The think tank I head up organizes an annual policy conference that has to be planned many months in advance, so we always worry that the theme we choose will be embarrassingly outdated by the time hundreds of government officials, wonks, and reporters settle in their seats, balancing notebooks, coffee, and bran muffins on their laps.
This year we got lucky: The Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ 2012 Washington Forum was titled “Dictators and Dissidents: Should the West Choose Sides?” As the panelists took to the podium, Egyptian dissidents in Ismailia and Cairo were torching Muslim Brotherhood headquarters to protest President Mohamed Morsi’s attempt to bestow upon himself dictatorial powers. A short sail up the eastern Mediterranean coast, the Syrian opposition was battling the forces of the Assad dictatorship.
There was edifying debate about how the United States and its allies ought to respond. Robert S. Ford, American ambassador to Syria — from which he was forced to flee at risk of his life more than a year ago — insisted that Bashar Assad must and will go, either on his own steam or carried out on a litter. Nevertheless, the U.S. continues to provide only minimal assistance to the pro-Western factions in the opposition. Lacking such support, those factions have been increasingly overshadowed by the Nusra Front, a bold and well-funded band of mostly foreign, al-Qaeda-linked jihadists.
The liveliest disagreement at the FDD conference was over this resolution: “If democracy is to triumph in the Middle East, Islamist victories at the ballot box are unavoidable and essential.” Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal and Rob Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argued that it requires stunning naïveté to believe there are “moderate” Islamists prepared to establish liberal democracies. “There were ‘moderate’ Nazis,” Stephens noted. “Albert Speer was one of them. But he was still a Nazi.”
FDD senior fellow Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA operative, and Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, countered that after generations of failed secular dictatorship, it is inevitable — not to be confused with desirable — that free elections bring Islamists to power in most Muslim-majority countries.