Blog: Conference mulls the hard choice between dictators and dissidents

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It wasn’t that long ago that the question posed by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies‘ (FDD) annual national security conference — “Dictators and Dissidents: Should the West Choose Sides?” — would have seemed easier to answer.

But what happens when victory by the dissidents leads not to democracy but to totalitarian rule? Suddenly the choice between an authoritarian dictator and, say, a totalitarian clerical regime becomes not only more complicated, but also a lively topic for debate.

To be clear, the government, military and private-sector experts the FDD gathered at the Newseum in Washington were staunchly pro-democracy. Their discussions were mainly about how to secure democratic rule at a time when dissidents in Syria, Egypt, Iran and other countries seem poised to redraw the political map of the Middle East.

Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey kicked off the conference with some sobering observations. Historically, he noted, the “Act One” of revolutions looks promising. “Life seems to be headed in a new and positive direction,” he said.

But then comes the second act, which often brings “the first signs of violence.”

“Act Three is often very ugly,” he added. “Those who support totalitarianism … come to the fore.”

While the ultimate outcome in Syria and Egypt isn’t clear, he said, “we need to make wise choices.” Throughout its history, the U.S. “on balance has made remarkably fine choices.” The problem right now, Mr. Woolsey said, is that the current totalitarian threat is rooted in “one of the world’s great religions.”

The extremists associated with Islamism “are our enemies,” he quickly added. “Islam is not our enemy.”

The former CIA chief described an extremist Islamic tract that offered guidance on the “three acceptable ways to kill a homosexual.”

“We have a very long and difficult task ahead of us,” Mr. Woolsey concluded.

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Lively debate during the first panel: Islamists and Elections: Where Do They Lead?

Reuel Marc Gerecht, an outspoken former Iran specialist for the CIA, now a senior fellow at FDD, took the lead on what could be called the realist view of where democratic elections will probably lead in the Middle East. In this view, a public debate will be therapeutic, and anyway, trying to keep Islamists out is trying to block centuries of history.

But Brett Stephens, a foreign affairs columnist for The Wall Street Journal, offered a more pessimistic take: “The truth is, we’re not going to have a democratic outcome in the Middle East, and we might as well prepare for the consequences.”

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