Gadhafi and the LSE: A Cautionary Tale

It was inevitable that the venerable London School of Economics would be rechristened the "Libyan School of Economics" the instant it embraced the financial largesse of the Gadhafi family.
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In Britain, where acerbic humor rules the roost, it was inevitable that the venerable London School of Economics would be rechristened the "Libyan School of Economics" the instant it embraced the financial largesse of the Gadhafi family.

In recent years, the LSE has been readily co-opted into the process of rehabilitating the Libyan regime from its rogue status. Last December, Colonel Gadhafi himself addressed LSE students via a video conference. That appearance was secured by his son, Seif, who obtained his doctorate at the School and whose Gadhafi International Charity and Development Foundation donated $2.4 million to the LSE's Global Governance department.

In a decision that could have been scripted by the Monty Python team at their darkest moment, the Gadhafi Foundation's funds were directed toward researching the growing power of "civil society" -- the area of public life which is controlled by citizens and their voluntary arrangements, rather than the state -- in North Africa. Which is precisely why, when the Gadhafi regime launched a wave of bestial violence against its own people, the LSE found itself squirming.

By Sunday night, the in-box of LSE Director Sir Howard Davies was inundated with emails from alumni, myself included, urging that the School transfer the funds received from Gadhafi to a relevant charity, in the name of the regime's victims. As the reports of regime atrocities multiplied each hour, there was general agreement among those of us who wrote in that the LSE would have to do something.

In the end, the LSE's response was to equivocate with a statement notably absent from the home page of its website. The news from Libya was deemed "distressing," a word suggesting that it is of little consequence whether the cause of suffering is a regime with no limits or a natural disaster. As for the money, well, that's "under review."

Meanwhile, Professor David Held, the LSE academic who supervised the doctoral studies of Gadhafi fils -- and who gushed over the "generous donation" of the Gadhafi Foundation in January 2010 -- felt obliged to issue his own personal statement. Referring to Seif's speech on Libyan TV, in which he issued a bloodcurdling pledge to fight Libya's populace "to the last bullet," Held mourned that his former student had "been overwhelmed by the crisis he finds himself in. He tragically, but fatefully, made the wrong judgment." All of which makes Seif sound more like the victim of Shakespearean intrigue and much less like the overzealous regime thug he's revealed himself to be.

The LSE can still make amends. Most immediately, that involves transferring the funds provided by Gadhafi Junior to assist the victims of crimes mandated by Gadhafi Senior.

Also, a little introspection is called for. The LSE was not the only institution with a progressive bent that found itself enamored by the prospects for reform of Gadhafi's 42 year-old dictatorship -- and specifically, of Seif's Gorbachev-like role in such an enterprise. At the New Criterion , Michael Weiss reminds us of an essay penned by Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch in which she paid tribute to the younger Gadhafi's reform agenda, a concept that seems downright macabre, given the bloodshed of recent days.

Encomiums like these display a simple, fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of regimes like that of Gadhafi. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the social reformers who founded the LSE, judged that Stalin's model of socialism had, with a few tweaks, much to recommend it ("Stalin is now universally considered to have justified his leadership by success," they wrote in 1942.) Their successors fell into the same trap with his Libyan equivalent. But totalitarian regimes, whether Gadhafi's Jamahiriya, or the Juche cult of the Kim dynasty in North Korea, resist reform because the fundamental changes required to secure democratic legitimacy would require these same regimes to accept an outcome where they are removed from power. And that they will not do, as the blood-drenched streets of Benghazi and other Libyan cities now testify.

In any case, perhaps that's a subject for a future seminar at the LSE's Global Governance department. As the participants gather, might also absorb the lesson that, if the independence and rigor which mark proper academic inquiry are to be observed, taking money from Middle Eastern dictatorships is never a good idea to begin with.

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