As a longtime advisor to Saif al-Qaddafi, Benjamin Barber knows him just about as well as any Western intellectual. Barber -- president of the CivWorld think tank, distinguished senior fellow at the Demos think tank, and author of Strong Democracy and Jihad vs. McWorld -- was among a small group of democracy advocates and public intellectuals, including Joseph Nye, Anthony Giddens, Francis Fukuyama, and Robert Putnam, working under contract with the Monitor Group consulting firm to interact with Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi on issues of democracy and civil society and to help his son Saif implement democratic reforms and author a more representative constitution for Libya. It's all gone horribly wrong. But in this interview, Barber argues that his intentions were responsible, tries to understand Saif's remarkable about-face, and worries for the future of Libya and the young man he knew well.
Foreign Policy: How is it that so many people got Saif al-Qaddafi so wrong?
Benjamin Barber: Who got it wrong? I don't think anyone got him wrong. Is that the idea: to go back and say in 2006, 2007, 2008, when the U.S. recognized the government of Muammar al-Qaddafi, when the sovereign oil fund that Libya set up and that people like Prince Andrew and Peter Mandelson, or organizations like the Carlyle Group and Blackstone, were doing business with, and the heavy investments oil companies were making while others were running around and making all sorts of money -- that those of us who went in trying to do some work for democratic reform, that we somehow got Saif wrong?
Until Sunday night a week ago [Feb. 27], Saif was a credible, risk-taking reformer. He several times had to leave Libya because he was at odds with his father. The [Gaddafi] Foundation's last meeting in December wasn't held in Tripoli because he was nervous about being there; it was held in London. And the people who worked for it and the foundation's work itself have been recognized by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as genuine, authentic, and having made real accomplishments in terms of releasing people from prison, saving lives. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote in a report in January that: "For much of the last decade, Qadhafi's son Saif was the public face of human rights reform in Libya and the Qadhafi Foundation was the country's only address for complaints about torture, arbitrary detention, and disappearances. The Foundation issued its first human rights report in 2009, cataloging abuses and calling for reforms, and a second report released in December 2010 regretted 'a dangerous regression' in civil society and called for the authorities to lift their 'stranglehold' on the media. In the interim, Saif assisted Human Rights Watch in conducting a groundbreaking press conference which launched a report in Tripoli in December 2009."
Aside from the foundation, one of the things that I was involved with in my interaction with Muammar as well as Saif Qaddafi was the release of the hostages: the four Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor. I had said to the colonel in our first meeting that the release of the hostages was a condition for any more such interactions and, indeed, for the continuation with the rapprochement with the West, and he had said he understood. That modest pressure added one more incentive to the decision to release the hostages. I was called the day before the public announcement of the release by Qaddafi's secretary and told: "You see; the leader has acted on his word."
Well today of course, it's all radically changed. But second-guessing the past, I mean, it's just 20/20 hindsight.
But if you want to ask what do I think happened -- why did Saif, a guy who spent seven years writing a doctoral dissertation and two books, working as a reformer at considerable personal risk to himself, and using his name to shield the Libyans doing the hard work inside of Libya -- why then, during the period of the uprising last week, did he change sides? That's a good question about which I can try to speculate. But the question is not: How did we all get him wrong -- he's a terrorist; he just conned all of us -- but rather, how did a committed reformer who had risked a good deal to challenge his father do such an abrupt headstand in the course of a few days?
FP: You don't think there was a certain degree of naivete?
BB: No, I do not, I do not. The naivete is the people who want to rewrite history and now want to specifically indict the intellectuals who were there trying to work on the inside during times in which Muammar Qaddafi was totally in power with no seeming hope of his being taken out, times when he was a new friend and ally of the West -- with Condoleezza Rice and Tony Blair visiting, with Arlen Specter there. I don't see anyone saying to Tony Blair, "What were you doing there with a monster?" -- and that was with Col. Qaddafi, not Saif.
FP: I think people are certainly asking those questions...
BB: I haven't seen them asked anywhere, not in liberal magazines, not anywhere. I've seen them basically following the media hysteria since we all know now that Qaddafi is once again a monster. He was a monster for 30 years, then a friend for five or seven years -- someone with a lot of oil money and a sovereign fund to be exploited, and an ally in the war on al Qaeda -- and now he's a monster again, which he has certainly shown himself to be. And now Saif and the internal reform efforts that probably led to some of the people in Tripoli coming out in the streets because those were some of people who had been freed from prison by the Gaddafi Foundation -- and now he's being blamed for what happened. I think that's absurd.