A man looks at a banner during celebrations of the second anniversary of the Tunisian revolution at Avenue Habib-Bourguiba in Tunis in 2013. (Anis Mili/Reuters)
Opinion writer

In some misguided attempt to distinguish themselves from former president George W. Bush’s democracy agenda, some libertarian/populist pols masquerading as conservatives like to deride U.S. support for democracies. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) talk about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad the way Donald Trump talks about Vladimir Putin — as a man with whom we can do business and as an alternative to chaos. This is grossly inaccurate. Assad was no friend of the United States, is partnered with Iran and spurs support for Islamist rebels — and would do further damage to efforts of more enlightened leaders to reform. Assad is not the alternative to Islamic terrorism; Tunisia and Morocco are.

Tunisia is the “one encouraging success story” in the Arab Spring, as many observers acknowledge. Indeed, the Nobel committee finally got one right in awarding the Peace Prize to the National Dialogue Quartet, which made possible the transition to non-Islamist rule. “More than anything, the prize is intended as an encouragement to the Tunisian people, who despite major challenges have laid the groundwork for a national fraternity which the Committee hopes will serve as an example to be followed by other countries,” the committee said. But Tunisia’s success is fragile, its economy is weak and terrorist attacks such as the one in March threaten confidence in the government. Imagine how demoralizing it would be to those resisting the siren call of extremism and authoritarianism if a U.S. president fawns over dictators, praises strongmen and propagates the idea that tyrants are the only backstop to chaos. Tunisia could use encouragement, support and integration into the global economy; at the very least, we should eschew praise for anti-democratic leaders who offer the false hope of stability.

Likewise, in Morocco, where a reform process — albeit slow and uneven — backed by the king has been underway for years, an Islamist party has made steady electoral progress. Nevertheless, pro-democracy forces, including nongovernmental organizations such as the National Human Rights Council, wage struggles to promote the rule of law, women’s rights and government reform. Even the Obama administration — notoriously underwhelming on the topic of human rights — has recognized “the growing role of the National Council on Human Rights (CNDH) as a credible and proactive defender of human rights, and are encouraged by the Council of Government’s decision to strengthen the CNDH by ensuring that government agencies address complaints directed to it.”

Driss El Yazami, the chair of the council, is in the United States this week. In a phone conversation, he explained, “Moroccan society has showed a real capacity to maintain political pluralism.” He points to the vibrant debate last year — this is in a devout Muslim country — to loosen abortion laws. As Bloomberg reported, “Morocco’s Islamist-led government has asked a panel of clerics, doctors and legislators to look into relaxing a five-decade-old abortion law that activists say is pushing more and more women into back-street terminations.” While two government ministries are still wrangling over a draft law, the existence of a peaceful, raucous public policy debate represents precisely the sort of tentative steps toward modernization and the rule of law that we are supposed to be encouraging. Likewise, the council has been at the forefront of promoting women’s rights, seeking to bolster the family law code passed 10 years ago. Its report last year made 97 recommendations, including a proposal to give women equal rights under the inheritance laws. This, too, set off a robust public debate.

It is no coincidence that as Morocco’s reform movement (despite much criticized actions to stifle the media) comes as U.S.-Morocco ties have expanded to cooperation in economic and security realms. This is the sort of democratic progress we should be encouraging to take place in other Muslim countries since it offers the only real hope for stability and an alternate to the Hobson’s choice between tyranny and Islamist chaos. If we want more allies and support in battling extremism, we should be supporting democratic reform efforts.

It has become fashionable in some circles to pooh-pooh support for democracy. But if Syria, Egypt and others would follow examples toward peaceful democratization, not the false promise of strongmen, the region would be transformed. Praising tyrants and deriding the need for democratic reform are morally obnoxious and counter to our own security needs. After all, weren’t conservatives furious that the Obama administration did not support and encourage the Green Movement in Iran, preferring the phony promise of stability and prospect of doing business with the mullahs? Candidates should take a look at what success in a region torn apart by terror looks like and get on the right side of the fight.