In 2006 and 2007, a dozen Western intellectuals traveled to the North African desert for intimate conversations with the man who likes to call himself the Brother Leader. Muammar Qaddafi received his visitors in a carpeted Bedouin-style tent, where they sat on plastic chairs and sipped tea while discussing the dictator's thoughts on economics and politics.
The meetings were arranged by the Monitor Group, a Cambridge (Mass.) consulting firm co-founded in 1983 by Michael Porter, the Harvard Business School management expert. As Politico first reported on Feb. 21, the Qaddafi regime paid Monitor a fee of $3 million a year, plus expenses, to run what the firm called "a sustained, long-term program to enhance international understanding and appreciation of Libya." Monitor, which has 1,500 employees worldwide, organized roundtables and produced thick studies on stimulating business in the isolated oil state. It provided research for a PhD thesis Qaddafi's son Saif al-Islam submitted to the London School of Economics.
At one point, the firm proposed a mass-circulation book—for an additional price of $2.45 million—that according to a Monitor memo would "allow the reader to hear Qaddafi elaborate, in his own words and in conversation with renowned international experts, his core ideas on individual freedom, direct democracy vs. representative democracy, [and] the role of state and religion."
The book never materialized, but Monitor succeeded in generating plenty of positive press for Libya. In an interview with Businessweek in February 2007, Porter said Saif Qaddafi had helped arrange Monitor's engagement with Libya. "I have gotten to know Saif quite well," Porter said. "He was a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics, where he studied with some of the best professors. He's very much oriented toward making Libya a member of the modern world community."
Monitor brought Benjamin R. Barber, then a professor at the University of Maryland, to Libya for three visits. On Aug. 15, 2007, Barber published an opinion article in The Washington Post entitled "Qaddafi's Libya: An Ally for America?" Although "written off not long ago as an implacable despot," Qaddafi "is a complex and adaptive thinker," Barber asserted, "as well as an efficient, if laid-back autocrat." Joseph Nye, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, also met Qaddafi. In December 2007 he published an essay in The New Republic in which he described the ruler of Libya since 1969 as "an autocrat" and a past "sponsor of terrorism," but also a man of ideas, "actively seeking a new strategy" and interested in "direct democracy."
Now that Qaddafi has vowed to hunt down and kill every last dissident in Libya, Monitor's image-buffing campaign has received probing coverage in The Boston Globe and Mother Jones, and the firm has issued an online apologia. "Given the terrible spectacle of Colonel Qaddafi using force on his own people, it may be difficult to imagine that just a few years ago many saw a period of promise in Libya," the firm said on Mar. 24. "Colonel Qaddafi had renounced terror, forfeited nuclear and chemical weapons and programs, and declared himself ready to rejoin the community of nations."
An idea in the abstract may thrill its creator, but an idea that has been tested by reality—and survives intact—can change the world. That's why academics who descend from the ivory tower and subject their theories to the complications of modern life deserve applause. Provided, of course, that their motivations remain pure. Recent history suggests that's a tricky line to walk.
A generation of Ivy League economists was enjoying both professional esteem and financial industry paychecks until the Wall Street crisis of 2008 made them look pretty dumb, if not venal. The Academy Award-winning documentary Inside Job offered a bipartisan parade of these men—for example, at Harvard, Larry Summers, a Democrat who opposed more oversight of derivatives, also collected generous speaking fees from investment banks, while Frederic Mishkin, a George W. Bush appointee to the Federal Reserve who teaches at Columbia, was paid to co-author a 2006 report praising the Icelandic financial system, which subsequently collapsed.
The same could be said for the academics who journeyed to Libya. It's true that between 2006 and 2008, when Monitor said it did the bulk of its work, the country's trajectory seemed positive. The U.N. had lifted sanctions in 2003, and the U.S. had resumed full diplomatic relations in 2006. The families of victims of the Libyan-engineered Pan Am-Lockerbie bombing of 1988 were paid hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements.
None of that excuses the use of august academic reputations and affiliations to promote the Qaddafis. Monitor partner Eamonn Kelly said in an e-mail to Bloomberg Businessweek that the firm regrets "our research in support" of Saif Qaddafi's doctoral thesis. "We also regret the proposal submitted to write a book under Colonel Qaddafi's name. Although this work was not completed, the very idea was a mistake." Kelly said he is leading an internal investigation that includes whether Monitor engaged in lobbying without having registered to represent Libya.
What Monitor did is no different from what K Street "public affairs" shops do every day of the week for dubious foreign governments. Still, the Libya episode leaves a distinctive odor, one that emanates from the corruption of academic reputation. Harry Lewis, a computer science professor at Harvard, doesn't like the smell. During a faculty meeting on Apr. 5, he asked the university's president, Drew Faust, "Shouldn't Harvard acknowledge embarrassment, and might you remind us that when we parlay our status as Harvard professors for personal profit, we can hurt both the university and all of its members?" Faust responded that she supports such expressions of concern but also endorses "the wide discretion of all of you in this room … to pursue the directions of academic inquiry you choose, and the outside activities and engagements you choose."
Harvard's Nye rejects suggestions that he, for one, ought to apologize for anything. Now a university distinguished service professor, the defense-policy expert explains in an interview that he visited Tripoli in hopes of nudging Qaddafi toward moderation and encouraging Libyan reformers. The New Republic essay was his idea, not Monitor's, he says, and he disclosed to the magazine that he had been hired by the consulting firm. Nye won't say what he was paid, citing a confidentiality clause. "I am confident that I did not cross any ethical red line," he adds. "I have never supported Qaddafi, and I'm on record supporting President Obama's actions to try to push him out."
Professors of Nye's rank do not have to schlep to Tripoli to collect a consultant's fee. He says he does about a half-dozen paid outside gigs a year, mostly for management-consulting firms and corporations. Beyond the extra money, it's got to be flattering to have a head of state—even an erratic tyrant—show curiosity about your work. Nye wrote that when he visited Qaddafi's tent, the dictator had five of the professor's books on hand, including Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. Qaddafi, he wrote, "seems to have become interested in soft power—the art of projecting influence through attraction rather than coercion." In due time, Qaddafi would demonstrate his abiding attachment to coercion.
Fascination with Nye's theories spilled over to the next generation of Qaddafis. Saif wrote about soft power in his PhD thesis, which was accepted by the London School of Economics (LSE) in 2008. In his acknowledgments, the younger Qaddafi thanked Nye for his advice, according to an online copy of the dissertation.
Nye says he read and commented on only one chapter, something he says he routinely does for those who write about his theories. The LSE said in March it is investigating whether Saif plagiarized parts of his thesis—a controversy Nye says he knows nothing about. In 2009, after awarding Saif his doctorate in philosophy, the LSE accepted a pledge for a £1.5 million ($2.5 million) donation from a charity run by the Qaddafi son, as well as another £1.5 million as part of a contract to train future Libyan leaders. Howard Davies resigned last month as director of the LSE, admitting that the arrangements with Libya had hurt the school's reputation.
Porter canceled an interview with Businessweek, citing class-preparation duties. Barber, now a distinguished senior fellow at Demos, a New York think tank, did not respond to requests for comment.
At least one Monitor superstar confesses to chagrin about Libya. Robert D. Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard, spent several hours with the colonel in January 2007. "My hosts were willing to pay my standard consulting fee, and to be honest, I was curious," Putnam wrote in The Wall Street Journal on Feb. 26. Accompanied by his wife, Rosemary, Putnam spoke with Qaddafi about "how the development of civil society might be applied to democratic reform in Libya." Still, Putnam couldn't tell: "Was this a serious conversation or an elaborate farce?"
"I came away thinking—hoping—that I had managed to sway Colonel Qaddafi in some small way, but my wife was skeptical," Putnam says. Two months later, he was invited back to Tripoli. "But by then," he wrote, "I had concluded that the whole exercise was a public-relations stunt, and I declined."
One lesson from the Monitor fiasco is that the scholar is wise who listens to his wife. Another is that, whatever its financial appeal, flattery for hire has no place on the CV of a serious academic.