Editor’s note: The following comments by Benjamin R. Barber are in response to Jon Wiener’s “Professors Paid by Qaddafi: Providing ‘Positive Public Relations.’ ”
Following in the steps of Fox ax-woman Judith Miller (of the weapons-of-mass-destruction-in-Iraq lie and the outing-of-Valerie-Plame fame) and right-wing BBC 2 TV host Gavin Esler—both of whom have attacked me and others who went to Libya four years ago to talk with Muammar Qaddafi and to write about the new relationship emerging following Libya’s yielding of its WMD program—Jon Wiener has joined the hunt on our integrity. Unlike others who have refused comment, I have responded to reporters wanting to know more about Monitor and what we were doing in Libya. And when he called, I talked to Wiener at length. As a consequence, he focused exclusively on me, content to say that others who had gone to Libya had not answered his call for information and could be safely ignored.
The most important point I made repeatedly in my conversation with Wiener is one he managed to ignore completely: it is not who pays you that is important but whether they are paying you to do what you do, or you are doing what they want you to do because they are paying you.
What I wrote in the Washington Post, and what others wrote following their Qaddafi meetings years ago, was initiated by us and not by Monitor (the consultancy under whose aegis we were sent to Libya). These articles reflected our own view of the US relationship with Libya—a relationship that was in the news and in play. I believed an improvement in the relationship of the kind the our government was promoting was a good thing for us and for peaceful change in Libya. From my conversation with Qaddafi, I thought he genuinely was seeking an improvement in relations and that, anxious to please, he might be willing to permit positive changes. I wrote this not on order from Monitor or to gild Qaddafi’s wilted lily but because that is what I believed; and because what I do is to write about my work, my engagements and my beliefs.
Wiener pays scant attention to my work with Saif Qaddafi and his Foundation, which grew out of my visits with Qaddafi Sr. The Foundation created a spirit of reform that had a genuine impact in the country. In the words of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “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.”
Whatever Saif’s role as a reformer, I have no doubt that Muarmmar Qaddafi remained a ruthless dictator during the period of engagement with the United States, but I also have no doubt that engagement by the Bush administration, by Tony Blair and by scholars like Tony Giddens and me ameliorated the consequences of his rule and created conditions conducive to gradualist reform. Calling him a brute tyrant in print didn’t seem a very useful way to cultivate change and prompt concessions to reform and to the US relationship. The eventual release of the medical hostages (nurses) and the Lockerbie settlement, along with extensive intelligence cooperation against Al Qaeda and an improvement in the human rights situation in Libya as attested to by Human Rights Watch and the Carnegie Endowment, all seem to me to have vindicated the belief that good could come from bringing Libya out from the cold where it had languished as a rogue, terrorist state. I fully appreciate that my views in the Post article and in other articles are subject to criticism. I also accept that it is legitimate to argue, as some have, that we were naïve in our views to think that change from within was possible—though I would dispute that claim.