The Arab Spring, as the rapid-fire events that began in Tunisia, spread to Egypt and have since engulfed Libya and much of the Middle East have come to be known, is a phenomenon of historic importance. Comparisons have been made, not unfairly, with 1989, the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall and of revolutions in eastern Europe, and with 1848, a year which saw revolutions sweep through much of continental Europe. It is far too early to tell where the process will lead, and whether some lasting form of representative democracy will take hold in the region. What is certain is that 2011 marks a turning point, and that there will be no easy going back to the old-style authoritarian regimes that had dominated the Arab world through modern times. Some like Tunisia or Egypt may have begun a serious transition; others like Morocco may slowly shift from an executive monarchy to a constitutional one, where parliament and political parties acquire greater power than before; and still others like Syria, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia may be the last to see major institutional change.

Libya has been something of a special case. In the beginning, Muammar Gaddafi was seen as an heir to the mantle of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the charismatic leader of post-1952 Egypt who nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956. Gaddafi did the same with the oil fields of his country. Subsequently, he was seen as a supporter of terrorist movements, culminating in the Lockerbie bombing of 1988. Later he was a strong proponent of African unity, and still later, in his opposition to Al Qaeda, a welcome ally to the West and to a plethora of oil and other multinational corporations (including Canada’s SNC-Lavalin) that rushed to profit from the country’s wealth.

Through it all, however, the regime has been notable for its internal repression. Earlier uprisings in eastern Libya were put down ruthlessly. (This helps explain why the current insurrection against his rule has been most successful in that part of the country.) Nor was any opposition to the regime, however tame, tolerated. Gaddafi laid claim, interestingly enough, to having established a form of direct democracy in his country through a green revolution that had done away with the need for traditional political parties and elected institutions. Popular committees filled the void, controlled, to be sure, by regime loyalists, while Gaddafi himself, abjuring any formal office, exercised his authority as Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. An ubuesque world, made even more so by the ever-changing pronouncements and positions of the Brotherly Leader. Shades of Mao’s China, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea and other regimes of a hard-line authoritarian bent.

In the evolution of the Libyan situation in recent years, high-profile Western intellectuals have had significant interaction with the regime. A number of these have been leading exponents of democratic theory and democratization in the English-speaking world − political theorists like Benjamin Barber and David Held, sociologists like Anthony Giddens.

The most serious form of engagement has been through the operations of the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, and through ties with one of Gaddafi’s sons, Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, an MA and PhD graduate of the London School of Economics. A gift of $2.5 million from the Gaddafi Foundation to the LSE for a Global Governance Institute followed the awarding of Saif’s PhD. The Monitor Group, an American consultancy firm in receipt of $3 million from the Libyan regime, has also played an important role in bringing well-known academics like Joseph Nye, Francis Fukuyama and Robert Putnam to Libya. It is also widely suspected of having done a lot of the research for Saif’s PhD, now subject to examination as to its “academic authenticity” by an inquiry into the LSE-Libya connection headed by Lord Woolf.

Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi has come to world attention in recent months because of his very public role in defending his father’s regime in the face of popular revolt. It was not so long ago, however, that he was seen as a liberalizing bridge between his father’s old-style authoritarian regime and a more democratic Libya. One of his academic advisers at the LSE was David Held, author of such books as Models of Democracy and Cosmopolitanism: Ideals and Reality; Saif’s PhD thesis was entitled The Role of Civil Society in the Democratization of Global Governance Institutions, a promising title for a would-be reforming figure. Saif was chosen to deliver the Ralph Miliband memorial lecture at the LSE in May 2010, in which he told his audience that democracy was the best way forward for the future of Libya; and until the Libyan uprising, Oxford University Press was on record as having offered Saif al-Islam Gaddafi a book deal for publication of his thesis.

The most sinister part of the story lies in the things some of the academics who visited Libya were to write about the country. The worst offender was Anthony Giddens, now Lord Giddens, a former director of the LSE, prominent adviser to Tony Blair and author of the idea of a third way between capitalism and socialism. Here are passages from what he wrote in the New Statesman and the Guardian about his meeting with Gaddafi in 2007:

Dressed in a brown-gold robe, he cuts an impressive figure.

You usually get about half an hour when meeting a political leader. My conversation with Gaddafi lasts for more than three. Gaddafi is relaxed and he clearly enjoys intellectual conversation. We sit close together and occasionally sip mint tea.

He likes the term “third way” because his own political philosophy, developed in the late 1960s, was a version of this idea.

Our conversation is wide-ranging and The Leader, as he is universally known in Libya, makes many intelligent and perceptive points. Over the past three or four years, Gaddafi has come in from the cold internationally.

Gaddafi’s “conversion” may have been driven partly by the wish to escape sanctions, but I get the strong sense that it is authentic and that there is a lot of motive power behind it. Saif Gaddafi is a driving force behind the rehabilitation and potential modernisation of Libya.

As one-party states go, Libya is not especially repressive. Gaddafi seems genuinely popular.

Will real progress be possible only when Gaddafi leaves the scene? I tend to think the opposite. If he is sincere in wanting change, as I think he is, he could play a role in muting conflict that might otherwise arise as modernisation takes hold.

My ideal future for Libya in two or three decades would be a Norway of North Africa: prosperous, egalitarian and forward-looking.

For those with historical memories, all this is reminiscent of starry-eyed Western intellectual pilgrims to Moscow in the 1930s, returning from meetings with Stalin and acolytes of the regime with accounts of having visited the promised land. Nor was Giddens the only one to be charmed by the Gaddafi magic. In an op-ed piece for the Washington Post, shortly after a 2007 visit to Libya, Benjamin Barber called Gaddafi “surprisingly flexible and pragmatic.” He said he was convinced Libya could become the first Arab state with “direct democracy locally and efficient government centrally.”

It is no accident that until mid-February 2011, Barber was a board member of the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation. (Other board members have included Hernando de Soto, the neoconservative Peruvian economist. David Held had accepted an initial offer to be a board member in 2009, but backed off after the LSE suggested that there might be a conflict of interest because of the foundation’s grant to the Global Governance Institute which Held codirects.) For his part, Joseph Nye of Harvard’s Kennedy School, another Libya visitor, in a piece he wrote for the New Republic, highlighted Gaddafi’s interest in discussing direct democracy with him.

When I first heard about these goings-on, I was shocked. Surely Western academics with a serious commitment to democratic principles could not be taken in by a Gaddafi, who had been running an authoritarian regime for decades. But then my shock was tempered by a realization that there was nothing all that surprising about what had transpired. Philosophers and political theorists through the ages have sought to change the world. And one of the surest – and undoubtedly most dangerous – ways is to try to convince rulers to follow their advice.

Plato deluded himself into thinking that the tyrant of Syracuse might follow some of his precepts about governing. For his pains, he found himself clapped into a dungeon, and was lucky to make it back to Athens alive. Aristotle no doubt had great hopes for the deeper principles he could instill into his pupil Alexander. Alexander had other worlds to conquer and did so. Seneca may have hoped to nurture Nero in the ways of philosophy. Suicide was his only recourse when Nero condemned his tutor, like so many others, to death. Voltaire may have flattered himself regarding the influence he had over Frederick the Great. Diderot conversed with Catherine the Great about the Enlightenment. But despots remain despots – enlightened or not.

So the LSE’s attempt to mould the son of a modern despot into a model liberal democrat builds on an earlier tradition. Many intellectuals love the lure of power, much as entrepreneurs revel in money, and the possibility of influencing a future leader is not one to be lightly spurned. Academics like Jeffrey Sachs acted as consultants to governments in post-1989 eastern Europe. Intellectuals entered politics actively in Latin America after its democratic turn in the 1980s and 1990s (Fernando Henrique Cardoso in Brazil and José Castañeda in Mexico come to mind), and have played an ongoing role as advisers or participants in the politics of Western liberal societies. The desire to translate theory into practice could have an elixir-like appeal to Western intellectuals of an overtly democratic persuasion. Who was to know that the call of family and tribe, the family business of ruling Libya, would win out in Saif al-Islam Gaddafi over the higher democratic principles that David Held or Anthony Giddens professed? Who was to know that the call of family and tribe, the family business of ruling Libya, would win out in Saif al-Islam Gaddafi over the higher democratic principles that David Held or Anthony Giddens professed?Or that in the world of Libyan realpolitik Benjamin Barber’s conceit about direct democracy would be just that, a conceit?

Have we learned anything from this disaster? The LSE, renamed by some wags the Libyan School of Economics, has lost a director, Howard Davies, and a good deal of its reputation. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s PhD thesis will shortly join that of ex-doctor and German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg as a cause célèbre of academic plagiarism. The Gaddafi Foundation will enter the dustbin of history as a blatant front organization for a regime tainted with blood. And maybe, just maybe, a few of the figures who have burned their fingers badly in the recent conflagration will remember the old precept about needing a long spoon when supping with the devil.

More to the point, let us hope that the Arab Spring brings meaningful change to the Middle East, that autocrats cease to rule the roost, and that the peoples of the Middle East, the true repositories of any democratic aspirations, can actually see some of their dreams come to fruition. This is where Benjamin Barber, Anthony Giddens and David Held should have focused their attention, rather than on converting the Gaddafis to democratic ideals. But the Gaddafis had power, and the Arab street did not. And sadly intellectuals, even overtly democratic ones, are not to be trusted to speak truth to power, when those with power come calling for their advice.