Panetta Calls Arab Spring ‘Monumental Moment’

WASHINGTON, Sept. 7, 2011 — The chain of pop­u­lar upris­ings across the Arab world known as the “Arab Spring” is a mon­u­men­tal moment in the pol­i­tics and future of the Mid­dle East, Defense Sec­re­tary Leon E. Panet­ta said yes­ter­day.

“The changes that are tak­ing place, peo­ple com­ing togeth­er to … seek the same kind of rights and oppor­tu­ni­ties and free­doms that oth­ers enjoy in this world … is a good sign for the future,” Panet­ta said dur­ing a tele­vised inter­view with PBS’ Char­lie Rose.

While many gov­ern­ments are in upheaval and risks remain, events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syr­ia send a clear sig­nal to Iran that it is not win­ning in the region, and to al-Qai­da that “the jihadist ide­ol­o­gy is not win­ning in that part of the world,” he said.

The cur­rent upris­ings in Syr­ia are “very much a peo­ple move­ment,” the sec­re­tary added. He not­ed that the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty is impos­ing pres­sure and sanc­tions on Syr­i­an leader Bashar al-Assad to try to force him to step down.

“When you start shoot­ing your own peo­ple in the streets, you lose any legit­i­ma­cy to pow­er,” the sec­re­tary said. “You can­not do that and expect to be legit­i­mate in the eyes of the peo­ple of that coun­try. And I think Assad’s days, just like [Libyan leader Moam­mar] Gadhafi’s, are num­bered.”

When the upris­ings began ear­ly this year, U.S. mil­i­tary and intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ties worked to iden­ti­fy the com­mon fac­tors link­ing the chain of pop­u­lar revolts, the sec­re­tary said. Those fac­tors includ­ed poor eco­nom­ic con­di­tions, a youth­ful pop­u­la­tion that didn’t see much hope, and a thriv­ing social media net­work.

“Part of it was just the fact that they had had enough that they knew their lives could be bet­ter and that they didn’t have to tol­er­ate the kind of lives that they were lead­ing,” he said. “All of those fac­tors came togeth­er to pro­duce the changes that we’ve seen.”

When peo­ple decide “the moment has come,” and they band togeth­er to take on the mil­i­tary or a tyran­ni­cal leader, “that’s a moment when tremen­dous change is about to hap­pen. And I think it’s true not only in the Mid­dle East, it’s going to be true in Iran as well,” Panet­ta said.

“I think the reform move­ment in Iran is learn­ing one hell of a lot from what’s hap­pened in Tunisia and Egypt and Libya and Syr­ia,” he added.

The 2009 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in Iran demon­strat­ed “a move­ment with­in Iran that raised those very same con­cerns that we’re see­ing else­where,” the sec­re­tary said.

“I think in many ways it’s a mat­ter of time before that kind of change and reform and rev­o­lu­tion occurs in Iran as well,” he added.

The Unit­ed States and oth­er nations must allow the peo­ple of the Mid­dle East to take the lead in their own nations, but must also pro­vide sup­port as changes take place, Panet­ta said.

“I think that sense that there’s some­one stand­ing beside you who shares the same con­cerns, the same feel­ings, and is pre­pared to make that kind of sac­ri­fice if nec­es­sary — it’s when those ingre­di­ents come togeth­er that these changes occur,” he said.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)