Understanding Libya’s Michael Corleone

Saif Benjamin Pauker interviews Benjamin Barber about Saif al-Qaddafi, Libya and the Monitor Group, in Foreign Policy:

Foreign Policy: How is it that so many people got Saif al-Qaddafi so wrong?

Benjamin Barber: Who got it wrong? I don't think anyone got him wrong. Is that the idea: to go back and say in 2006, 2007, 2008, when the U.S. recognized the government of Muammar al-Qaddafi, when the sovereign oil fund that Libya set up and that people like Prince Andrew and Peter Mandelson, or organizations like the Carlyle Group and Blackstone, were doing business with, and the heavy investments oil companies were making while others were running around and making all sorts of money — that those of us who went in trying to do some work for democratic reform, that we somehow got Saif wrong?

Until Sunday night a week ago [Feb. 27], Saif was a credible, risk-taking reformer. He several times had to leave Libya because he was at odds with his father. The [Gaddafi] Foundation's last meeting in December wasn't held in Tripoli because he was nervous about being there; it was held in London. And the people who worked for it and the foundation's work itself have been recognized by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as genuine, authentic, and having made real accomplishments in terms of releasing people from prison, saving lives. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote in a report in January that: “For much of the last decade, Qadhafi's son Saif was the public face of human rights reform in Libya and the Qadhafi Foundation was the country's only address for complaints about torture, arbitrary detention, and disappearances. The Foundation issued its first human rights report in 2009, cataloging abuses and calling for reforms, and a second report released in December 2010 regretted 'a dangerous regression' in civil society and called for the authorities to lift their 'stranglehold' on the media. In the interim, Saif assisted Human Rights Watch in conducting a groundbreaking press conference which launched a report in Tripoli in December 2009.”

Aside from the foundation, one of the things that I was involved with in my interaction with Muammar as well as Saif Qaddafi was the release of the hostages: the four Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor. I had said to the colonel in our first meeting that the release of the hostages was a condition for any more such interactions and, indeed, for the continuation with the rapprochement with the West, and he had said he understood. That modest pressure added one more incentive to the decision to release the hostages. I was called the day before the public announcement of the release by Qaddafi's secretary and told: “You see; the leader has acted on his word.”

Well today of course, it's all radically changed. But second-guessing the past, I mean, it's just 20/20 hindsight.