With Friends Like the Gaddafis…

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It seems only yesterday (actually it was last November) that students from the London School of Economics and Political Science, an institution of such international renown that like the BBC it usually goes by a three-letter acronym, led protests about changes to the funding of higher education in Britain. Once again, LSE students are revolting, and once again their ire has been provoked by financial arrangements intended to boost the LSE’s income. But this time their outrage is finding an echo even among the conservative commentators who deplored the November protests. The students’ new campaign has highlighted the LSE’s intimate, and profitable, links with the Gaddafi regime.

This is “embarrassment and egg-on-face territory,” the LSE’s director, Sir Howard Davies told The Times, as he prepares to recommend to tomorrow’s LSE Council meeting that the university channels monies equivalent to all funds received from the Libyan connection into establishing a scholarship for Libyan students. Davies promised the move after students already enrolled at the LSE stormed his office. “LSE students have forced the LSE to grow a conscience,” said Ashok Kumar, an officer of the LSE students’ union. Yet as further details of the LSE’s involvement with the Libyan regime emerges—and after the leak of this cringe-making video showing the warm reception for a white-jacketed Muammar Gaddafi two months ago when the dictator addressed a “closed-door meeting” by satellite link (Davies sent apologies for not being able to attend)—the LSE may find the egg unexpectedly difficult to dislodge from its visage. Nor is the august institution alone in this predicament, with at least two titans of British politics forced on the defensive over their apparent cosiness with the Libyan leadership.

Saif Gaddafi, long seen as Muammar’s heir and for most of that time mistaken for a sensible, moderate figure Americans and Europeans might comfortably engage with, acquired some of his cosmopolitan polish at the LSE’s Centre for the Study of Global Governance. He was awarded a PhD by the LSE in 2008 and soon afterwards made a hefty donation—$2.4 million over five years—to his alma mater through an organization called the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation. Questions are now being asked about the validity of Saif’s doctoral thesis. Amid the student protests and after watching Saif pledge that his father’s regime would “fight to the last minute, until the last bullet,” David Held, an LSE professor who briefly sat on the board of the Foundation, issued a statement:

I have known Saif al-Islam Gaddafi for several years since he did a PhD at the LSE. During this time I came to know a young man who was caught between loyalties to his family and a desire to reform his country. In many discussions and meetings I encouraged the development of his reform agenda and subsequently sought to support it through research on the North Africa Program funded by the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation.

My support for Saif al-Islam Gaddafi was always conditional on him resolving the dilemma that he faced in a progressive and democratic direction. The speech last night makes it abundantly clear that this commitment to transforming his country has been overwhelmed by the crisis he finds himself in.

He tragically, but fatefully, made the wrong judgement.

Saif, it seems, is not alone in that respect. Davies, a former deputy governor of the Bank of England, chairman of Britain’s Financial Services Authority and director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, has revealed that he served as a financial adviser to Libya at the behest of the British government, helping the Libyan Investment Authority to establish a sovereign wealth fund. Davies received no fee but Libya gave a further $50,000 to the LSE. “Our government said to me ‘We are rather keen on this [fund] setting itself up in London. It’s good for a London point of view to have this money managed here’,” Davies told The Times, adding “If you ask me if I would do it again, knowing what I now know, the answer is certainly bloody not.” (The interview is behind The Times paywall here.)

The government that urged Davies to help Libya was not Britain’s current coalition but the Labour administration that preceded it. I’ve already blogged about Tony Blair’s efforts to forge ties with Gaddafi Senior. Britain’s former Prime Minister let it be known (in yet another interview behind The Times paywall) that he has been pushing in personal calls with Gaddafi for the dictator’s resignation. Gaddafi, said Blair, is “in denial.” The same might be said of Blair, who insisted that the British-led rapprochement with Gaddafi was the right response “at a time when Libya was at the top of everyone’s concerns.” (Not like now, then.) His former colleague, Lord Mandelson, reported to have socialized with Saif Gaddafi, used a BBC appearance to defend Blair’s—and his own—record on Libya. “What Labour was trying to do was to normalize relations between Libya, its leadership and the rest of the world,” he said.

It has taken only a few, blood-soaked days to expose the myth that it’s possible to constructively engage with Gaddafi. It has taken only a few, blood-soaked days to embarrass those who thought they could do so—and as tyrannies totter, expect more egg to splatter familiar faces and institutions. But it may also only take a few days to forget one underlying lesson: there’s no such thing as a free lunch in a country deprived of basic freedoms.