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Blog: Conference mulls the hard choice between dictators and dissidents

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From left: Bret Stephens, deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal; Reuel Marc Gerecht, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD); Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress; and Rob Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, sit on a panel titled “Islamists and Elections: Where Do They Lead?” at the FDD’s annual national security conference in Washington on Dec. 6, 2012. (Lloyd Wolf/FDD)

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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