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Western public intellectuals have a bad habit of supporting unsavory regimes like Muammar Qaddafi’s not for money or intellectual rigor but because of vanity

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The wreckage of a U.S. F-15 fighter jet in Ghot Sultan, Libya, Tuesday. (Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)

Contrary to President Barack Obama’s remarks, the European and American bombs that are falling on positions held by Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s forces in Libya do not herald a war of humanitarian intervention. No one really knows who the Libyan rebels are. These are not the peaceful men and women of Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution. They are not even like the members of the Muslim Brotherhood who will likely come out of Egypt’s uprising as the biggest winners. Some of them appear to be the same Islamic militants who made their way into Iraq to kill American soldiers and who are now being encouraged to fight by senior al-Qaida field commander Abu Yahya al-Libi. Even weirder, champions of this war are members of the same Western intellectual class who appeared to be in love with the nutty Libyan dictator only a few months ago.

The Obama Administration was compelled to join its European allies in going against Qaddafi, but what forced the Europeans to act were the scandals surrounding the British academic institutions—like Leeds University, Glasgow University, the School of Oriental and African Studies, King’s College London, and the London School of Economics—who’d enjoyed unseemly ties with Qaddafi. Most famously, Howard Davies was compelled to resign this month as director of the LSE, to which Qaddafi’s International Charity and Development Foundation donated £1.5 million (about $2.5 million), and which admitted to its doctoral program his son Saif al-Islam, now best known not for his academic endeavors, or even his expensive suits, but for exhorting his allies to “fight to the last man, until the last bullet” in a rambling speech that more closely recalled his father’s tirades than polite London dinner-party chatter.

These highly publicized scandals would make it very difficult for European governments to continue to deal with Qaddafi now that he has turned his country into a war zone. But the main problem for British Prime Minister David Cameron is that, as we recall from the recent spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the United Kingdom’s pension fund is tied to its BP portfolio, and BP has extensive deals with the Libyans. In other words, it is a vital British interest to get rid of Qaddafi, at the very least so that BP and London can continue their key relationship with a major oil-producing state.

The irony then is that it was the intellectuals whose peaceful outreach to Qaddafi made war against the Libyan strongman necessary. The U.K. intellectual and academic elite surely led the way, but their American colleagues weren’t far behind. They all congratulated themselves that they were shaping the dictator’s ideas.

For instance, Rutgers professor Benjamin Barber wrote just last week that he has “no doubt” that his engagement with Qaddafi “ameliorated the consequences of his rule and created conditions conducive to gradualist reform.” How Barber squares this assessment of his contribution to Libya’s future with events unfolding in the country is unclear. What is clear is that Barber turned a blind eye to Qaddafi’s past record, the murders, tortures, and disappearances that were the basis of Hisham Matar’s novel In the Country of Men, which was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize.

In the same category as Barber is Joseph Nye, the Harvard professor famous for his ideas about soft power, or “the art of projecting influence through attraction rather than coercion.” “Sometimes people say soft power is too soft to accomplish anything,” Nye told an interviewer. “It’s an important part of the arsenal of power. When you ignore it, as we tend to have done, it turns out to be quite costly.”

Nye knows that Qaddafi “has long been seen as a bad boy in the West”—a sponsor of terrorism with little respect for human rights—“but in recent years, Qaddafi has appeared to be changing. He still wants to project Libyan power, but he is going about it differently than in decades past.” Does that mean the Bedouin chieftain in the big tent is interested in Nye’s intellectual framework? “Sure enough,” writes Nye, “a half hour into our conversation, he asked how Libya might increase its soft power on the world stage.”

It was clearly lost on the Harvard academic that he is part of Qaddafi’s “soft power” campaign to whitewash his regime’s image. But the Libyan strongman had him at hello—“Qaddafi ushered [Nye] into his tent, where he had five of Nye’s books laid out on a table.” Thus are intellectuals bought off, by showing an “interest” in their work.

Perhaps even more troubling than Nye’s easy virtue is that this academic who specializes in interpreting the behavior of states does not seem to understand that what altered Qaddafi’s behavior—what got him to drop his nuclear program and stop sponsoring terror attacks—was the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Qaddafi didn’t want to be the next Arab leader after Saddam Hussein caught live on TV crawling out of a spider hole into the waiting arms of U.S. soldiers. In other words, it was hard power the old-fashioned way that brought Qaddafi to heel, and violence remained the central pillar of the regime long after Nye and Qaddafi exchanged signed editions of their books.

What’s interesting about the intellectuals-and-Qaddafi controversy is that most of the reports have focused on the sums exchanged—the payments that the Monitor Group doled out to Nye, Barber, and the rest, or the contributions Qaddafi made to the LSE. But the issue is not simply money, or else Lee Bollinger and Columbia University would’ve charged the Islamic Republic of Iran for use of the auditorium space that it provided Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the last two years.

The Qaddafi scandal is not an isolated case. Warming to violent rulers is the rule for Western intellectuals rather than the exception—and here the character type was made all the more irresistible by Qaddafi’s eccentric tastes: his Euro-Bedouin couture, the cadre of Amazon bodyguards, the bogus philosophical-political ramblings with third-world pedigree. But whichever way you cut it, this Pierrot of the Sahara is a murderer. If intellectuals can embrace Qaddafi, they will embrace anyone. The issue then is not simply the money.

To be sure, Libya and the rest of the oil-producing Arab states give tons of money to Western universities to promote their twisted versions of Islam and Middle Eastern politics. Cambridge has £8 million from Saudi Arabia and another £4 million from Oman, Kuwait donated $4.5 million to my alma mater, George Washington University, and so on. But if it were simply about cash, how do you explain why Harvard’s Arab alumni association chose to hold its 2011 Arab World Conference in Damascus, under the auspices of Asma al-Assad, wife of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad? Harvard’s vice provost for international affairs, Jorge Dominguez, will be delivering a keynote address in the city that the Syrian regime likes to call the capital of Arab resistance—which served as a transit route for foreign fighters like those same Libyan Islamists going in to Iraq to kill U.S. troops and Washington’s Iraqi allies. Syria has very little oil wealth, so that’s not why Harvard works with a regime that supports anti-U.S., anti-Israeli, and anti-Arab terror.

The relationship between the intellectuals and the regimes started with money, but in order to justify the cash the intelligentsia explained that they were not simply bartering their prestige but rather that the deal afforded them an opportunity to affect change. But what values do they have to share when the transaction has exposed their willingness to sacrifice their values?

This is not about money because no amount of it would enable these academic institutions to affect change among the societies they are engaged with, nor even to teach students from Arab societies. The problem here is not the Arabs, nor even their ruthless and often rich regimes—the problem is the intellectuals. The reason that the Western intellectual class is not able to judge a dictator by his actions is that it does not believe in the moral values that would give rise to the ability to make such judgments. The issue is simply vanity—by which I mean not merely an overabundance of self-regard but a deep and abiding emptiness. There is nothing humanitarian about the class that clamors for the end of a tyrant who had their prestige at a discount.

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Michael W. says:

Another gem by a great journalist.

Barry Meislin says:

If intellectuals can embrace Qaddafi, they will embrace anyone.

Um, sorry, no. That is, not quite.

They will not touch Israel or Israelis with a barge pole. More specifically, they will not touch Israelis or Jews who defend the State of Israel with a barge pole.

The criterion for acceptance for such Israelis (and Jews) is: they must be adamant about their virtue, that is, they must villify and slander the Jewish State endlessly and preferably with all the vitriol and prevarication they can muster.

Then and only then are they acceptable. Thus is their virtue proven.

In fact, I think it is this feature that makes Arab dictators so attractive to the intelligentsia and the academic elites.

You didn’t see them cozying up to Mubarak or Jordan’s King Abdullah, whose countries have de jure (if not de facto) peace treaties with Israel.

Of course, Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah didn’t have much cash to deliver….but then neither did Syria’s al-Assad.

Go figure.

Dottie says:

Why does Lee Smith always find two or three odd examples and then go off on a rant about the way that ALL WESTERN INTELLECTUALS hate Israel and give aid and comfort to Israel’s enemies? As polemic, it’s enticing. As logic, it’s absurd. The equivalent would be to take a one or two conservative thinkers or writers (they’re intellectuals too, btw) and say that ALL CONSERVATIVES think like Krauthammer and Cato and Rush Limbaugh and therefore…..

I’m happy when Lee Smith exposes the hypocrisy of some. His advocacy of hard power and hatred of one’s enemies leads him to make claims that undermine his arguments and damage his credibility. But to his amen corner (see the other comments here) he is a gift. He is not a journalist. He is an editorialist. And a somewhat sloppy one at that.

Dottie says:

To Barry Meislin–you make the mistake that Lee Smith does of thinking that opposition to Netanyahu is opposition to Israel. That’s not true. You can love Israel and think the settlements are a mistake.

Barry Meislin says:

1. It’s possible that the settlements are a mistake, but given the goals and desires of Israel’s partners in peace, removing them is also a mistake.

That is, unless it is your fervent wish to turn all of Israel into the town of Sderot.

2. Is East Jerusalem also a “settlement”?

3. Speaking of settlements, as far as Israel’s partners in peace are concerned, all of Israel is a “settlement.” This is why they insist (among other things) on the Palestinian right of return to Israel’s pre-1967 cease-fire line, a non-negotiable demand that is intended to bring about the end of the State of Israel; but since the State of Israel cannot agree to her own demise, it is therefore a demand that ensures that the conflict continues so that the State of Israel is further delegitimized and weakened and so that good, well-meaning people such as yourself (along with some less good, less well-meaning people) can continue to insist that they love Israel while wishing to reduce it to the condition of Sderot.

Celticpole says:

Conversation, dialog, exchange of ideas: Phooney, not for the lack of what I really want to write.! So 500 guys on the entire planet can get together and politely discuss the socio-economic future of humanity, complete with footnotes. So What! What most people don’t get, or really want to believe is that we Americans, and perhaps the Euros as well, live in MYTH. It all comes down to “Filming In Morocco”: Camels, flowing robes, miles of sand dunes and desrt nights “Cool”, “Chic”, “Romantic”. Business and yeshiva discussions out of Yentl: Nhaah!
Want to explain the world love affair with the arabs and not the israelis. Go to the Movies. Connect the dots from Valentino to Obi-Wan Ken-Obi. Oh, yeah, there’s that “No Oil In Jerusalem” thing too.
Change the stereotypes or you change Nothing.

I agree with Lee Smith that the bombs dropping on Libya do not constitute a war of humanitarian intervention. If that were truly the case, the bombs would have started falling two weeks ago, before the slaughter began. I felt it was important then, as I wrote in my essay, “What Part of No-Fly Don’T You Understand,” that the west take advantage of the abrupt collapse of the Gadhafi institutional framework, to ensure his demise. Regardless of who was overthrowing him, the result was likely to be an improvement, and even if not, was unlikely to be worse than the present regime. By assisting the rebels the West at least had a chance to influence the shape of the subsequent government. Also, it likely wouldn’t have required bombs and missiles to fly. The mere threat may well have been enough to stay the Libyan dictator’s hand. As Smith notes above, it is hard power which moves Gadhafi to action, or in this case, inaction. Authentic American leadership would have taken the lead on this, rather than cower behind French skirts.

That said, I can’t embrace Smith’s argument, certainly not as far as the US goes, that it is Western Intellectuals’ fears of being embarrassed that prompted our governments to act. Certainly in the US, intellectuals have no influence over government action. Despite Obama’s predilection to bow and scrape before European intellectual traditions, those who surround him, who presume to be intellectual forces, are as callow and feckless as the Chief Bracket Picker himself.

Mitch says:

It seems rather self destructive by the continuing use of the word “settlements” when referring to the construction of needed residential units, whether in new towns or villages or in the expansion of existing
municipal entities. Construction of arab municipalities should also be permitted as long as they follow legal procedures.
Mr. Smith’s comments give good reason for the so called western acedemic elitists constant attempts to boycott Israeli academics. However, it is all about the money.

asherZ says:

Intellectual support of dictators and Islamofascists is not due to something as innocuous as vanity or an abiding emptines as Lee Smith suggests. More likely it is the far left leanings of many of these so-called intellectuals, who are allying with these unsavory and dangerous types, both of whom are looking to destabilize the Capitalist western democracies with the view to introduce a New World Order. Of course the ultimate goals of both groups are quite different, but they are allied for the moment in overturning the current systems.

Why does your writer,Lee Smith, have the chutzpa to lump Western thinkers,
I wont even call them intellectuals as I am not, in one class. I think you should get what Dottie says, to write on this subject. She, as most intelligent people, know that all is not white or black.
Sy Fort Lee NJ

Why does Lee Smith keep on generalizing? Pamela Geller is a racist and pro-Israel, English defence league are racist and pro-Israel. Does that make it valid to call all pro-Israelis racist?

M. Brukhes says:

Don’t worry, folks: Tablet being Tablet and Lee Smith being Lee Smith, I’m confident that next week he and they will run an article explaining why the intervention in Libya will be the best thing that ever happened to the US, Israel, and the intellectual community….

Great as usual, but this is only prelude to deeper discussion of the intellectual fascination with power, a dynamic with ancient roots. I don’t see it as entirely dissimilar to such prominent cases as Heidegger’s engrossment with the Nazis.

I suppose, at the simplest level, it affirms the notion that the intellectual wields real influence, and can shape the thinking of a tyrant. Heidegger’s excuse for staying on in Germany, joining the party and accepting an academic appointment under it’s auspices after they’d driven his mentor, his lover and his students out was that it would have been much worse without his moderating voice, an eerie echo of Barber’s claims.

It would be valuable to unearth that quote.

This anti-“intellectual” diatribe reminds me of that brilliant parable in which a Jew finds himself stuck on a crowded train next to an anti-Semite who rants on and on blaming every serious problem on “The Jews!” to which our hero, sitting next to him, adds, “And the bicycle-riders!”
“This terrible economy?” says the anti-Semite, “obviously a result of the secret machinations of the Jews.”
“And the bicycle-riders!” says the Jew.
“The war is also the Jews’ fault.
“And the bicycle-riders!” says the Jew.
Finally, the anti-Semite has had enough.
“Bicycle-riders? Why the bicycle-rider?” he asks, exasperated.
The Jew answers, “Why the Jews?”

From wikipedia, this is Karl Lowith on Heidegger, postwar:

“In response to my remark that I could understand many things about his attitude, with one exception, which was that he would permit himself to be seated at the same table with a figure such as Julius Streicher (at the German Academy of Law), he was silent at first. At last he uttered this well-known rationalisation (which Karl Barth saw so clearly), which amounted to saying that “it all would have been much worse if some men of knowledge had not been involved.” And with a bitter resentment towards people of culture, he concluded his statement: “If these gentlemen had not considered themselves too refined to become involved, things would have been different, but I had to stay in there alone.”

Jack says:

Lee Smith’s ire at Qaddafi’s supporters in the West is well-taken but it falls short. In “warming to violent rulers,” Western public intellectuals, have plenty of company. In Qadaffi’s case alone there are the corporate lobbyists who took his money and are now running for cover, the CIA types who saw mutual benefit in supporting him, a long list of State Department operatives covering both Republican and Democratic administrations. But why stop here? American oil companies have long carried water for Middle East tyrannies and the post-war U.S. has done its share to sustain and, indeed, create dictatorships all over the world. Implicit in Smith’s argument is that his targets are liberal intellectuals. Though unspoken it is the Left that is clearly his target. Missing from his critique is the role played by the Right in the last 60 years of cozying up to dictators. Most famously, we have the espousal by the conservative guru Jean Kirpatrick of “authoritarian” governments in the hope that they are more likely to morph into democracies than traditional dictatorships. Strangely, these proto-democracies failed to comply. Just to touch on a few highlights of the Right’s embrace of dictatorship, we have that avatar of economic freedom Milton Friedman going down to advise the Pinochet Government in Chile while its victims were still being tortured in prisons, the CIA’s overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran to establish the Shah’s dictatorship (and what that led to), the U.S. involvement in establishing and nurturing dictators from Guatemala to the Philippines. We can go back to Sen. Pat McCarran’s lobbying for Franco’s Fascist dictatorship after World War II and on to George Bush’s back-slapping his pal Vladimir as Putin was turning a vise on Russian democracy. This is a short list. The fact is realpolitik makes strange bedfellows. There is enough blame to go around. Narrowing the field to public (i.e. liberal) intellectuals is not history but a legal brief.

You know, thinking about that, Jack, I think your line about realpolitik is correct, but should it apply to the domain of intellectuals? Shouldn’t they be, like poets, the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’? I can think of circumstances where cooperation with a dictator may be justified–we couldn’t have defeated Hitler without Uncle Joe–but can intellectuals be likewise absolved?

Wonderfully informative, Jack. Thanks for grounding the discussion in some well-considered historical context.

alberto says:

It would be good to have a list of lecturers and academicians who being part of institutions receiving arab funds, support and are part of boycots to Israel, as a compensation.

I must be hanging out with the wrong intellectuals–none of them supports Qaddafi.

grodo says:

Lee Smith article is not meant to be even handed. Jacks comments made a important filler. But Smith’s criticism brings to light a vital point where vanity among respected intellectuals clouds clear ethical scrutiny.

Many intellectuals base their analysis to support a thesis in their own thinking that they have been promoting and selling much of their professional lifes. If the subject will bring them prestige they can fit whqatever ugliest into their idealogical framework and explain it away. This is true for both right and left intellectuals.

Any one who questions these theories on ehtical or values based criteria is considered niave or superficial. What would make me respect Professor Barber would be a statement clearly cpmmenting on Qadaffi’s murderous past and present and then make his presentation. Barber doesnt do that and therefore deserve deep scrutiny. One of the reason for Barber’s prominance as an intellectual is his prolific writing the other is his views always concur witht the view of the major players in teh state department, with alittle tweeking. Simply put he has no strong ethics and never had.

JCarpenter says:

Recall the West supported Osama bin Laden and the Taliban (sounds like a bad rock group) in their efforts v. the Soviets in Afghanistan—“seemed like a good idea at the time.” The concept that the enemy of our enemy = our friend will always, always, come back to bite us in the behind.

Dani ben Leb says:

The short of the long is that when 700 civilians die in Cast Lead, it is billed as deliberate ethnic cleansing by the fascist Israel Jews. When 30.000 civilians are murdered in cold blood in Syria nobody gives a fuck.

When Iran executes two dissidents a day this year, nobody from the left BDS/”human rights” movement gives a fuck. When a Pal is killed in the West Bank mondoweiss and EI cover it in five separate articles. This whole discussion was NEVER about human rights in the ME. It is obviously about something else.

LSE Director did not just take a donation from a mass murderers son, blood money, he also flew to Libya repeatedly to “advise” Gaddafi on economic matters. And that from a left leaning school full of human right activists.

to the comment poster above, you are absolutely right

This website has some really helpful info on it! Thank you for informing me.

Happy Fourth of July!

When I originally commented I clicked the -Notify me when new surveys are added- checkbox and today whenever a comment is added I receive four emails using the same comment. Possibly there is however you can eliminate me from that service? Thanks!


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Western public intellectuals have a bad habit of supporting unsavory regimes like Muammar Qaddafi’s not for money or intellectual rigor but because of vanity

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