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Thoughts about IR scholars for dollars

As Laura Rozen, Michael Peel, Farah Stockman, Jon WienerJohn Sides, Siddhartha Mahanta & David Corn, and various reporters have observed, an awful lot of high-powered academics and academic institutions have some 'splainin to do about their relationship with Libya's Qaddafi family.

The Monitor Group ferried a number of high-profile international studies scholars, including Joseph Nye, Robert Putnam, Michael Porter, Francis Fukuyama, Nicholas Negroponte, and Benjamin Barber to the shores of Tripoli in an effort to burnish the regime's image. The London School of Economics and some of its faculty were deeply involved with Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, as he earned his Ph.D. there in 2007 with a dissertation on -- wait for it -- liberal democracy and civil society. Even FP's own Steve Walt went for a brief visit in 2010.

As the Qaddafi family has morphed from pragmatic strongmen to bloodthirsty killers, the fallout in the academic world has been uneven. On the one hand, Howard Davies resigned as the head of LSE in the wake of the Libyan revelations. The Monitor Group acknowledged in a statement that, "We … believed that these visits could boost global receptivity for Mr. Gaddafi's stated intention to move the country more towards the West and open up to the rest of the world. Sadly, it is now clear that we, along with many others, misjudged that possibility."

On the other hand, Benjamin Barber sounds totally unapologetic in his interview with FP. His basic message is that "second-guessing the past, I mean, it's just 20/20 hindsight." Then there's this response:

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.

Finally, 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.

My 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.

Rereading his 2007 Washington Post op-ed, I think it's safe to say that Barber embraced sucking up to power juuuuuuuuust a wee bit more fervently than everyone else.

That said, the man has half a point here. As Ben Wildavsky has chronicled in The Great Brain Race, Western universities have been racing across the globe to set up additional revenue streams satellite campuses in authoritarian countries. Those schools that had no dealings with Libya likely do have dealings with the Gulf emirates, or China, or Russia, or … you get the point.

Furthermore, if you believe what Charles Kupchan writes in How Enemies Become Friends, it's precisely this category of interactions that potentially leads to reduced tensions between rival nations. Bear in mind that by 2006 Libya had renounced its WMD program and did seem somewhat interested in integrating itself into the West. Surely that's a moment when these kinds of interactions could havehad  an appreciable effect on a country's trajectory.

Another ethical question comes down to exactly how a scholar is engaging with a country. Engagement at the elite level, for example, has a greater potential for change, but also a great potential for "capture" by the authoritarian elite. Engagement with the population might have fewer moral quandaries (if there's a choice between teaching Saudi women* and not teaching Saudi women, for example, is not teaching really the morally correct option? ) but fewer opportunities for change.

There's an interesting quote in Farah Stockman's write-up that does stand out, however:

“The really nefarious aspect of [Monitor's parade of academics] is that it reinforced in Khadafy’s mind that he truly was an international intellectual world figure, and that his ideas of democracy were to be taken seriously,’’ said Dirk Vandewalle, associate professor at Dartmouth College and author of “A History of Modern Libya.’’ “It reinforced his reluctance to come to terms with the reality around him, which was that Libya is in many ways an inconsequential country and his ideas are half-baked.’’

In the Libyan case, maybe that is the best criteria for assorting ethical responsibility. For a scholar, engagement with power should not be automatically rejected, particularly if it means altering policies in a fruitful manner. When the exercise morphs into intellectual kabuki theater, however, then disengagement seems like the best course of action.

Those scholars who stopped participating after it was obvious that Qaddafi wasn't really interested in genuine change don't deserve much opprobrium. By that count, Barber really has a lot to answer for, while some of the others seem to have emerged relatively unscathed.

I'm curious what commenters have to say about this because I guarantee you one thing -- the more that autocratic regimes either buckle or crack down, the more this issue is going to come up for both universities and individual scholars.

[Full disclosure:  I taught a short course for Saudi women at Fletcher in the summer of 2009, and have absolutely no regrets about doing so.]

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