The think tank I head 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that has to be planned many months in advance so we always worry that the theme we choose will be embarrassingly outdated by the time hundreds of government officials, wonks and reporters settle in their seats, balancing notebooks, coffee and bran muffins on their laps.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 award 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 al-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-Qaida-linked jihadists.
The liveliest disagreement at the 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 naivete 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."
Foundation for Defense of Democracies 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.
What happens after that? Not a new era of Middle Eastern prosperity or freedom -- the experiences of Islamist-ruled Iran, Sudan and Gaza demonstrate that clearly. This question then arises: If most people in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia become disenchanted with Islamist governments will they be able to choose a different direction?
I'm doubtful. Iran's revolutionary rulers hold elections -- and rig them. Hamas came to power in 2006 through a not-quite-free election and, surprise, Gaza's ballot boxes have been in mothballs every since. Free elections in Sudan are as likely as a blizzard in the Sahara.
Gerecht argued that in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood will continue to encounter resistance not just from secularists, but also from fundamentalists dissatisfied with Morsi's more pragmatic (not to be confused with moderate) policies. Gerecht adds: "Right now, I would be content with democratic values that are far from ideal but at least offer space for differences to be voiced freely."
I'm not entirely on board with either side in this debate. On the one hand, I don't think there is any way we can stop Islamists from coming to power. Stipulate that President Barack Obama threw Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak under the bus. Does anyone believe that, had he not, Mubarak would have made it across the street? On the other hand, I see no reason to believe that Islamist regimes will mellow over time or allow themselves to be voted out of power. "Democracy is a train," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said. "You can get off when you reach your destination."
Tough policy decisions remain: Should American taxpayers continue to give money to the Egyptian military? I can't imagine why. If there are Syrian factions -- political and ethnic -- that are both anti-Assad/anti-Iranian and anti-al-Qaida, should we give them assistance? Yes, because a victory by Assad, his Iranian sponsor, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei or al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri would be a defeat for us.
At the conclusion of the Washington Forum, one thing was clear: Those of us committed to what that old neo-conservative John F. Kennedy called the "survival and the success of liberty" have few good policy options to choose among. Instead, we face bad options -- and worse options. As that old religious conservative Woody Allen said, "Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly."
(Clifford May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.)