The embarrassing decision by the Monitor Group, the worldwide consulting firm founded by Harvard professors, to register retroactively as a foreign lobbyist organization over $3 million worth of work it did from 2006-2008 for Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan government, is the culmination of a story with two morals. The first is that even Harvard professors, high salaries at that institution notwithstanding, are not immune to the lure of consulting fees. The second is the usual one of the double standards that liberal-leaning pundits, academics, and politicians typically apply when deciding whether to condemn or ignore dubious conduct involving dictators
Until President Obama, a favorite of progressives, decided on a military intervention in Libya, the typical liberal reaction to Gaddafi, a populist/socialist rhetorician in the Hugo Chavez mold, was at best indifference. Indeed, liberal public figures and intellectuals all over the world, including South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, led the successful calls for the 2009 “compassionate” release from a Scottish prison to Libya of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence agent and the convicted mastermind of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people, mostly U.S. citizens. (Megrahi, diagnosed with prostate cancer, was supposed to have had just three months to live–but in fact, after receiving a hero’s welcome in Libya shortly after his release, he is alive to this day and said to be reasonably healthy.). Former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labor Party government also apparently played a key role in securing Megrahi”s release. But when it came to the Monitor Group, the left has been denouncing the consulting firm’s Gaddafi connections for years–mostly because Richard Perle, assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan, chairman of President George W. Bush’s Defense Policy Advisory Board, and stalwart supporter of the war in Iraq, traveled twice to Tripoli in 2006 to meet with Gaddafi as a paid adviser to the Monitor Group. And now, after Obama’s decision to wage a bombing campaign against Gaddafi, liberals have suddenly become pro-war patriots–and a new round of grandstanding against Monitor has ensued. One Harvard professor, Harry R. Lewis of the computer science department, speaking at an April 5 meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences called for Harvard to publicly condemn
Monitor’s co-founder, Michael E. Porter of the Harvard Business School, for “taking money” from Libya to whitewash Gaddafi’s government.
Two professors connected with Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Robert Putnam and Joseph Nye, former dean of the School and former assistant secretary of defense, traveled to Libya, under a $250,000-a month consulting arrangement between the Libyan government and Monitor that was supposed to identify opportunities for political and economic reforms in that country. The $3 million or so that Gaddafi’s government paid Monitor included $450,000 for a “visitor program” designed to cover travel to Tripoli by influential intellectuals. They included, besides Putnam and Nye, Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History
and at the time affiliated with Stanford, and Lord Anthony Giddens, former head of the London School of Economics. Covington & Burling, a law firm hired by Monitor to assess the legal situation, recently concluded that some of the firm’s work in Libya constituted acting in a public-relations role that obliged Monitor to register with the Justice Department under the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act. Now, Putnam, at any rate, says (according to the Harvard Crimson
and the Boston Globe
) that he was “misled. If I had known that a primary purpose of the visit to Libya was to influence public opinion in the United States, I would not have gone,” Putnam told the Globe
Monitor's activities for the Libyan government did seem to go a bit far. A report produced by Monitor as part of its consulting arrangement described Libya as a "popular" and "direct" democracy—hardly an accurate description of a country whose sole ruler seized absolute power in a military coup 42 years ago and tolerates no political opposition. Memos released in 2009 by a Libyan opposition group revealed that some of the paid work done by Monitor included helping Gaddafi's son Saif write his doctoral dissertation at the London School of Economics.
Still, it should be remembered the context in which Monitor worked for Gaddafi's government three to six years ago was quite different from what it is now. In 2003 Libya announced that it was dismantling its nuclear-weapons program and accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie massacre, and in 2006 it entered into a legal settlement that involved paying $2.7 billion to the victims of Flight 103 and $30 million to the creditors of the since-bankrupted Pan Am. At that point, rightly or wrongly, Gaddafi was no longer a U.S. enemy but a friend, sort of. Monitor maintains
that the bulk of the work its professors and other public figures did for Libya involved trying to help the country "build its democratic institutions and modernize its economy," in the words of a March 24 statement by Monitor. The firm agreed that it had made some "errors of judgment" but that they occurred during "a period of promise" in U.S.-Libyan relations. And as others have pointed out, U.S.-based consulting firms continue to provide services to Saudi Arabia and China, neither of which can be called a democracy and both of which brutally stifle political dissidence.
So far Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust has declined Porter's call for a censure of Monitor founder Porter, maintaining (according to the Crimson) that her role as university president is not that of "scolder-in-chief." Certainly some of the professors and others who sent to work for Gaddafi got a bit too cozy with the foreign government that wrote large checks to them. It also can be argued that the U.S. government under both George W. Bush and his father made a mistake in settling with Libya during the mid-2000s instead of taking prompt military steps to avenge the massacre of its citizens. But at this point the high dudgeon over some Harvard-linked puffery about Gaddafi looks more like scoring points against the Bushes than a censure-worthy offense.