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Libya, public relations, and the corruption of academia

Posted by Jesse Singal  March 4, 2011 04:12 PM

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According to an excellent story by Farah Stockman in today's Globe, Monitor Group, a Cambridge-based consulting firm founded by Harvard professors, "received $250,000 a month from the Libyan government from 2006 to 2008 for a wide range of services, including writing the book proposal, bringing prominent academics to Libya to meet Khadafy 'to enhance international appreciation of Libya' and trying to generate positive news coverage of the country."

Obviously, given what is happening in Libya now and the increasingly deranged Khadafy's willingness to brutalize his own people to stay in power, people aren't looking too kindly on Monitor Group's Libya connection. It's worth remembering, however, that Monitor Group wasn't alone, and that it wasn't the only institution to have cashed in on the perception that Khadafy was softening in recent years.

After the arms embargo against his country ended in 2004, for example Khadafy went on what Der Spiegel referred to as a "shopping spree" for European arms. In 2009 alone, European nations sold Khadafy $474 million worth of weaponry — weaponry he is now, it can safely be assumed, turning against Libyans. Closer to home, oil companies with a vested interest in easy access to and trade with Libya are lobbying the government to go softer on Khadafy.

Selling weapons to dictator or encouraging the US government to soften its stance on him as he violently represses his people are probably both worse than helping him to rehabilitate his image. But no one expects much moral introspection from an oil or defense company. What makes this Monitor Group business feel particularly tainted is the connection to academia, the idea that a dictator could get established, respected academics to give him the benefit of the doubt simply by paying the right people.

Monitor Group, for its part, issued a statement arguing that, in Stockman's words, "the firm’s main effort was designed to help Khadafy’s dictatorship bring about change." If so, then the relationship between the firm and Khadafy would have amounted to a historic moment, the first time in history a despot paid huge sums to an outside group to help him reduce his grip on power.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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