Moderator Cliff May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, began by asking the panelists if the Arab Spring was a good thing for America. Even the most optimistic participant about the downfall of authoritarian regimes, former deputy national security advisor Elliott Abrams, was cautious. For starters, he explained, “We didn’t create it.” He reminded the audience that the revolutions “happened in these fake republics” and not in traditional monarchies that “have a good deal of legitimacy.” However, one positive outcome, he argued, would be “getting rid of [Bashar al] Assad.” He noted that China, Russia, Iran and other regimes “understand how critical it is to keep him.” We therefore need to be equally serious about the importance of getting rid of him. He later noted dryly, “The Arab Spring is a misnomer. It happened in winter.” But he acknowledged, “We know they are against these phony presidents. But we don’t know what they are for.” It’s just “too soon to tell” if on balance this is a positive development.
Zalmay Khalilzad, former ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the U.N. (May joked these were “three combat zones”) agreed that we need to prioritize to try to influence political events. He conceded we haven’t been very successful in promoting secular, pro-western groups.
David French, playing the role of hard-line skeptic, stressed that a mass movement “will reflect the culture and values” of the country more than the toppled regime, and, unfortunately, while the desire for human freedom may “beat in every heart,” respect for others’ freedoms doesn’t automatically follow. He was glum.“Democracy without respect for individual liberty is another form of tyranny.” He finds the political culture of the Middle East “seething with anti-Semitism, anti-American and fascinated with radical Islam.” He ruminated that it may take a period of repressive Islamic rule to wean those countries from the grip of radical jihadism.
The former governor of Virginia, James Gilmore, who seemed an odd pick for the panel, was the semi-isolationist foil. We’ve used force, he intoned, when we didn’t need to (when? where?) and we have “overconfidence in the use of force.” Besides opinion polls in Egypt show that they really don’t like America.
So we saw several viewpoints, each with a foothold on the right. Gilmore tut-tutted about “American arrogance” and said our support for certain groups could make them seem like these “are our people” and therefore not legitimate. Khalilzad warned about the adverse consequences of inertia and cautioned about excessive hand-wringing. “We can make some quick judgments — a change in Syria would be very positive.” He added that the Obama administration has “dealt with this in a less than adequate way.” And from French there was the requisite gloom: We may be in for more Iranian-style revolutions and should understand that we can have only “a minimal impact on culture.”
Does the administration have a coherent Middle East policy? Abrams cracked: “They have a coherent policy: to reelect Barack Obama.” That, he pointed out, is Obama’s policy on everything these days. He did caution that the criticism that we are hypocrites, for example, in propping up the oppressive regime in Bahrain is “valid.”
In the final round each participant made his case. French declared, “There is zero tolerance for other faiths” in Arab countries. Khalilzad warned we “can’t be indifferent” to the course of these revolutions. And Gilmore let us know that we weren’t going to “be friends” with countries that didn’t respect human rights.
Khalilzad, Abrams and French all had valid points, although their optimism about positive outcomes in the region and America’s ability to influence events varied. It was a vivid example of the sort of conflicting advice a Republican president would receive. It therefore served as a timely reminder of just how critical it is to pick a president who is determined to project American power and, to the extent we are able, influence events in our favor.