The LSE’s cozy relationship with the Gaddafi regime is but one instance of a much larger problem: the systematic failure of Western liberals to practice what they preach. Whence this bizarre hypocrisy?
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Why do the West’s liberal defenders of freedom and democracy keep ending up on the wrong side of History?
Just weeks after President Obama struggled to align himself with Egypt’s democratic revolutionaries and Tony Blair inexcusably praised Mubarak as “a force for good in the region,” today the liberal crusaders of the Enlightenment are once again struggling to extricate themselves from an embarrassing predicament: the cozy ties between Libya’s brutal Gaddafi regime and Britain’s liberal elite.
This time around, one of the key controversies centers on that great bastion of liberal thought in the UK: the London School of Economics. In 2009, the LSE’s Center for Global Governance accepted a £1.5 million grant from Said al-Gaddafi, the dictator’s son and heir apparent to the throne. Upon acceptance of this generous donation, Professor David Held praised Gaddafi for his commitment “to the promotion of civil society and the development of democracy.”
But last night, Held’s idealized image of Saif al-Gaddafi as a pro-democracy reformist was brutally shattered by the violent crackdown on Libya’s peaceful protesters in Benghazi and Tripoli. With the streets of Libya stained in liberal blood, Saif al-Gaddafi went on air to defend his father’s autocratic rule with the ominous threat that the regime would “fight until the last minute, the last bullet,” and “eradicate them all.”
Surely, the LSE was quick to offer a statement in response to the crackdown. This morning, the School officially severed ties with the regime, and in personal correspondence Professor Held has shared with me his disgust at what is going on. I do not for a moment doubt that Professor Held’s emotions and intentions are genuine. Neither do I question Held’s previous trust in Gaddafi’s reformist ambitions.
What is at stake here, however, is not the essential goodness of our intentions but the outcome of our actions. In this respect, Held’s only possible defense could be that he has been far from alone in cozying up to the Gaddafi regime. In fact, the LSE recently set up an extensive training program for Libyan officials, and the School’s Director, Howard Davies, served as Tony Blair’s economic envoy to Gaddafi after the restrictions on Libya were lifted.
At the same time, UK oil companies moved into the country to extract the mineral wealth belonging to the Libyan people and British weapons manufacturers began selling the regime the very crowd control instruments and military hardware that are currently being used to quell the pro-democracy protests. In a cruel irony, the move towards liberalization was simultaneously a move towards ever greater repression.
To the liberal elites pursuing the ‘normalization’ of relations with Gaddafi, all of this may have seemed ‘normal’ at the time. In fact, David Held and the LSE could be said to have become consumed by the zeistgeist, as it were. This remains a weak line of defense, however, as there were already plenty of voices protesting the acceptance of Gaddafi’s donation at the time.
The most vocal and high-profile critic of the LSE’s ties to Gaddafi was undoubtedly the late Professor Fred Halliday, who was one the world’s leading experts on the Middle East and who is still considered one of the all-time giants of the LSE’s International Relations department. Regrettably, the concerns of Halliday were briskly shoved aside as financial interests took precedence over moral considerations.
And this, as my friend Durlabh Sanskar Maharishi pointed out, is the crux of the problem. Liberals may share a deep personal conviction that freedom and democracy are inalienable and universal human rights, the deprivation of which constitutes unacceptable oppression, but this genuine moral intuition has been compromised over and over by a simultaneous drive to deal only with those people who (1) have money; (2) show a resemblance to the West’s idealized image of the Other as a reflection of the Self.
Indeed, this is where psychology, anthropology, economics and politics all come together. As the Guardian pointedly observed today, Saif al-Gaddafi was a man the West could do business with. Next to the fact that he was filthy rich, had no beard, wore suits and spoke fluent English, Saif earned a PhD from the LSE for a thesis on ‘the role of civil society in the democratization of global governance,’ and expressed a heartfelt wish to reform his country in a liberal democratic direction.
In other words, this was a true gentleman, someone Lord Mandelson, Nathaniel Rothshild, the Duke of York and David Held could all sit down and have tea with, without having to feel uncomfortable at the awkward Otherness of their counterpart. In this respect, Held’s desire to spread democracy to Libya may intuitively be much more commendable than Rothshild’s desire to make some fast cash off this Libyan friend, but his dealings with Gaddafi display the same underlying tendency to cozy up to the rich and powerful (and preferably secular and Western-looking) elites of the Arab world, regardless of their political background.
In fact, as Tariq Ramadan recently observed in a public lecture in Amsterdam, the ‘Great Liberal Betrayal‘ is at rock bottom driven by a combination of the West’s reckless pursuit of profit, its desire to recreate the world in its own image, and its profound trauma with (and deep-seated fear of) the Muslim Other. Since 9/11, 11/2 and 7/7, this fear has taken on macro-Freudian proportions.
Think about it for a second: the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood (the fundamentalist id) earned Hosni Mubarak (the secular ego) the indefinite loyalty of the United States and the personal friendship of Tony Blair, with the latter acting as the liberal superego of the emerging world polity. The liberalization of the Egyptian economy subsequently glued all the elements of this macro-Freudian triad together, turning liberalism’s system of libidinal suppression into a smoothly functioning global capitalist world order.
Similarly, Gaddafi (ever the ego) promised to support the West in the war on terror (the suppression of the id) and earned himself an infamous and extremely awkward handshake from the superego, Tony Blair. Just like Mubarak, Gaddafi was brilliant enough to use innovative investment strategies to buy his way into Europe. In order to solidify this political-economic base with an ideological superstructure, Gaddafi (just like Mubarak) subsequently sent his son to London, where the survival of the regime was to be anchored in the consent of Britain’s liberal elite. It was the ego’s ultimate ideological disarmament of the superego. Even the great Ivory Tower of academia proved incapable of resisting the subversive seduction of Saif the Siren.
As in Held’s case, the dream of a democratized Arab world was certainly always an important issue for Western liberals. But all along, the West’s own egotistical pursuit of profit and its latent fear of the Muslim Other appear to have been the key motivators that drove the Western liberal establishment, with eyes wide shut, straight into the arms of the region’s secular dictators.
Blind to their own fears and desires, Western liberals embraced these secular dictators as their own and shamelessly set off to profiteer from their illegitimate riches. In the process, they unwittingly revealed another deep-seated fear among our liberal elites today: the fear of chaos and the unforeseen Event — in other words, the fear of revolution.
Whatever the sources of this trauma may be — the Specter of Communism? the Iranian revolution of 1979? — today’s liberals have grown quite literally terrified of popular uprisings. Supporting Saif al-Gaddafi’s token reformism was one way of ensuring that the road to democracy would be a long and, indeed, undemocratic one — and that revolution would never be on the menu.
Having conveniently ignored the fact that Western democracy itself was born out of the French and American revolutions, the cosmopolitan liberals of the West subsequently found themselves bereft of the intellectual framework to anticipate the revolutions of 2011. And so when all hell broke loose, no one in the West really knew what to do. The liberal defenders of democracy suddenly found themselves defending themselves, apologizing and fending off accusations rather than showing solidarity with the world’s new torchbearers of democracy.
With the region’s oppressive ego’s finally falling from their political pedestals, with the revenge of the fundamentalist id relegated to the realm of libidinal fairy tales, and with the cosmopolitan liberals of the West finding themselves yet again on the wrong side of History, the time has come for a refreshing new narrative to bind us all together in this global struggle for freedom, justice and equality.
It’s up to us, the ‘New We‘, to take over the torch of democracy and integrate it into a radically pluralistic global society. We can no longer rely on the old guard of liberal hypocrites to do it for us.