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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Poignant comments from former Iranian political prisoner Marina Nemat during the panel on Iran's Human Rights Record brought a hush to the crowded conference room. Ms. Nemat, whose memoir "Prisoner of Tehran" described her arrest and torture as a 16-year-old in the wake of the 1979 revolution, told the audience that after the revolution, "we had hope... that Iran would become a democracy." She said she had grown up wearing short skirts and Western hair styles, and suddenly Iran's religious rulers banned everything that was "fun". She couldn't even walk down the street holding hands with her boyfriend.
She wasn't the only one who was affected, she added.
"How political can a 14-year-old get?" she asked. "If you ban fun, then a 14-year-old can get very political."
Ms. Nemat now lives and teaches in Canada. Asked if things have gotten any better in Iran since she lived there, she did not hesitate. "No, they are not." Like others on the panel, she said she was glad to see some focus on the issue of human rights, rather than Iran's efforts to develop nuclear weapons, which gets most of the attention these days. "I'm here," she declared, "to make sure that the story of Iranian political prisoners is heard."
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Ali Alfoneh, of the American Enterprise Institute, said the Revolutionary Guards' use of "show trials" has had a chilling effect on Iranian citizens. When they see even Mir-Hussein Mousavi, the former Iranian Prime Minister who had been a favorite of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, being put on trial, "then all regular Iranian citizens feel at risk."
Said Ms. Nemat: "I don't think any Western country can change the behavior of the Iranian regime when it comes to human rights." But she added that when the United States speaks out on behalf of human rights, it gives political prisoners hope "because news does get into the prisons."
"All I am interested in is just giving hope," she said. "If I can save just one life, then I can die in peace."
Alfoneh joked that no Western country can ever win a negotiation with someone from the Middle East. But the conversation turned serious again when panelist Emanuele Ottolenghi of FDD said recent crackdowns in Iran were evidence that "the regime is increasingly on the defensive."
Alfoneh criticized U.S. academics — "do-gooders" — who are always calling for the U.S. to close down the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, but are silent on the issue of Iran's notorious prisons. "Where are these good people?" he asked. They have "totally forgotten Iran."
Ms. Nemat had the last word on the panel. She implored officials who believe they are dealing with "moderates" in Iran to never forget "the true nature of the regime."
"The enemy of your enemy," she said solemnly, "is not necessarily your friend."
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** Updated **
Career diplomat Robert S. Ford, the current U.S. Ambassador to Syria, spoke about the situation in Syria. The Free Syrian Army, the main opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, has made "substantial gains," he said, and the regime no longer controls most of Syria's border with either Turkey or Iraq. "It's very clear that the regime forces are being ground down and are losing." But, he added, "they still have some fight in them."
Meanwhile, Ford noted, "extremist groups" are gaining ground in the opposition. He said there is an Al Qaeda affiliate now operating in Syria and there are groups that are cooperating with them.
Ford said there are also long-term social problems that will have to be dealt with long after the current crisis is over: About 1.5 million Syrians — out of a total population of 23 million — are internally displaced, and more than 475,000 Syrians have fled the country to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq.
As for the path forward, Ford said the U.S. still "strongly supports" a political solution, but Assad "and his clique must go... He does not have a role in this political transition." Their "days are numbered" and "the regime needs to step down now."
A question from the audience: When the ambassador said Assad's "days" were numbered, did he mean Assad has only "days" left? Ford quickly replied that he would not be pinned down to a timeline.
Another questioner asked about the Alewites, Assad's privileged Muslim minority sect. Ford said the Alewites "must understand that they have a place" in Syria... "not with special privileges, but also not with special discrimination."
He said those who have committed crimes would be held responsible, and Syrian investigators were now being trained to investigate war crimes.
Fear of genocide is "certainly present," Ford conceded, "but there does not have to be a genocide in Syria... It is incumbent on us to bolster moderates in the opposition, which is what we're trying to do."
A more critical view was offered in a subsequent panel — What's Next for Syria? — by Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian human rights activist and a fellow at FDD. He complained that at a time when Syrians were being "slaughtered on a daily basis," the "world offered them a six-point plan."
He blamed the Obama administration for an "absolute lack of vision" and argued that if the U.S. had intervened sooner, the situation wouldn't be so bad. As a result, he predicted, Syria would be a problem for "many years to come."
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