Shadow Lobbyists & The “Scholars-for-Dollars” Who Helped Rebrand Libya

Gaddaf in front of the Monitor Group building

The Mon­i­tor Group: Gaddafi’s PR firm used aca­d­e­mics to bur­nish Libya’s image

As an inter­na­tional coali­tion bom­bards Libya, it’s impor­tant to gauge the power of another blitz car­ried out by a very dif­fer­ent, elite inter­na­tional coali­tion: the pro­pa­ganda blitz con­ducted by the Harvard-powered con­sult­ing firm Mon­i­tor Group, using illus­tri­ous aca­d­e­mics and pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als from both sides of the Atlantic to bur­nish Libya’s image.

The Mon­i­tor Group — osten­si­bly work­ing to lib­er­al­ize Libya — was also report­edly paid hand­somely by Libya to carry out a Gaddafi PR cam­paign, send­ing these so-called “thought lead­ers” to Libya to lend their noto­ri­ous client pres­tige. Gaddafi ben­e­fited from the cred­i­bil­ity the aca­d­e­mics brought with them, the arti­cles some of them wrote upon return­ing from Libya, and debriefs some allegedly gave to gov­ern­ment offi­cials. Mon­i­tor Group, accord­ing to Politico, is not reg­is­tered as a lob­by­ist for Libya.

The cam­paign helps explain why Libya’s image soft­ened in recent years. And it also under­scores the emer­gence of a new breed of power bro­ker: “shadow lob­by­ists” who have come to per­vade every­thing from for­eign pol­icy and national secu­rity to finan­cial reg­u­la­tion and health care reform. These unreg­is­tered agents of influ­ence, uncon­strained by lob­by­ing laws, can be more potent than tra­di­tional lob­by­ists. And they can more eas­ily escape notice, as did the Mon­i­tor Group, weav­ing their way through global net­works and cre­at­ing a loop that is all but closed to demo­c­ra­tic input and monitoring.

Shadow lob­by­ists who trade on the rep­u­ta­tion of the impar­tial scholar can be espe­cially effec­tive and insid­i­ous, because, iron­i­cally, it is the image of the neu­tral, incor­rupt­ible intel­lec­tual that is being bought and sold. And Libya is just the lat­est exam­ple of aca­d­e­mics con­tracted to act as shadow lob­by­ists (or by shadow lob­by­ists) on behalf of com­pa­nies, gov­ern­ments or, in this case, a dictatorship.

Recently, aca­d­e­mic econ­o­mists were forced to address whether to adopt a code of ethics. Researchers at the Uni­ver­sity of Massachusetts-Amherst put out a report last fall which found that out of nine­teen promi­nent aca­d­e­mic econ­o­mists who gave “expert” advice to the media and pub­lic about finan­cial reform, the “vast major­ity of the time, [they] did not iden­tify [cor­po­rate] affil­i­a­tions and pos­si­ble con­flicts of inter­est.” Their dis­ci­pline was also rocked by the story of two high-profile econ­o­mists paid to assess Iceland’s econ­omy shortly before the banks there col­lapsed. Their find­ings were pre­dictably pos­i­tive and spec­tac­u­larly wrong.

And last sum­mer, the New York Times exam­ined what it called the “Academic-Industrial Com­plex”, namely, the vast num­bers of uni­ver­sity pres­i­dents serv­ing on cor­po­rate boards. Cor­po­ra­tions use these appoint­ments to enhance their pres­tige, the pres­i­dents them­selves get envi­able perks and hand­some out­side pay, but what do the share­hold­ers get? Often, the Times reports, these cam­pus fig­ures don’t have the needed finan­cial exper­tise and are even sought after because of that: they might be less likely to ask the hard ques­tions, ones that, by the way, seem­ingly didn’t get asked by cor­po­rate boards in the run-up to the 2008 eco­nomic collapse.

Which brings us back to the aca­d­e­mics who trav­eled to Libya. One in par­tic­u­lar, polit­i­cal the­o­rist and democ­racy advo­cate Ben­jamin Bar­ber, a Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus at Rut­gers, wrote a pos­i­tive piece in the Wash­ing­ton Post in 2007 about his visit with Gaddafi. The arti­cle did not men­tion that he had been paid by the Mon­i­tor Group. Bar­ber has come out swing­ing in his own defense and (pre­sum­ably unin­ten­tion­ally) offers some cre­dence to crit­ics of free­lanc­ing intel­lec­tu­als. In one inter­view with For­eign Pol­icy, he pon­ders the “old ques­tion that goes back to Machi­avelli…” of whether thinkers should engage with power: “My answer is that each per­son has to make their own decision.”

In another defense to The Nation, he insists that he was gen­uinely inter­ested in fos­ter­ing democ­racy in Libya, and was never swayed by money, or told to write any­thing at Monitor’s behest, adding: “… 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.”

He also sug­gests that if you have a long­time rep­u­ta­tion for integrity, you should be trusted to mon­i­tor your­self. But does self-regulation cut it? A more con­crete code of con­duct is needed when money and influ­ence are involved, not just to root out the cor­rupt, but, indeed, to pro­tect the integrity of the well-intentioned, as Bar­ber says he is.

A basic stan­dard of con­duct would call on aca­d­e­mics to use their well-honed pow­ers of crit­i­cal think­ing when pre­sented with finan­cial or pro­fes­sional oppor­tu­ni­ties, espe­cially when they come con­nected to noto­ri­ous sources like Libya. And uni­ver­si­ties hun­gry for cash should be wary as well: Bar­ber rightly points out that if a hand­ful of schol­ars get scru­ti­nized for this inci­dent, then so should the pres­ti­gious aca­d­e­mic insti­tu­tions tak­ing huge amounts of money from Saudi roy­als who might seek to pro­mote strict Wahabi Islam.

Tellingly, the most full-throated expres­sion of regret in the Libya mess has come from, of all places, Mariah Carey, who apol­o­gized pro­fusely for per­form­ing at a Gaddafi fam­ily event. She pro­nounced her­self “naive”, “embar­rassed”, adding: “…this is a les­son for all artists…We need to be more aware and take more respon­si­bil­ity regard­less of who books our shows. Ulti­mately, we as artists are to be held accountable.”

And yet top intel­lec­tu­als have engaged in rhetor­i­cal jujitsu to explain their (pre­sum­ably inad­ver­tent) role in a pro­pa­ganda pro­gram far more weighty to world affairs than a one-night celebrity concert.

Clearly the new stealth lob­by­ists at Mon­i­tor Group were pur­su­ing their own inter­ests, even as they were pur­port­edly oper­at­ing in the pub­lic inter­est. Mon­i­tor tried to bill its efforts as sim­ply an attempt to bring West­ern reform to Libya, but the doc­u­ments show oth­er­wise. Now, as we see inno­cent Libyans press­ing for democ­racy exe­cuted, and Amer­i­can forces at risk, those who tried to engi­neer Gaddafi’s come­back cam­paign need to own up to their sup­port­ing role.

By Janine Wedel and Linda Keenan

Pub­lished in The Huff­in­g­ton Post, March 24, 2011.

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