The panel discussion below recently took place at David Horowitz’s Restoration Weekend in West Palm Beach, Florida (Nov. 17-20, 2011). The transcript follows. To view the Question and Answer session, click here.
Mark Tapson: And I’m also honored to introduce this panel of distinguished and ridiculously accomplished speakers. You know when you hear speakers described as people who need no introduction? These are those people. But to justify myself being up here, I’m going to say a few quick words about them anyway, and we can get down to business.
Our too-brief time together is going to go like this. I’m going to get the ball rolling by throwing out a very broad question for each of the speakers to expound upon in turn, for which they will each have about seven minutes. Then we will take questions from the audience and have a lot of lively interaction that way.
When we get to the questions, please limit yourself to one question — and a question, as opposed to comments or remarks. And try to direct your question toward one speaker, although I will probably allow the other speakers to jump in as well and offer their opinions.
We have a complex, fascinating, critical topic today — Arab Spring, Muslim winter. “Arab Spring” is a phrase that is familiar to everybody this year. It’s been so prominent in the news media throughout 2011 that I fully expect “Arab Spring” to be Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.
The mainstream media latched onto this phrase in their giddy excitement about what they saw as a flowering of freedom-loving democratic movements throughout the Arab world, for which they were eager to credit Obama’s famed Cairo speech as partial inspiration. Of course, as we’ve seen it unfold throughout the year with Islamic fundamentalists establishing political dominance, the Arab Spring is now starting to look more like “Springtime for Hitler.”
Only without the funny show tunes.
So, gentlemen of the panel — and I’ll introduce them momentarily here — gentlemen of the panel, here’s my unmanageably broad — actually, let me introduce them now, so that they don’t forget what the question is.
We’ll start at the far end here, with Michael Totten. Michael Totten is a contributing editor at City Journal. He writes regularly for Commentary and is the author of “In the Wake of the Surge” and the more recent book, “The Road to Fatima Gate,” which is a must-read, by the way. His work has also appeared everywhere from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal to the Jerusalem Post and Beirut’s Daily Star. In fact, he is a former resident of Beirut and has been to Iraq seven times.
Next, we have Dr. Daniel Pipes. He is the director of the Middle East Forum and the author and editor of so many books I don’t have time to list them all, including the must-read book “Militant Islam Reaches America.” He has taught at so many universities I don’t have time to list them all, either. But I’ll throw out just a couple — Harvard and Princeton. Perhaps you’ve heard of them. And he has written for so many publications I don’t have time to list those either. But I’ll throw out a couple — Atlantic Monthly and Foreign Affairs. Suffice it to say he is one of the world’s foremost authorities and analysts on the Middle East and Islam.
Andrew McCarthy was a top federal prosecutor, renowned for leading the prosecution of the World Trade Center bombings, Blind Sheikh and other jihadists.
Decorated with the Justice Department’s highest honors, he has gone on to become one of the country’s most prominent voices on national security issues. He’s the author of two must-reads, “Willful Blindness” and “The Grand Jihad.” A lot of must-reads on this panel; you’ll have a lot of reading to do. He’s a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and a contributing editor at National Review.
And closest to me is Douglas Murray. He was the director of the Center for Social Cohesion from 2007 to 2011 and is currently an associate director of the Henry Jackson Society. He has written a number of books, including the must-read “Neoconservatism: Why We Need It.” Murray commentates regularly in the media and writes for a number of publications, including the Spectator and Wall Street Journal. In 2009 he was awarded the Charles Douglas-Home Memorial Prize for Journalism.
Ridiculously accomplished, as I said.
So gentlemen of the panel, here is my unmanageably broad multipart question for each of you — what are the roots of the Arab Spring? Where is it all headed? And what does it mean for the Middle East and the United States? And what can and/or should we do about it?
So let’s begin at the far end, with Michael Totten.
Michael Totten: Okay. Everybody hear me all right?
I think all of us up here probably have a rather dim view of what’s being called the Arab Spring. Though I’m an optimistic person by nature, the Middle East is a great teacher of pessimism.
I was in Beirut in 2005 during what most Westerners called the Cedar Revolution. I sort of thought of it as the Beirut Spring. That’s what I — that’s what some called it, that’s what I thought of it as in my head. It looked to me a lot like an Arab version of Berlin in 1989. But it turns out that Beirut in 2005 was really more like Budapest in 1956. Or Prague in 1968.
So I am not so optimistic about where these revolutions are heading in the other Arab countries after what I’d seen in Lebanon. Although I try to be as optimistic as possible, I don’t have a lot to work with. But I will put for you the best optimistic spin I can, which is admittedly not much, on what’s going on now.
So, we’ll start with Tunisia. On Tunisia, I’m a little less pessimistic about where it’s going than the other countries. Because it looks and feels — or it did when I was there a few years ago — looked and felt pre-democratic to me in ways that other Arab countries don’t. It’s more oriented toward the Mediterranean than most Arab countries tend to be. Women’s rights are better advanced there. There’s vastly fewer women wearing the veil and headscarves than there are in most Arab countries, especially Egypt. There’s a wide spectrum of political opinions.
But unfortunately, the Islamist party, Ennahda, did very well a couple weeks ago, winning 43 percent of the vote. The media often describes the Ennahda Party as moderate. It’s not really moderate. Its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, cannot be described as moderate in any sense that we care about. He has supported suicide bombers in Israel, the insurgency in Iraq; and said that Gaza is the model for Arab freedom.
But he did run a moderate campaign. He felt like — he felt pressure from inside Tunisia that he can’t run on a platform like that; he ran on a moderate platform. So I think it’s safe to assume that some of the people who voted for him are moderate, even if he is not. So I’m not quite ready to write off Tunisia yet.
Egypt is still the same military — Arab nationalist military dictatorship that’s been running the country since 1952. And Egyptian liberals — I’m using “liberal” in the general sense of the world — are vastly outnumbered by supporters of the army or supporters of the radical Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood. So I don’t see any way that Egypt is going to become anything like a Western-style democracy anytime soon, since most of the people who live in Egypt aren’t actually trying to get there.
And Libya — Libya, unlike Egypt, did have a total regime change. God knows what comes next, but it’s probably not going to be pretty, and it’s certainly not going to be easy. Every political faction in the country has guns. al-Qaeda has a presence there. There’s been already violent clashes between different political factions in and around Tripoli — I’m not even sure what it was about. But it’s happening, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of it.
Libya under Khadafi was one of most oppressive countries in the world. It’s the most oppressive country I’ve ever seen. It’s possibly the most oppressive country I will ever see. The only countries more brutally repressive than Libya under Khadafi were Turkmenistan and North Korea.
So these people are really starting from zero. They don’t have any experience with political pluralism or compromise. And they’re going to have to make it up as they go along, while everybody’s well armed. So it does — it’s probably not going to be pretty in Libya anytime soon.
And finally there’s Syria, which , like Lebanon and Iraq, is a sectarian tinderbox. Here’s a country that is ruled by the Alawite minority that makes up about 12 percent of the population. And the Alawites branched off from Shia Islam centuries ago, but they’re not really Muslims. They’re sometimes described as Muslims, but they’re not really. Most Sunnis and most Shias consider them infidels.
And they are fighting to hold onto power in Syria, not only because they want to govern Syria, as they have been; but because for them, this is an existential fight. Because they fear persecution by the Sunni majority if they lose. Not only because they’re not really Muslims, but also because they’ve been running a totalitarian, total-surveillance police state, oppressing the majority for so long. So Assad and his people are going to fight and kill as many people as they have to to stay in power.
But it actually looks like there’s a possibility that he’ll fall. I didn’t think that he would, but I’m starting to think, well, maybe he will. And if he does, I would have to say that’s a good thing, even if what follows Assad is bad. Even if the Muslim Brotherhood takes over Syria, which would be disastrous, I still think that it would probably be less bad than what we have currently.
Because in Syria, we have Iran’s only real Arab ally, the biggest Arab state sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East, strong armor of Hamas and Hezbollah. And the Muslim Brotherhood — Syrian Sunnis at least have feelings of great antipathy for the Iranian regime and for Hezbollah. If the Muslim Brotherhood replaces him, they’ll surely still support Hamas. It will be as anti-Israel as the current government is, and probably as anti-American as the current government is. But at least it will be bad news for Iran and for Hezbollah.
So if Assad actually does fall, the Arab Spring, at least at that point, won’t look quite as dim as it did earlier, when it appeared that only the pro-American dictators were going to fall. Now that Khadafi’s gone, and Assad might go, the Arab Spring might be a little more of a wash for us.
Mark Tapson: Thanks, Michael Totten.
Dr. Daniel Pipes, your thoughts?
Daniel Pipes: I enthusiastically endorse what you’ve just heard. Excellent analysis.
I’d put it this way — that 11 months ago, almost to the day, a butterfly flapped its wings in a small town in Tunisia, town of 40,000, when a policewoman slapped a fruit vendor. And so far, three despots have been overthrown, and two are on their way, both the Syrian and the Yemeni.
Completely unpredictable. But by leave of our moderator, I’m going to skip over the roots, and the way it’s going, and what it means for the Middle East; and focus on American policy.
Our policy towards these upheavals has been inconsistent, to say the least. We applauded the overthrow — or the resignation of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. And we sat by quite complacently as the Saudis put down a rebellion in Bahrain. We used force against the despot in Libya; we have done nothing of the sort in Syria.
And I think this inconsistency reflects more than the acknowledged amatureness, shortsightedness and incompetence of the Obama Administration. It goes to something deeper. And it goes to a conundrum that American foreign policy faces in the Middle East. As I put in an article recently, we are friendless in the Middle East. We have few allies.
And the conundrum is this — the despots, who we as Americans cannot warm to, whose regimes we would never want to live under, who impose military orders that are executed by ugly intelligence services — the despots are malleable, are without any world ambitions. They want to enjoy the good life. They want famous Hollywood actors and actresses to come celebrate their birthday parties with them. They want to keep pet tigers in their gardens. They want the finest things that Paris can offer.
They are not a threat to us. Usually — there are exceptions. But usually, they’re not a threat to us. They do all this — they repress millions of people in order to have the good life. Ugly to us, but not a threat to us. Whereas in contrast, the Democrats — the people we naturally have a feeling for — are, in fact, our very worst enemies.
We just heard about Tunisia, Egypt — we will see likewise elsewhere. This has been the case since 1991 and the elections in Algeria. Wherever you look, it’s the Islamists, the people who are most hostile to us, who represent a utopian ideological vision of the future, who are in line after the fascists and communists, trying to create a new man. It is the Islamists who are popular, who have organized, who touch something that resonates in the Muslim populations, who have money, who have devoted cadres, who have years, if not decades, of experience, who are part of an international network, who have different means of accessing power — in some cases through NATO, in some cases through the ballot box — for example, in Turkey — some cases through revolution, as in [Iraq]; some cases through military coup d’état, as in Sudan. Many different ways to get to power.
But democracy is one important way. And we find that they gain a plurality, if not a majority, in country after country. Because they are standing for something — integrity and a vision of the future.
So this is the conundrum. The people we can work with we despise. The people we admire are hostile to us. Makes it very difficult to have a policy.
I would suggest three guidelines for policy. First, always oppose the Islamists, plain and simple. Always. Everywhere.
Even when they come to power legitimately, as in Turkey. You may have noticed that our President hugged their prime minister just a week ago. Don’t do that.
So, that’s easy. Always against the Islamists.
Two, always support those few articulate — tend to be young, modern, liberal, secular elements who are with us, who we know more clearly now than a year ago do exist. Tahrir Square is their symbol. They do exist. But they have no chance of getting to power. They do not mobilize the masses, they do not control the bayonets. Someday, possibly, they will be our partners. But not anywhere — in the near future, at least, in — except for Iran, where they might come to power. But in general, help them. Make their lives better, celebrate them, encourage them, without the expectation they’ll take power.
And then finally, and most difficult, the despots themselves. We’ll work with them, to improve them. They’ll never be our friends. But one can — the West as a whole, not just the United States — one can work on them to improve them. It’s not an exciting policy, it’s not an attractive policy, but it’s a realistic policy.
Had we spent the last 30 years nudging and pushing Mubarak, he could’ve ended up, in 2011, in a quite different place where he was. But we didn’t. There were erratic efforts to improve the Egyptian regime, but it remained a military dictatorship, as executed by a police state. And we sat by and accepted it.
So I think in a limited way, always opposing the Islamists, always helping our friends, the liberal seculars; and in a calculated, careful way — calibrated way — pushing the despots in the right direction — we can have a consistent, and perhaps even successful, foreign policy in the Middle East.
Mark Tapson: Thank you, Dr. Pipes.
Our speakers are catching me by surprise, because they’re all coming in under their seven-minute deadline. So I haven’t had to stand up to pressure any of them yet.
But anyway, on to Andy McCarthy.
Andrew McCarthy: Thank you.
I want to — I actually had something else I wanted to say. But I want to bounce off something Daniel said, which I think is very important. I think one of the things that we need to do is reclaim what democracy means –
– so that it’s not an attribute — that the Islamists are not allowed to carry the mantle of it.
I may have bored you with this before over the years, but I went to Catholic school in the Bronx. And I remember that when I was in the third grade, we had a democratic election. You know, we had a whole campaign. We even elected a president. I think we had a vice president and a treasurer. There was nobody who thought that was a democracy. And we all knew the nun was in charge. You know.
And what I think we’ve done really badly in terms of democracy promotion — and this is not just an Obama problem; this is a problem that goes back two or three administrations, and administrations of both parties — is that we have put the procedural [attenments] of democracy ahead of the culture of democracy, and tried to call it democracy in order to show some short-term success.
But the fact that you have popular referenda, and that you, you know, sit down and go through the exercise of writing constitutions — constitutions which, by the way, our State Department assists in the writing of, and that end up establishing Sharia as the fundamental law of these countries and establishing Islam as the state religion, which is a little bit of a bizarre thing, I would say, for a Western power to be assisting in that kind of constitution writing — but that’s not democracy.
And I think if — I’m all for being in the democracy-promotion business. I’m not so sure that we always need to have our military be the vehicle of it. But I think we need to do democracy promotion with our eyes open. Planting a democratic culture, particularly in a place or places where they have not had it for 13 or 14 centuries, is not something you’re going to get done in six or eight months. It’s the work of generations. And I think we have to have a little bit of humility about how easy it will be to accomplish it, and how far they’re going to be willing to go.
Herman Cain started us off today. And I don’t have any 9-9-9 plan. But I did want to — I did think it might be useful to give you this formula — four out of five. Because to me, four out of five is my best way of trying to understand what we’re up against.
I think the single most important thing that has happened in what’s called the Arab Spring — myself, I prefer to call it the lying in winter — but the snapshot that we’ve gotten was the Egyptian referendum about the future of Egypt, the election of the legislature and the president, and the schedule under which that was going to be held. And even though it was, technically speaking, an election about the schedule, and how things were going to progress, it was won in Egypt. The campaign took place in Egypt, as if it were really along sectarian lines.
And a vote for a fast track was a vote for Islam and a vote for the Muslim Brotherhood. And a vote to slow things down, so that the real democrats actually had a chance, a fighting chance, to build some democratic institutions, was deemed to be a vote for — or a vote against Islam. I mean, that was the rhetoric in which the campaign was conducted.
And even though we had heard up until that point that this region was just teeming with Jamal al-Madisons waiting to happen, right –
– in the event the reformers, the secularists and the reformist Muslims, got wiped out — four out of five. Seventy-eight percent to 22 percent.
In — I think it was 2007, they did some polling of a swath of the Islamic countries — the University of Maryland, along with a reputable world polling service. And they asked questions like — would you like to live in a fundamentalist Sharia society? And when they asked those questions in places like Egypt and Pakistan, the response that came back was that about four out of five people said that they would, in fact, like to live in a Sharia society. And if you asked them questions like should Israel exist, four out of five of them say no.
This past year, an outfit called Mapping Sharia — a project called Mapping Sharia — did a survey of American mosques. And what they found was that four out of five mosques in the United States feature literature that endorses, in one way or another, violent jihad. Four out of five. And what they also found was that on the premises of those places where that endorsement can be found, if the literature is on the premises, the imam tends to endorse the literature and make sure that it’s disseminated among the flock. And those mosques tend to be the mosques which invite other imams to come who are notorious for being backers of violent jihadist ideology, not just, you know, run-of-the-mill Muslim Brotherhood Islamist ideology; you know, almost the al-Qaeda brand.
So you never want to oversimplify. But I do think that this is a metric of what we’re up against. And it’s wrong for people on my side of the debate, I think, to address this challenge as if we had no allies in the region and as if there were no champions of democracy. Because there are. But let’s not overestimate what they’re in a position to accomplish. And let’s not underestimate how very, very hard this is. We may move the ball up the field. But let’s be realistic — we’re going to move if — if we do it at all, it’s going to be in fits and starts, and there’ll be a lot of setbacks.
And the last point, I guess — can I make one more point, or am I out of time? I’ll make one more point. I would argue for a foreign policy that puts American interests first in recognition of what actual American interests are. And I’m thinking in the Reagan model.
You know, Reagan came in, and he decided that the biggest priority that the United States had was to defeat the Soviet Union. And all of foreign policy was organized around that goal. And what that meant was — it wasn’t that democracy promotion was not an important American interest. It was that in places like Poland, where we could do democracy promotion in an aggressive way that would really hurt the Soviet Union, we did it in an aggressive way. And in places in Central America, where we were relying on less-than-democratic forces to confront the Soviet Union, we eased off the pedal. Didn’t mean that democracy promotion was unimportant to us; it just meant that it didn’t serve our more imperative interests.
And I think we need to figure out, you know, what do we need to accomplish? For example, Iran — we ought to have a national policy of regime change in Iran. We ought to be unambiguous about the fact that Iran is the enemy, and we ought to organize all of American policy around that idea. It would be much more disciplined than, you know, blathering on about democracy promotion, and not taking the opportunities we can to hurt the enemy.