Long, Hot Arab Summer
The Arab Spring, circa the end of August


Clifford D. May
Here’s what we know: The Muslim world is in the throes of a major transformation. Here’s what we don’t know: whether it will end in cheers or tears.

Whenever a despot falls, especially one with American blood on his hands, I raise a glass and offer a toast. I do not, however, hang out a banner saying “Mission Accomplished” — not because that would be untrue, but because it’s wise to remember that the most challenging missions lie ahead. 

Qaddafi was a tin-pot dictator, but he had oil wells. He was a buffoon, but he provided no amusement to those — such as Libyan freedom-fighter Fathi Eljahmi — who suffered in his torture chambers and died in his dungeons.

Qaddafi’s fall will provide an opportunity for freedom’s advance — but no guarantee. Indeed, history teaches that most revolutions fail. The shah of Iran was followed by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Russia went from the Tsars to the commissars. And now there is Putin and Medvedev. I’m reminded of the old saying that sometimes progress means teaching a cannibal to eat with a knife and fork.

American intervention in Libya was primarily humanitarian in intent. Qaddafi threatened to turn Benghazi into a slaughterhouse. To stand silently by while that happened, as we did when genocide was carried out in Rwanda, seemed like the worst of a number of bad choices.

Libya’s rebels should be grateful for American and European assistance but we know — not least from our experience in Afghanistan, where we supported indigenous efforts to oust Soviet oppressors — that gratitude is not an emotion jihadis experience. 

There are Libyans who do not want Taliban types telling them how to live and what it means to be a Muslim. There are many who would be very pleased to see Libya’s oil wealth shared with them — not spent by others for causes far from Libya’s shores. The trick is to strengthen these people and to weaken their enemies who also are our enemies.

Syria is a different situation. It is a major strategic concern. As scholar Michael Doran recently wrote, what is at stake in Syria today“is nothing less than the future of the Iranian regional security system.”

We don’t know who or what will follow Assad. We do know that the geo-political map will look different and that Iran and Hezbollah are unlikely to be pleased with what they see. We need to do what we can to speed Assad’s fall (some suggestions are here) and help shape the events and institutions that follow.

 — Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and political Islam.