The Arab Spring: 'A Virus That Will Attack Moscow and Beijing'

Former presidential candidate and US Senator John McCain's comment was a biting kicker at opening dinner of 2011 Halifax International Security Forum.

McCain at Halifax.jpg(photo credit:  Halifax the Forum)

I'm up at the 2011 Halifax International Security Forum where 18 defense ministers and a who's who of the international defense and security community have assembled.  The forum is modestly sized with about 200 attendees -- but the diversity of perspective here is impressive.

I'll have a post up in a while on US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's appeal to allies in an "era of austerity" -- but wanted to get something up now that John McCain tagged on to his otherwise very humorous remarks at the opening dinner last night.

After Senator Mark Udall used his time on stage mostly to joke about American and Canadian hockey -- a theme nearly everyone here can't stay away from -- McCain jested that in Arizona, mothers tell their kids that they'll never grow up to be President -- as Barry Goldwater, Bruce Babbitt, Morris Udall (Mark's dad), and McCain had all tried and failed.  McCain was truly funny -- his sense of timing better than Udall's.

But then sensing that a crowd of generals, admirals, defense ministers, and national security policy practitioners prefer gravitas to slapstick, McCain dropped a pretty big zinger on the crowd.

He said, "A year ago, Ben-Ali and Gaddafi were not in power.  Assad won't be in power this time next year.  This Arab Spring is a virus that will attack Moscow and Beijing." McCain then walked off the stage.

Comparing the Arab Spring to a virus is not new for the Senator -- but to my knowledge, coupling Russia and China to the comment is.

Senator McCain's framing reflects a triumphalism bouncing around at this conference.  It sees the Arab Spring as a product of Western design -- and potentially as a tool to take on other non-democratic governments. 

At an earlier session, Senator Udall said that those who believed that the Arab Spring was an organic revolution from within these countries were wrong -- and that the West and NATO in particular had been primary drivers of results in Libya -- and that the West had helped animate and move affairs in Egypt.  Udall provocatively added Syria to that list as well.

But John McCain's biting kicker last night would have been seriously jarring to any Chinese or Russian defense types who might have been in the room.  They seem to be the only ones not here. 

McCain may be right that fake democracies like Russia and authoritarian regimes like China may face the same kinds of disruptions in their locks on power that Gaddafi and Ben-Ali did, but to frame this possibility as objective -- which was the tone of McCain's comment -- seriously complicates the global security picture particularly when the US and Europe are hoping to draw Russia and China into a much more cooperative arrangement confining Iran's options in the world.

It's tough to partner with regimes on one front while essentially calling for their collapse and downfall on another.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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