Understanding Libya’s Michael Corleone

The international community saw Muammar's Western-educated, reform-minded son as the best hope for a freer, more democratic Libya. Did they get him wrong?


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?

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.

FP: 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…

FP: 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.

And 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.

Then 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.

FP: 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 chosen identity.

FP: Did you think that Saif might have gone back to Europe and become a voice for reform?

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.

FP: 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.

FP: 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.

FP: 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…

FP: Yes, but we’re talking about authorizing the air force to attack his own people.

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.

With 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 to free.

And 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.

The 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.

The 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.

FP: 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.

FP: 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.

FP: 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."

FP: 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.

FP: 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.

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.

FP: 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?

FP: 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.

Sadly, my own view is if his father doesn’t survive, Saif is unlikely to survive either.

FP: 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 welcomed.

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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