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From Libya With Love

How a US consulting firm used American academics to rehab Muammar Qaddafi’s image.

| Thu Mar. 3, 2011 4:01 AM EST

In February 2007 Harvard professor Joseph Nye Jr., who developed the concept of "soft power," visited Libya and sipped tea for three hours with Muammar Qaddafi. Months later, he penned an elegant description of the chat for The New Republic, reporting that Qaddafi had been interested in discussing "direct democracy." Nye noted that "there is no doubt that" the Libyan autocrat "acts differently on the world stage today than he did in decades past. And the fact that he took so much time to discuss ideas—including soft power—with a visiting professor suggests that he is actively seeking a new strategy." The article struck a hopeful tone: that there was a new Qaddafi. It also noted that Nye had gone to Libya "at the invitation of the Monitor Group, a consulting company that is helping Libya open itself to the global economy."

Nye did not disclose all. He had actually traveled to Tripoli as a paid consultant of the Monitor Group (a relationship he disclosed in an email to Mother Jones), and the firm was working under a $3 million-per-year contract with Libya. Monitor, a Boston-based consulting firm with ties to the Harvard Business School, had been retained, according to internal documents obtained by a Libyan dissident group, not to promote economic development, but "to enhance the profile of Libya and Muammar Qadhafi." So The New Republic published an article sympathetic to Qaddafi that had been written by a prominent American intellectual paid by a firm that was being compensated by Libya to burnish the dictator's image.

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Presumably, Nye was sharing his independently derived view of Qaddafi. Yet a source familiar with the Harvard professor's original submission to the magazine notes, "It took considerable prodding from editors to get him to reluctantly acknowledge the regime's very well-known dark side." And Franklin Foer, then the editor of the magazine, says, "If we had known that he was consulting for a firm paid by the government, we wouldn't have run the piece." (After an inquiry by Mother Jones, The New Republic added a disclaimer to the Nye story acknowledging the details of Nye's relationship with Monitor.)*

"Did I realize that I was working within an autocratic regime and the odds of making change were low? Yes."

The Nye article was but one PR coup the Monitor Group delivered for Qaddafi. But the firm also succeeded on other fronts. The two chief goals of the project, according to an internal document describing Monitor's Libya operations, were to produce a makeover for Libya and to introduce Qaddafi "as a thinker and intellectual, independent of his more widely-known and very public persona as the Leader of the Revolution in Libya." In a July 3, 2006, letter to its contact in the Libyan government, Mark Fuller, the CEO of Monitor, and Rajeev Singh-Molares, a director of the firm, wrote,

Libya has suffered from a deficit of positive public relations and adequate contact with a wide range of opnion-leaders and contemporary thinkers. This program aims to redress the balance in Libya's favor.

The key strategy for achieving these aims, the operation summary said, "involves introducing to Libya important international figures that will influence other nations' policies towards the country." Also on the table, according to a Monitor document, was a book that Monitor would produce on "Qadhafi, the Man and His Ideas," based in part on interviews between the Libyan dictator and these visiting international influentials. The book supposedly would "enable the international intellectual and policy-making elite to understand Qadhafi as an individual thinker rather than leader of a state." (Monitor's fee for this particular task: $1.65 million.) This volume never materialized. But one primary outcome of Monitor's pro-Qaddafi endeavors, the operation summary said, was an increase in media coverage "broadly positive and increasingly sensitive to the Libyan point of view." 

It worked: Several thought-leaders were brought to Libya by Monitor to chat with the Leader—including neoconservative Richard Perle (who then briefed Vice President Dick Cheney on his visits), political economist Francis Fukuyama, and conservative scholar Bernard Lewis (who briefed the US embassy in Israel on his trip)—and a few of the "visitors," as Monitor referred to them, did write mostly positive articles, without revealing they had been part of the Monitor Group's endeavor to clean up Qaddafi. Some might not have even known they had been recruited for an image rehabilitation reffort.

In 2006 and 2007, Benjamin Barber, an author specializing in democracy studies and a senior fellow at Demos, a pro-democracy think tank, took three trips to Libya as a paid consultant to Monitor. On these visits, Barber met with Libyan lawyers, officials, and activists interested in democratic reform—and Qaddafi, too. "We went," he says, "in the hope we might be able to reinforce elements inside Libya interested in change, looking to engage civil society and create a foundation for a movement." Barber served on the international advisory board of Qaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, which was overseen by Saif Qaddafi, the second-eldest son of the Libyan dictator, who supported the foundation's work on human rights and democracy-promotion projects and who seemed a reformist himself (until last month, when he sided with his father in declaring war on the protesters). "Did I realize that I was working within an autocratic regime and the odds of making change were low?" Barber remarks. "Yes."

* After this piece was posted, Nye complained to Foer about Foer's characterization of Nye's disclosure. Following that, Foer submitted this statement to Mother Jones:

Joseph Nye has just found the draft of the piece he submitted to The New Republic. In that draft he wrote, "I was in Libya at the invitation of a former Harvard colleague who works for the Monitor Group, a consulting company which has undertaken to help Libya open itself to the global economy. Part of that process is meeting with a variety of Western experts whom Monitor hires as consultants." Based on that information, TNR should have prodded him to include a more explicit disclosure in the final version of his piece. Re-reading that draft, it's clear that my quote to you was far too categorical.

In an email to Mother Jones, Nye wrote,

I answered your questions honestly about whether I had been paid by Monitor, but you then wrote something different that was not true. You...accepted one source about whether I told TNR that I had been paid by Monitor without checking back with me. I attach the July [2007] draft of the article that I submitted to TNR. You will see that on line 9 I said that the consultants had been "hired" by Monitor. Hired means paid.

Nye did include a reference to paid consultants in his original draft, but this was not a clear statement that he had been paid directly by Monitor—and it certainly wasn't a disclosure that he had been paid as part of a Monitor project designed to clean up Qaddafi's image. Moreover, according to TNR editors, Nye didn't object to the final version of The New Republic piece, which, after extensive editing, no longer included a mention of Monitor paying outside consultants to engage in "meetings" in Libya. Asked whether he had objected to the final version, Nye told Mother Jones, "All I know is that I alerted them that I was paid."

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