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Interview: Former US spy chief sees shift toward Asia

In an interview, Admiral Dennis C. Blair - the former director of national intelligence - says the US needs to back moderate Islamic societies, and urges Israel to keep pace with a changing Middle East.

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DB : Yeah, I think there is. Certainly if some moderate leader can be accused of accepting American money or worse that can undercut that person's effectiveness. We [should] stick to the things that we can do – economic development is clearly something that we can help with.

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The leaders who we admire who have been able to bring great change in the past – Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela – they're all inspirational religious leaders and smart tacticians. It would be nice to find the Muslim Gandhi, wouldn’t it? The really charismatic leader who believes that non-violent change, lots of toleration, is the way to make the lives of Muslims better. I'm sure he's around somewhere; he was probably in Tahrir Square. Maybe he's in Syria. He's probably still a 'he' right now, not a 'she.' To me, the ideas of moderation and non-violent conflict, the Arab Spring, come together as a way forward. The appeal of the extremists is the attraction of action – I'm doing something, I'm off fighting for the cause. Non-violent conflict, the sorts of things that have been perfected by so many movements over the years, from the Russians in 1905 through Gandhi to the US civil rights movement through all the color revolutions in Europe through South Africa – they offer a way to give the repressed and the angry and the poor an action agenda but it's something that is founded on good principles, not on violence, not on killing innocent people.

ED: How has the intelligence system been shifted or reorganized to deal with the events of the Arab Spring? Does the US have the capacity it needs to monitor events on the ground?

DB: We are not as well positioned as we should be. In the cases of both Tunisia and Egypt, it was pretty well known what kind of regimes we were dealing with – and that came out in WikiLeaks, as you saw. In neither case, Egypt or Tunisia, was there a decent succession process so those regimes were very vulnerable. That was known, but as far as having really good contacts with opposition leaders and really understanding the dynamics that were so close to the surface and then exploded so quickly – like many of the people in the region themselves, Western and American intelligence services were playing catch up for a while.

ED: And now that events are unfolding, do we have a good sense of what's happening on the ground, for example in Syria or Libya ?

DB : I'm not on the inside anymore, but my general experience is that once something happens and you turn all of the collection means that you have, signals intelligence, human intelligence, geo-spatial intelligence, you usually can get a pretty good, fine-grained idea of what's going on. 

ED: It feels like things in the region are a bit up in the air in the Arab World now – who do you see as the emerging power brokers ?

DB:  Conventional wisdom would tell you that the armed forces, the police, the intelligence services would be able to hold onto power because they have the wherewithal, but the power of the mass movements that sprung up in Tunisia and Egypt, and we're seeing in Egypt, and the persistence of them, is pretty encouraging. I don't want to confuse my hopes and my realistic expectations, but I would think that anybody who comes into power in those countries would realize that he has to satisfy some pretty basic aspirations in order to stay in power.


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