Middle East Unrest Could Be Net Positive For U.S. Counterterrorism Efforts, Former CIA Chief Says

While growing unrest in the Middle East "causes turbulence in the near-term" for U.S. counterterrorism efforts, the unrest provides an "opening" that -- in the long run -- could prove beneficial to the United States, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Hayden, said Wednesday.

Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, Hayden was asked by an audience member why he is "so optimistic" about changes in the Middle East when "we don't know who's going to come to power." Hayden said developments in Egypt, a country he described as "a wonderful partner" in the fight against terrorism, reflect why he's optimistic.

"At a minimum they're distracted," Hayden said of Egyptians and their government officials. "But over the long-term, [they're] really something of great hope. Here is a vision for the future -- for particularly the Arab Islamic world. It has nothing to do with Al Qaeda's vision for the future. It's not some view of [pure] religion descending upon man and directing all actions. It's empowerment from people, through popular choice and plurality."

Hayden said "nurturing" that "will take care of something that we have not done as well at," addressing "production rates of people who want to come kill us."

"We have to deal with the long battle, the deep battle," he said. "These changes [in the Middle East] give us opportunity for the deep battle."

Emphasizing that "success is not guaranteed," Hayden told a story from the weeks before he left the CIA in 2009. For about three weeks, Hayden worked under the Obama administration. In that time, the CIA completed a "successful operational activity," after which then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel came up to Hayden and said, "Hey, good on you guys. That was great," Hayden recalled. In response, Hayden said to Emanuel, "Yeah, Rahm it was, thanks. But that was a [counterterrorism] success. Unless you're willing to do this forever, we have got to change the facts on the ground."

So, two years later, while success is not guaranteed in the Middle East, "there is an opening here to change the facts on the ground," Hayden said Wednesday.

Marc Thiessen, a visiting fellow at AEI who was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush and is now a Washington Post columnist, agreed with Hayden's optimism.

"The Egyptian military is not going to allow [Al Qaeda leader] Ayman Zawahiri to come in ... and take over the country," said Thiessen, who joined Hayden on the AEI-sponsored panel. "The crowds there were not carrying Usama bin Laden posters or demanding sharia law. They were demanding democracy."

Thiessen predicted a positive outcome in increasingly volatile Libya too, saying, "I think it's going to turn out pretty well, I think Muammar Qaddafi is going to fall, and I think that's going to be a good thing."

Not everyone on the panel was so optimistic though.

Capt. Glenn Sulmasy, a law professor at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, said he's "concerned" about the Muslim brotherhood coming to power in Egypt and the impact "what's going on in these destabilized regions" could have on "our ally and friend" Israel.

"We have to be a little careful about how we proceed, because there is a danger -- there is no question -- and we have to support our ally," he said.