On Useful Idiots and Dictatorships ~ Part One ~ UpDate

March 25, 2011

by Dr Mark Hayes

“Therfore bihoueth hire a ful long spoon That shal ete with a feend.”

Geoffrey Chaucer, c. 1390

“If you’re going to sup with the Devil, you’d better bring a long spoon.”

UpDate ~ April 10, 2011

The London School of Economics (LSE) has set up a Site which contains its version and position on the Gaddafi Libyan funding scandal.

On my reading, typical of the very carefully worded official statements of this kind which really doesn’t fully explain or defend their ‘constructive engagement’ with the Libyan regime.

It does contain a Link to a personal statement by Prof David Held.

Meanwhile, Dr Anne Corbett, an honorary LSE Visiting Fellow, reflects on Fred Halliday’s vision of what a university ought to be and do, drawing from a 1998 lecture of his she attended. This has universal resonance.

UpDate – March 31, 2001

While Prof David Held hasn’t directly responded to Prof John Keane’s Open Letter – see below & links (at least as far as I know; always open to being proven wrong with supporting evidence) – Anthony Barnett, co-founder of Open Democracy, and a friend of the late Fred Halliday (who argued vigorously and unsuccessfully against LSE taking money from the Gaddafi regime) – does canvas the issues with this Post – Fred Halliday, David Held, the LSE and the independence of universities.

… the argument was not a dispute about whether or not to enter a “critical dialogue” with Saif. I never knew Fred Halliday decline a critical dialogue with anybody. The dispute was over what risks the LSE should be taking. Having a “critical dialogue” with Saif is one thing. Taking the regime’s money through him and then having him give a Miliband lecture is another. The more you have dialogue with representatives of a tyranny’s ruling clan, the more important it is not to be beholden to them. This was the warning Halliday repeatedly put.

Even now Held remains deaf to it, it seems, by suggesting that Saif never was a representative and his money was not official. As evidence for his belief in Saif’s “independence” from his father’s regime Held writes that Saif “turned down a number of offers to work directly at the heart of the regime”.

Original Post continues -

While following developments in the Middle East, including the continuing horrors in Libya, I’ve occasionally come across the continuing controversy surrounding the prestigious London School of Economics (LSE) and its fairly recent engagement with Libya.

Saif al-Gaddafi at LSE

The ABC’s Foreign Correspondent programme broadcast an excellent wrap story, entitled ‘Monster Makeover’ which brought together many of the elements of the rehabilitation of Libya in the closing years of the Blair Government, including touching on the LSE controversy. Well worth a look, and then catch up on the deeper, murkier, details of this significant angle to the continuing Libya story.

On February 25, 2011, BBC TV’s Newsnight programme also explored the connections between Saif Gaddafi and LSE.

The Guardian offers an entry point into this issue. The (London) Telegraph probes deeper into ‘The Real Scandal at the LSE‘. The Daily Mail adds a very good diagram of the webs of influence between the Gaddafi regime, LSE, and elements of the British intelligence community.

Sir Howard Davies fmr. LSE Director

By no means do I claim to be fully across all the details of the LSE business, which are now under external investigation, and which led to the resignation of LSE director, Sir Howard Davies, but I was drawn to look a bit closer by two posts to the British-based Blog and comment site, Open Democracy, which I follow quite closely.

It’s much deeper and murkier than just a very public spat between prominent intellectuals, spiced by its site, a prestigious British higher education institution almost at the Ox-Bridge level, or grievously, ill-advised, perhaps politically incited, and financially lubricated opportunism by a possibly cash strapped leading university and a high profile governance studies think tank.

On my reading of the issue, LSE, and its main actors in this scandal, cannot be lightly or easily dismissed or attacked for simply being naive, or worse, high grade ethically ‘flexible’ money or status grubbing opportunists.

This continuing scandal goes to the heart of issues raised anytime anybody considers “constructive engagement” with a regime of questionable legitimacy, especially though not exclusively if the “engagement” is financially greased.

I’ll return to global or regional pariah regimes, such as in Fiji in a later Post, though, I emphatically hasten to add, Fiji is absolutely nowhere near Libya, Burma, North Korea, or Zimbabwe on the International Loathsome or Pariah Scales. Fiji just happens to be the military dictatorship closest to Australia and New Zealand.

Prof David Held London School of Economics

The protagonists on Open Democracy are leading political theorist, professor David Held from LSE’s Global Governance center and professor John Keane,

Prof John Keane Uni of Sydney

an internationally respected scholar of democracy now based at the University of Sydney.

My main reason for keeping an eye on Open Democracy is that one of its main international affairs commentators is the Bradford University Department of Peace Studies professor, Paul Rogers, under whom I studied in 1980 and into 1981 when I did my MA there.

Prof Paul Rogers Bradford University

Prof Rogers’ highly focused, exceptionally informed, and acerbically dry commentaries, including his periodic SWISH Reports for the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics to the al-Qaida Strategic Planning Cell (SPC), very usefully add to my general reading and cogitation upon world affairs. I thoroughly recommend his book Losing Control Global Security in the Twenty First Century (3rd Edition, 2010).

If ‘verification by reference to subsequent events’ is a good general test to apply to somebody’s theoretical and analytical commentaries, then Prof Rogers’ work amply passes that test.

No; Prof Rogers by no means is a real consultant to al-Qaida but he deploys his deep knowledge of international affairs, albeit from a British and Northern Hemisphere perspective, his significant experience as a consultant to several governments and NGOs, and a particularly dry, tongue in cheek, cynicism to his SWISH Reports. He’s also one of the scariest academics under whom I studied at Bradford so many years ago, thanks to his awesome, excoriating, rigor and unflinching peace researcher’s realism. I can still ‘hear’ his dry British accent today as I read his Open Democracy Posts.

He’s also briefly commentated on the continuing armed intervention in Libya, again most recently on March 24, 2011.

Back to the Libya – LSE issue, on my steadily more attentive following of it, the dynamics appear to have much in common with so-called ‘constructive engagement’ with most kinds or forms of authoritarian regimes, such as Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, which seem to have undergone some sort of international or regional rehabilitation, or at least exhibit tolerable, or convenient, potential or possibilities for rehabilitation into the global or regional community of nations.

The ABC’s Foreign Correspondent story traverses this extremely well.

The Australian’s Greg Sheridan, on February 24, 2011 – to whom I usually reliably turn for something to get angry about if my day starts off looking moderately pleasant – didn’t disappoint by castigating the general to extreme left of Australian politics for their periodic engagement with Libya and Gaddafi, deploying his typically broad brush of ordure. I’m also always very suspicious when I see otherwise intelligent and/or well meaning people apparently endorsing or engaging with a regime or cause which, on closer scrutiny, looks actually or potentially ‘smelly’, but have always attributed my suspicions to my innate cynicism and aversion to demonstrative enthusiasms.

Mr Sheridan does deploy the phrase ‘useful idiots’, to which I will also return after attempting to summarize the Libya – LSE controversy ventilated through Open Democracy.

One of the supportive commentators of the LSE and professor David Held is the London Evening Standard’s Jenni Russell who, on March 7, 2011, labeled ‘These attacks on the LSE [as] a witchhunt’ and wrote:

What the LSE is actually being punished for is its failure to predict the future. It took an influential student who appeared to be interested in creating a more liberal future for his country, accepted his foundation’s money, and followed British government advice to help open up Libya to new influences by advising its technocrats and educating some of its people….

The LSE is being blamed for having dealt with a dictatorship at all. The money it received for providing education is described as blood money, tainted by coming from a repressive regime. But if that’s the basis on which funds should be rejected, then it is entirely illogical to single out the LSE; many other universities in England [irrelevant link edited] should be being criticised now.

One of the main ‘Libya engagement’ actors at LSE, significantly through Gaddafi’s son, Saif, was professor David Held, the then co-director of LSE’s Global Governance Center, who sought to defend his position on March 16, 2011, on Open Democracy along the lines of ‘Naivety, Complicity or Cautious Engagement’, though he writes:

There is no risk-free path in engaging with authoritarian regimes, but refraining altogether would also be a mistake. I think it was right to engage and to make a contribution to the dialogue about the democratisation of Libya. But with the terrible knowledge we have now, I would never have countenanced this funding option, nor would the Governing Council of the LSE. It was a mistake that is deeply regrettable.

And he concludes:

History has shown there are different paths to overthrowing regimes, which build up from pressures within as well as from the outside. It is usually the interaction of national and international conditions and processes which create revolutionary situations. This is the context which the Middle East is now in. Autocrats have been swept from power in Tunisia and Egypt and are teetering on the brink in Yemen and Bahrain. In Libya, the fighting has been intensive. Tribe, faction, and fragmentation intersect with the old Gaddafi regime in complex webs of stakeholders, competition and opposition. One can only hope that the Gaddafi regime comes to a swift end, but one fears it may not.

The comments to Prof Held’s Open Democracy post are well worth reading and give notable insight into the heat this matter has generated in the UK.

I was then drawn to emeritus professor Zygmunt Bauman’s comments on Social Europe Journal On Internet, Slander, and Irresponsibility, where he, on my reading, joins with other commentators, to attack critics of Prof Held hiding behind the Net’s cloak of anonymity.

Prof Zygmunt Bauman

I largely mention Prof Bauman because his work on ‘liquid modernity’ provides an exceptionally valuable corrective to the vapid nonsense generally celebrated as ‘postmodernism’ and its many, slippery, foul and noisome gets. A feature of ‘liquid modernity’ includes a flexible, ‘liquid’ position on what ought to be non-negotiable ethical and moral principles found at the core of modernity in its best and strongest moments.

Prof Bauman links to Social Europe’s editor, Henning Meyer, who also attacks critics of Prof Held who, again on my reading of Dr Mayer’s defence of Prof Held, suggest he, and relevant LSE authorities were, at best naive, or too trusting, of Saif Gaddafi’s motives when LSE accepted some funding and otherwise sought to ‘constructively engage’ with the Libyan regime to enhance civil society and the status of women:

As to the accusation itself [that LSE and Prof Held were either hopelessly naive or, much worse, Gaddafi regime stooges], I described above what the research grant was for. The research topics covered by it do not provide any evidence whatsoever for this serious allegation. They rather support the now obscured motive to set up the research project in the first place: trying to develop civil society and inspire positive reform in Libya. The trust in Saif Gaddafi to deliver such reform was certainly misplaced but this does not change the intention of the research programme itself.

Further cogitation on this kind of position might reveal a ‘liquid morality’ in play here too, though I digress.

Turning to Prof Keane’s Open Democracy riposte to Prof Held, Libya, intellectuals and democracy: An open letter to David Held, on March 18, 2011, for starters, it’s very elegantly written and erudite, so my precis of it cannot do it justice. Go read it, savor it even, though I would not place it on the same pedestal as Emile Zola’s J’Accuse intervention into the Dreyfus Affair. But rather than being a precision guided intellectual dismemberment of Prof Held, I detect an almost profound regretful sadness on Prof Keane’s part that Prof Held’s distinguished career and reputation have been terminally damaged by his engagement with Libya. The two have to have known each other for years, and may have even been friends.

Essentially, a major plank of Prof Keane’s argument is that the Gaddafi regime was, particularly after its significant rehabilitation from pariah status in the closing years of the Blair Government, extremely clever and subtle, as well as convincing, about how it went about recruiting scholars and intellectuals to further its legitimacy.

Our colleague Zygmunt Bauman has shown that fellow travelling, the bad habit of cuddling up to power, has long been a curse of our profession. But in your case the Libyan oligarchs went further, by offering your research centre big money for programmes on ‘global governance’, ‘civil society’ and ‘democratisation’. I read in the minutes of an LSE governing council meeting that you argued vigorously against those (was [the late] Fred Halliday [link added] a lone voice?) who were opposed to co-operation with Saif al-Islam. You insisted that a ‘public signing ceremony had been undertaken and a U-turn at this juncture might affect the School’s relations with Libya and cause personal embarrassment to the chairman of the foundation.’ And so the Faustian deal was struck.

Prof Keane puts a series of questions to Prof Held, including:

Can you rest content, safe in the arms of the conviction that your theories are fine but the practise of them, well, was ignored by the promising but wayward son of a fanatic? I don’t think you can. For have you thought that your ‘deeply regrettable’ attraction to the heir apparent of the Libyan regime was more than just a case of the pride and vanity of intellectuals, the generous perks and the acceptance of an oil tanker load of research money in a cash-strapped, near-bankrupt university system? In other words, might the most precious categories within the operative frames of reference of LSE Global Governance have had corrupting effects? …

The scandal reminds us of something that should be obvious, but is often forgotten: in scholarship on democracy, language really matters, sometimes to the point where the intellectual horizons it frames are pimped. The scholarly language we use to speak about democracy is never neutral. It always has consequences. It shapes the way we think. It determines what we can think about. So aren’t there times when it can be abused by others, for instance to fuel their dissimulation and to seduce us, along the way soiling our intentions? To put things crudely: was your consociation with the heir to the throne of the Libyan despotism oiled with the language that you and your colleagues loved to speak?

And Prof Keane concludes:

The purpose of this open letter is to raise fresh concerns about your ‘cautious engagement’ with a violent dictatorship, to convince you that there are still some unanswered questions about the foul nature of the Libyan regime, the political dangers of dissimulation and the corrupting effects on intellectuals of money, hubris and the scholarly language we use. I trust you will not be personally offended by the points I have raised. My hope is that you will see that in this letter, at every point, my aim has not been to vilify, but instead to clarify, to push you to give account of yourself, to explain more fully than you have done so far several matters that are vitally relevant for anybody who shares your concern with the past, present and future of democracy.

But the Comments to Prof Keane’s Post significantly castigate him as ‘pompous, self congratulatory, uninteresting’ and the first commentator writes: “… this is absolutely one of the lowest points: we arrived at the point where a theoretical rival of Held (and one who, perhaps undeservedly has had less academic recognition) claims that his very terminology is so conceptually vacuous as to make him vulnerable to be an instrument of totalitarian regimes”.

(Dr Hayes has another, ‘Huh???‘ moment.)

To my knowledge – and I always beg to be corrected, with supporting evidence – Prof Held has not directly replied to Prof Keane in public, though he was interviewed by the LSE Student’s Union organ, The Beaver, on March 22, 2011:

In a statement published last month, however, on the website of LSE Global Governance, Held retracted his support for Saif.

“My support for Saif al-Islam Gaddafi was always conditional on him resolving the dilemma that he faced in a progressive and democratic direction”, Held wrote, adding Saif’s “commitment to transforming his country has been overwhelmed by the crisis he finds himself in”.

“He tragically, but fatefully, made the wrong judgement”, Held wrote. “As a result, the LSE has stopped new work on the North Africa Programme”.

Even so, Held has continued to come under sharp public criticism for his mentoring and informal advising of Gaddafi during the years at LSE.

Held responded by stressing that his decision was “neither naive nor complicit”. Calling the termed the consociation “a risk worth taking”, given the potential benefits of what is now clearly a failing link.

Held told the Beaver the association was a “cautious form of engagement”, portrayed in an “utterly preposterous way”.

Held said he wants people to understand “the LSE doesn’t deal in arms, oil, construction, contracts in making money out of Libya”.

“We are engaged in the business of ideas”, Held told the Beaver.

“The aim was a democratic reform of the country”, he said, adding, “if only it was successful”.

Held has been quoted as saying the funding was used to “pursue research on changing governance patterns in North Africa, economic diversification, oil and sustainability, developing civil society, and the status of women”.

Commenting on implications of the media coverage on his personal academic reputation, Held said recent media criticisms have damaged his academic reputation.

“It has been very, very damaging”, Held said. “A bit like going through a car crash that allows two circumstances–to learn and move on, or give up and end it all”.

Are Prof Held and his supporters, as Jenni Russell observes, essentially being punished for their failure to predict the future?

LSE, and Prof Held and co, are internationally respected heavyweights, and, acting on very good advice no doubt – I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if discrete advice wasn’t sought or offered from MI6, HM’s Foreign Office, and major corporate intelligence and risk assessment outfits too -, went ahead with their financially assisted ‘constructive engagement’ with what was apparently a rehabilitating formerly pariah regime including through a son of the Libyan dictator doing his PhD at LSE.

Earlier in 2011, it all went horribly wrong.

Are their defenses or explanations of their actions really convincing, or are they just erudite weasel words deployed post facto, a form of intellectual public relations, damage control, and reputation protection?

To draw on Greg Sheridan’s deployment of the term ‘useful idiots‘, it describes people, often but not exclusively intellectuals, journalists, or celebrities, who are suborned or engaged, complicitly or naively, by authoritarian regimes to promote a more ‘informed’ or ‘balanced’ perspective of what’s ‘really going on’ in the country in question. At the very least, ‘useful idiots’ can be ‘enrolled’ to spread doubt about the generally otherwise negative international perception conveyed by the media or human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International.

In August, 2010, the BBC World Service ran a two part series on useful idiots which is well worth a listen.

The term is often, incorrectly, attributed to Lenin, though a feature of Soviet foreign and cultural policy did include the cultivation of Western intellectuals, journalists, or celebrities given sponsored tours of the Soviet Union but who never saw the Gulags and only met ‘approved’ locals, often at carefully staged events.

If one has ‘flexible’ or ‘liquid’ principles, or varying degrees of almost desperation to see the slivers of good or redemptive potential in an otherwise dire or appalling context, one is more likely, or at least amenable, to be cultivated or suborned to, in effect, become an apologist for an otherwise awful regime.

Make no mistake, loathsome regimes are not usually run by fools, whatever else they may be or appear to be.

Key supporters or agents have probably traveled widely, been educated overseas, perhaps on scholarships – colonial and post-colonial cultivation of promising local elites continues – have routine access to global media even if some in their countries still have limited access to electricity or mobile phones, so they usually really know their global, globalized governance, stuff.

They’re very clever, crafty, and ‘flexible’ when it comes to maintaining their domination locally, and seeking and obtaining support or positive recognition internationally. They’re always on the hunt for ‘useful idiots’.

I started this Post initially thinking the Libya – LSE scandal would prove to be pretty straightforward.

As I indicated near the beginning, on my reading of the issue, LSE, and its main actors in this scandal, cannot be lightly or easily dismissed or attacked for simply being naive, or worse, high grade ethically ‘flexible’ money or status grubbing academic opportunists.

This continuing scandal goes to the heart of issues raised anytime anybody considers “constructive engagement” with a regime of questionable legitimacy, especially though not exclusively if the “engagement” is financially greased, or oiled with status or access.

I nevertheless have to side much more with Professor Keane than with Professor Held and his supporters, and await with great anticipation any more fulsome response David Held might make to John Keane as the points raised really do deserve very close and highly informed and reflective attention.

A later Post will consider all this in the context of ‘constructive engagement’ with Fiji.

In conclusion, the Libya – LSE scandal more than amply confirms the import, indeed wisdom, of the very old caution -

“Therfore bihoueth hire a ful long spoon That shal ete with a feend.”

“If you’re going to sup with the Devil, you’d better bring a long spoon.”


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