It’s always frustrating to me to see instant “experts” emerge when a country comes to the forefront of the news. And it’s even more frustrating to see academics co-opted by lobbying firms employed by special interests or the countries in question. One egregious example of this is the case of the University of Maryland’s Benjamin Barber, who it turns out was paid by a lobbying firm to improve Libya’s image abroad. After Barber’s shady, and previously undisclosed, relationship to Qadhaffi’s regime via this lobbying firm was disclosed, you’d think that no one would want to print his pieces on the country anymore.
You’d be wrong. Here he is earlier this month in The Guardian, still shilling for the infamous Seif al-Islam. Like I said, it’s frustrating to see space given to people like Barber, when I’d much rather read something by, say, Dirk Vandewalle, whose books on Libya (here and here) are probably the best resources on the country in English. Unfortunately, with the exception of two pieces in Foreign Policy, there hasen’t been much from Vandewalle since the conflict in Libya started.
So it was nice to see Vandewalle take to The Guardian to respond to Barber:
In an earlier article, weeks after Saif’s infamous speech in which he vowed to help crush all opposition, Barber exhorted us to “engage with Saif’s better instincts, for Libya’s sake” (Yes, he’s a Gaddafi. But there is still a real reformer inside, 13 April). Barber, like several other western public intellectuals and well-known academic figures that were brought to Libya to help provide a veneer of respectability to the regime, never really understood what they were up against. His support of Saif – a self-appointed reformer who argued for accountability but, without accountability, spent millions of dollars of his country’s money for his personal enjoyment – was a particularly egregious example.
But nowhere is his lack of understanding of Libya’s reality under Gaddafi so apparent as when he tries to parse Saif’s role in the uprising by asking whether he was “merely a cheerleader for the regime, or … giving orders?” Doesn’t he understand that in a brutal dictatorship like Libya’s, Saif’s privileged position in effect made that distinction purely academic?
Perhaps the point is simply that everyone should desist offering unsolicited advice, and let Libyans get on with the formidable tasks they face in rebuilding a country that, in part because of Saif Gaddafi’s actions, suffered so much.