Gaddafi, and, though I had always thought him imprudent, I would never have imagined him capable of folly on such a scale.
We first met thirty years ago at a meeting of the Conference for the Study of Political Thought. I was a neophyte making my debut by delivering the keynote address at that particular gathering, which took place at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and Ben was the first to ask a question after the talk. It was a revealing moment – for, instead of simply posing a question, he first gave a five-to-ten minute talk that had everyone in the room rolling his eyes and then asked whether I agreed with him. I do not remember the substance of his mini-lecture, but I do remember my answer which was as brief as his “question” was long. “No!” I said, “Next question!” And the audience roared with laughter.
Most professors are prone to vanity. None of us are immune. But some are off the charts, and Ben was among these. When I encountered him in later years, I always found him genial. But, if truth be told, though I profited from one or two of the articles that he had written as a young scholar, I never found his books of any interest at all. I remember being amused when I read that he had become an advisor to Bill Clinton and was going to DC every week to conduct a tutorial for the President. That was his dream.
I missed the beginning of Ben’s love affair with Gadaffi. It appears to have begun in 2006 – about a year before Cécilia Sarkozy, then married to the French President, negotiated the release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who had been condemned to death in Libya for purportedly spreading HIV among children in a hospital there.
In an op-ed published in The Washington Post in the wake of this event, to which he gave the title Gaddafi’s Libya: An Ally for America? Ben argued, plausibly, that Gaddafi was “the real architect of the release.” Then he went on to say:
Written off not long ago as an implacable despot, Gaddafi is a complex and adaptive thinker as well as an efficient, if laid-back, autocrat. Unlike almost any other Arab ruler, he has exhibited an extraordinary capacity to rethink his country’s role in a changed and changing world.
“I say this from experience,” he added, citing “several one-on-one conversations” that he had had in the previous year with Gaddafi, who had told Ben “that in the Libya that comes after him there would be no new Gaddafi but self-governance,” and who had purportedly held comparable meetings with Robert Putnam of Harvard and other political scientists, including Francis Fukuyama and Joseph N. Nye. In his op-ed, Ben dismissed the notion that Gaddafi’s comments were “mere bluster,” explaining,
Surprisingly flexible and pragmatic, Gaddafi was once an ardent socialist who now acknowledges private property and capital as sometimes appropriate elements in developing societies. Once an opponent of representative central government, he is wrestling with the need to delegate substantial authority to competent public officials if Libya is to join the global system. Once fearful of outside media, he has permitted satellite dishes throughout his country, and he himself surfs the Internet.
Libya 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 and, in time, to an indigenous mixed constitution favoring direct democracy locally and efficient government centrally.
Such a thought may seem absurd to Western observers who remember only Gaddafi’s insurgent past and the heinous terrorist act over Lockerbie. Yet Gaddafi also wrote a direct democratic manifesto (“The Green Book”) in the 1970s and convened hundreds of “People’s Conferences” where women and men have met regularly for the past 30 years. Have they wielded much actual power? No. Could they be built upon? Yes.
Completely off the radar, without spending a dollar or posting a single soldier, the United States has a potential partner in what could become an emerging Arab democracy smack in the middle of Africa’s north coast. This partner possesses vital sulfur-free gas and oil resources, a pristine Mediterranean shoreline, a non-Islamist Muslim population, and intelligence capacities crucial to the war on terrorism. Gaddafi, for example, ardently opposes the al-Qaeda brand of Wahhabist fundamentalism that Saudi Arabia sponsors.
Cynics will disregard all this; but after America’s “realist” experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, this may actually turn out to be a recipe for peace and partnership in the unlikeliest of places.
You presented some very interesting ideas about Libya in your Washington Post op-ed. I found particularly interesting your ideas about Col. Qaddafi’s experiments with direct democracy and efficient government. I know just the person you should talk to about these ideas – a brave journalist exposing official corruption in Libya by the name of Dhayf al-Gazzal. Be careful shaking his hand, though, because about a year and a half ago he had his fingers cut off before his body was riddled with bullets and abandoned in the desert. Hey, wasn’t that right around the time you were having such pleasant chats about direct democracy and the Green Book with the flexible and adaptive Colonel? How embarrassing! Anyway, since he’s dead, he might not be as vivacious a conversationalist as Col Qaddafi. But I’m sure he’d be fascinated by your notions of Qaddafi’s enlightened rule and might even have some notes.
This criticism had no apparent effect. And on 1 February 2011, after the collapse of the regime in Tunisia and the uprising in Egypt, Ben wrote an even more embarrassing piece for The Huffington Post, arguing that “neither Libya nor Syria are likely to follow Egypt into a chaotic uprising, and neither Qadaffi nor Bashar Assad are likely to be forced into exile any time soon.”
Take Libya: Libya has a small population of around five million, ample supplies of natural gas and oil, a history of being anything but a proxy of the West; it also has a tradition of participatory local governance (if in non-essential matters) because of Muammar Qadaffi’s long interest in participatory democracy and peoples’ committees (see his Green Book from the 1970s!). Moreover, Qadaffi himself is not detested in the way that Mubarak has been detested and rules by means other than fear. His son Saif, with a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the London School of Economics and two forthcoming books focused on liberalism in the developing world , has pioneered a gradualist approach to civil society in Libya, insisting along the way that he would accept no office that wasn’t subject to popular elections. No dynasty likely there.
Syria is governed by old Baathists as Iraq formerly was, but its ruling family has now passed into the hands of the former ophthalmologist Bashar Assad and his British-educated, banking career wife Asma, both of whom are relatively popular among Syrians with whom they mix regularly at restaurants and in the Sukh, where they wear blue jeans (not exactly Mubarak!). They are not passionate Baathists, but members of the Alawite minority and Syrian patriots who have experimented (ever so cautiously) with opening society, engaging young people, developing a pluralistic cultural legacy (through a new program with the Louvre). Bashar spoke this week in a Wall Street Journal interview about the need for change. But like Qadaffi, Assad is not lumbered with a reputation for being an American stooge – a key element in the popular indictment of Mubarak and the Shah of Iran before him.
I do hope that recent events in Libya have caused the author of these observations to have second thoughts about Bashar Assad, who runs one of the world’s most efficient police states. But my aim is not to score points against poor Ben, who is as amiable as he is silly. The main point that I want to make is that vanity, the vice that besets the intellectual, can make a man into a moron. Flattery from on high is apt to corrupt almost anyone who desperately hankers after recognition.
UPDATE: In linking to this post, Glenn Reynolds at www.instapundit.com drew attention to a report on the Monitor Group, which fronted for Gaddafi in this country and arranged his trysts with would-be public intellectuals. There is also a piece on the Huffington post.
More By Paul Rahe