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.
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?
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
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."
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."
today of course, it's all radically changed. But second-guessing the past, I
mean, it's just 20/20 hindsight.
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?
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.
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
What about that rambling 45-minute speech?
BB: I listened to
the speech, and I also talked to the people who wrote the first part of the
speech in Libya. The speech was intended initially to actually condemn what had
happened. As you know, in the opening 20 minutes, if you go back and listen, he
said a couple things: that the military made a mistake in opening fire, they
were underprepared for what happened; that some of the demonstrators were armed
and they overreacted, it was a mistake, that they shouldn't have done it. And
he said that he was prepared the very next day to take the Constitutional
Commission that he had been working with for many years, make it public, and
convene a meeting with anyone who wanted to come, to start talking about real
change and reform. People thought, and I thought frankly, that he was going on
to put his reputation as a reformer on the line and make a last-ditch attempt
at reconciliation. That would have been in keeping with all that had come
before for him...
What happened in the second 20 minutes?
BB: Well, in the
second 20 minutes or so he, like his father, began to ramble; he said that if
this doesn't happen, if there is no reconciliation, we're going to have a lot
of problems. He didn't say he was going to kill people. He said that it's
difficult in Libya now because everybody is armed -- and the people in the
uprising had already looted police stations and were armed. So, if we don't get
reconciliation, what we're going to get is a civil war.
he said that "a civil war will bring forth rivers of blood" not that
"we will inflict rivers of blood." That a civil war, with
everybody armed, on both sides, will bring forth rivers of blood. People took
that as a threat. But it wasn't; it was a description of what could happen.
the third part of the speech is where he did the turnabout. That's the part
where he said, "If that happens, if there is a civil war, then I am a
Qaddafi. I will stand with my family; I will stand with the government, with
the regime; and I will stand with it to the death." By the end, he had in
fact embraced the father with whom he's been in tension with for seven years.
Why did he do that? You know them both pretty well.
BB: Because I think
that in North Africa and the Middle East, clan and tribe and blood are more
important than anything else. His father and brothers were under attack, and
whatever he stood for and whatever he had done went by the wayside. I mean, if
you want a sort of trivial, but useful analogy, it's Michael Corleone, the good
son in The Godfather. The war hero,
the civilian, the son who's not going to be part of the Sicilian mafia. And
then you know they attacked the Godfather. And Michael comes to his father's
defense, throws away his reputation and the good works he's done to distance
himself from the family, and becomes, you know, one and the same. Blood over
Did you think that Saif might have gone back to Europe and become a voice for
BB: I had hoped.
Saif is torn: On the one hand, he's a Qaddafi, a member of that clan. On the
other, he's a scholar, a student, a reformer; he believes in Western liberalism
-- his books and his dissertation are about how you adapt liberalism and civil
society to the culture of North Africa. And then, he's also a European playboy:
"Shit, I got a lotta money. I'll go out partying here. I'll run with the
rich and yacht around the Mediterranean. I'll run with Russian investors and
make my fortune." Like all of us, but especially Western-educated young
people from the developing world, different elements in a fractured identity
were pulling at him -- and as I wrote before, it's not clear whether the son of
Qaddafi, the scholar/reformer, or the European playboy would win the struggle.
My own fear, when Qaddafi came under attack, was that blood, family, clan --
which is powerful in ways we don't understand here -- would become overriding.
And in a certain sense, there was a kind of perverse courage, just the way
there was with Michael Corleone. I mean, Saif's thrown away seven or eight
years of his life. People act like he snapped his fingers and bought a
dissertation. He labored for years to get a MA and a Ph.D. and write two books
and to create a foundation in conflict with all that the Qaddafi name denotes.
Yet now they're trying to say that he has plagiarized the thesis and that the foundation
is a ruse.
Are they wrong?
BB: Of course they
are wrong! I mean, Lord Desai who sat on his dissertation committee and
examined him said, "There are enough things wrong with Saif that you don't
have to make him a plagiarist as well!" He's not; that charge is just
garbage. He has a great many things to answer for in the last few weeks, but
plagiarism is not among them.
There have been reports citing evidence of plagiarism, though.
BB: It's a
dissertation; I have read it. There are about 600 books quoted at length or
paraphrased -- it's a doctoral dissertation; you're supposed to cite people!
You're not allowed to have your own views, but despite that, Saif has his own
views. He quotes John Rawls, John Locke; he quotes Robert Putnam and Giddens; he
quotes me, all kinds of people. He quotes me on my book Strong
Democracy, and later on he talks about participatory democracy in his
own words -- is he stealing from me? I directed 60 dissertations; if he is a
plagiarist forget everything else -- then so is everyone else who has written a
dissertation. Saif is an original thinker, and his original thought takes the
form of trying to adapt liberalism to the living culture and developing world
in North Africa and the Middle East.
So how does a guy who believes in democracy, who was trying to establish participatory
government, turn so quickly?
BB: Look, if you
think that someone is trying to kill your father or your mother from a family
like that -- and you're faced with a choice: Do I go abroad and continue to try
to change my country for the good of people and watch my father die? Or do I
defend him? Well, I wish he'd gone abroad. But in a tribal society...
Yes, but we're talking about authorizing the air force to attack his own
BB: What Qaddafi Sr.
has done is brutal and terroristic, and he's been doing it for a long time, but
this notion that you're bombing your own people? The story about the
helicopters machine-gunning people? None of those have been verified. The air force
was used to bomb the depots that were being looted by the folks in the east. He
was trying to prevent the weapons from being used against him. I mean there's a
piece in the New York Times that says
those weapons being looted are going to end up with al Qaeda. In reality, you
can't get swept away in the sort of media hysteria. Condemn the brutality and
the shooting of innocents, but understand, as the media now is beginning to,
that this isn't Cairo, but a civil war with tribal overtones that threaten to overwhelm
the genuine desire for freedom of many of the protesters.
respect to Qaddafi himself, we're talking about a guy who was a pariah -- and
deservedly so for 20 to 25 years -- who was then our friend and our ally for
the last five or seven years. He made reparations for Lockerbie and committed
to ending his weapons-of-mass-destruction program. (Imagine if he still had
them now! Do we condemn Bush and Blair for negotiating with the tyrant to get
him to give them up?) He released the kidnapped Bulgarian nurses who were
arrested in Benghazi by his tribal enemies to embarrass him and who Saif worked
now the press says maybe he's
not going down very quickly and maybe we're going to get a civil war or even a
tribal war. I've been arguing for some time that this is a tribal society. What you've got here is not Cairo, but the makings of a tribal war among two
parts of Libya that before 1931 were distinct provinces (Cyrenaica and
Tripolitania and among whom there's long been bad blood). Tripoli versus
Benghazi is a very old story. I hope the new chapter leads to freedom and
democracy, but there are no guarantees.
idea that there is some easy path and that Qaddafi is the exception -- that he's
going to cling to power by any means possible and everyone else is slipping
nicely into the daylight of democracy -- is just to misunderstand the history
of revolution, the history of democracy. I would argue that this history of
revolution, along with the sociology of democracy, is the fundamental rationale
for what I've done. I would argue that the only places that are democratic in
the world are places where there has been long, hard work on civic
infrastructure, civic education, social capital, and the development of
competent citizens before there are elections or a working parliament. And I
would argue that everywhere you've had a revolution, in places where those
civic conditions do not exist, you've had disaster: starting in 1789 in Paris,
1917 in Russia, and more recently in Algeria. You notice no one is talking too
much about Algeria because they had their "democratic" revolution 20
years ago and it led to Islamist extremism, the extermination of the middle
class, and a military coup. Nobody is very happy with the military today, but
nobody is willing to throw it out now because God forbid that happens, then
chaos and Islamists will come back ... they fear.
point is that nobody -- least of all the newsreaders in the media -- know who
Tocqueville is or what the sociology of the democracy looks like or what the
outcome of most revolutions has been. Talk about an "irrational exuberance
of capitalism"! This is why Secretary Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama are
trapped. The pundits don't get the fact that even our own government is
beginning to understand that taking Qaddafi out may be a victory in the
abstract. You kill a desperate, brutal dictator, but that may ultimately
unleash a civil war, instability, the cutoff of oil, and the re-empowerment of
al Qaeda in a part of North Africa where that has been largely eliminated (courtesy of Qaddafi and friends). That's the kind of realpolitik that a responsible president
trying to anticipate real consequence has to talk about. Same thing applies to
the loose "no-fly zone" from senators like John Kerry and John McCain who carry
no responsibility for consequences. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made clear that
a no-fly zone starts with a war on the ground against anti-aircraft guns and
missiles, that are often placed among civilians. A no-fly zone means civilian
deaths and the memory of colonial wars and could cost not just big-time dollars
but American lives. So Obama has only rhetoric, that makes him seem
weak, or opening a third war front. Not much of a choice.
So, what's your best guess as to how things will play out in Libya?
BB: People make
this ridiculous assumption that Qaddafi is Mubarak, and like Mubarak a second-
or third-generation bureaucratic military man; they assume that he was enjoying
his dictatorship, but now that it's not viable, he'll go to Sharm el-Sheikh or
Caracas with his buddy Hugo Chávez. You know, go somewhere and retire and live
nicely on his oil revenues. But Qaddafi is Nasser, not Mubarak. He's Castro, a
revolutionary founder. Qaddafi thinks -- he's delusional, but it's also
grounded in reality -- he thinks he is
the revolutionary and he's facing the counterrevolution, which is al Qaeda, the
United States, Islamists, neocolonialists, and they are trying once again to
take him out. I hope I am wrong, but I believe he will go down fighting. Let's
also remember that he has a lot of support: You don't pacify Tripoli, a city of
2 million people, with a few snipers in buildings. He has support and he's been
giving out guns to young people in the streets -- you simply don't do that in a
place where you're ruling by fear alone. I think he will stay either until
foreign powers intervene, which would be a disaster, or if an assassin finds
him and takes him out ... but even then it's not that easy to decapitate a clan.
Are you saying that Saif or his brothers would take their father's place?
BB: I was just
laying out the worst-possible scenario. Even if you decapitate him, the clan is
still there. Three of the brothers run their own regiments or battalions --
7,000 or 8,000 well-trained, well-equipped, very loyal people working for them,
including Khamis's extremely well-trained battalion.
OK, so what's a best-possible scenario?
BB: I don't think
what I did before in the country was naive, but I think it's naive to dream now
of a "best-possible scenario." But if I were to dream, I might dream
that Qaddafi somehow steps away or is shot or eliminated; the clan retains some
power and Saif Qaddafi then re-emerges and says, "Look I was under duress;
it was a matter of family, but my father is gone. What we really want is
reconciliation." I will step away too, but talk to the protesters, talk to
those Libyans who ran the human rights movement in my foundation. Bring
together Tripoli and Sirte (my father's home) with the cities of the east (my
mother's birthplace), and put an end to the looming civil war."
Do you think there is any chance of that now?
BB: On a scale of 1
to 100, I give it a 1 or 2. Michael Corleone never went straight again. I don't
see a good scenario. I see tribal war. I see people -- once Qaddafi is gone --
who say, "We represent Libya" and then other people saying, "No,
we represent Libya and the Libyan people." Even Secretary Clinton said that she wasn't sure of who the protesters represented and what they
wanted -- not to delegitimate them but to express her sense of the complexity
of events as they are unfolding. I myself cannot imagine the people in Benghazi
will go back and say that they would accept any members of the Qaddafi clan --
even those who were in the military, who ran the air force, and so on -- to be
eligible to be part of a national coalition, to make a new democracy. Sadly, I
can't even imagine them saying that the director of the Gaddafi Foundation (who
resigned in protest and deplored the regime's violence last week) or the human
rights groups from Tripoli who engineered the release of prisoners are eligible
to be part of a new government. I hope they are; that would be the ideal case.
But the media is so intent on totally vilifying not just Saif, but anybody that
worked with him -- including any Westerners who went in and that worked on constitutional
reform -- that they are in effect destroying the credibility of what might be
one of the few positives to come out of Libya.
So why have Monitor Group and the London
School of Economics now washed their hands of the regime?
BB: You have to ask
them, but to me they seem frightened, cowed, unwilling to take risks on behalf
of their own former commitments and beliefs. All they seem worried about is the
money. I mean, did LSE take Saif's money -- the Gaddafi Foundation money --
improperly? No, they all took it properly. And promised a scholarly center to
study the Middle East and North Africa. And offer scholarships to students from
the region. Just the way Harvard and Georgetown and Cambridge and Edinburgh
have done -- not with Libyan money, but with Saudi money (look at Prince Alwaleed bin
Talal). By the way, not just Monitor, but McKinsey, Exxon, Blackstone, the
Carlyle Group -- everybody was in it. The only difference for Monitor was that
it actually had a project that was aimed at trying to effect some internal
change. Everybody else who went in, which is every major consultancy, every
major financial group, went in to do nothing more than make big bucks for
themselves. But now people are attacking Monitor because they took consulting
fees for actually trying to effect reform and change.
there is an important background controversy here: It is about whether
academics should stay in the ivory tower and do research and write books? Or engage
in the world on behalf of the principles and theories their research produces?
Do you simply shut your mouth and write? Or do you try to engage? This is an
old question that goes back to Machiavelli, back to Plato going to Syracuse: Do
you engage with power? Sometimes power is devilish and brutal; sometimes it's
simply constitutional and democratic; but in every case, it's power, and to
touch it is to risk being tainted by it.
answer is that each person has to make their own decision. I don't condemn
those who prefer the solitude of the academy, though they lose the chance to
effect change directly; and I don't condemn those who do try to influence power,
risking being tainted by it, even when power doesn't really pay much attention
to them, whether its legitimate power like in the United States or
illegitimate, as in Libya. The notion that there is something wrong with people
who choose to intervene and try to engage the practice of democracy -- that
they are somehow more morally culpable than people who prefer not to intervene
-- is to me untenable.
Is there anyone within the Libyan government who can still be a voice for
reform, whom the Obama administration should be talking to?
BB: Well, they don't
have anyone now to talk to because they vilified everyone, made everyone
complicit -- and certainly Saif is complicit. But if I were advising them, I'd
say, "Why don't you find a way to get to Saif, instead of saying that he
was a poseur, that he never believed any of the reform talk and human rights
activities in which he engaged." I mean, Saif took all those risks, spent seven
years writing books and his dissertation, just to fool everybody? So why not
say instead that he was authentic -- he intended to take risks on behalf of
reform -- but now he's gone to ground, gone back to the family. He is the guy
who you can talk to; he keeps inviting reporters. He half-believes his own
illusions that they didn't do anything bad. "Come and see," he says. "Come
to Tripoli; you'll see it's all fine." Why not reach out to him, talk to
him, call and find out if he can be cajoled back into the light? If the point
is to punish him, which he deserves, forget it; let him reap the whirlwind. If
the point is to avert a civil war and find a way both out of the conflict and
towards a more open society for Libya, then ... well, the U.S. government are talking to all the
ministers who worked for Qaddafi all those years without complaint or protest
but who have now jumped the sinking ship to embrace "democracy." So
why not talk to Saif?
Do you feel bad for Saif?
BB: Very bad. But
look, if you want to talk about feeling bad, I feel really bad for the people
being murdered in the streets; that's the biggest tragedy. But there is also a
real human tragedy -- call it a sidebar tragedy to the main event where our
real compassion belongs -- the tragedy of a young man who 10 years ago made a
decision not to do what all his brothers did (either take military commands
or simply take the money and run, enjoy the high life, and beat up servants in
Geneva) and who instead took on the responsibility of trying to change the
system into which he was born and to which he was supposed to be the heir. He
had the capacity and the courage to do this, and for years he worked for a
freer media, for human rights, and for a more democratic Libya. And then the
tragedy, the fateful choice -- whether coerced, whether it was blood thicker
than water -- he gave up so much good work in the course of a 45-minute speech.
He made the decision that jettisoned, sacrificed, and martyred everything he
was and everything he had done. I guess in that there's a perverse
courage to this act of clan loyalty in which he destroyed the scholar and
reformer he had labored so hard to create.
my own view is if his father doesn't survive, Saif is unlikely to survive
You mean survive, literally?
BB: Yes, he's
unlikely to live through this. And the tragedy will be that his death, which
once might have been mourned by Libyans seeking freedom, is now likely to be
Update: An earlier version of this article incorrectly noted that Philip Bobbitt was a paid consultant for Monitor Group. He was approached by the firm for this project, but never employed by them.
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