Israeli politician Natan Sharansky spent years in the Soviet gulag for the “crime” of fighting for his people’s right to emigrate from the Workers’ Paradise, so he is uniquely well placed to teach us about the blessings of freedom and democracy. The Case for Democracy, written with Ron Dermer, convincingly argues that freedom can take root in places it has yet to grow, and that the United States, which for decades has relied on the “stability” of seemingly friendly dictators to protect its interests, should use its power and influence to promote the spread of democracy – not just because it’s the right thing to do (though it is), but also because it is in America’s best interests in the long term. (“The democracy that hates you is less dangerous than the dictator who loves you,” writes Sharansky.) With Americans arguing about what should be done with Iraq in the face of a determined insurgency, The Case for Democracy couldn’t be any more timely.
Sharansky argues that nations can be divided into two categories: free societies, in which the people may express their views and opinions without fear of arrest or punishment by the state, and and “fear societies”, in which the people are denied this fundamental freedom. Citizens of free societies are also given the right to elect their leaders, of course, but Sharansky says elections alone are not enough: a free press, an independent judiciary, and the rule of law must be firmly in place before genuinely free elections can be held. (The recent Iraqi elections have been absolutely magnificent to behold, but one wonders whether the elements of a free society are ready, and therefore whether the polling has been held too soon.) The rulers of fear societies, on the other hand, exist only for the purpose of remaining in power indefinitely, and to that end they need to crack down on all forms of dissent and popular expression, and to make popular anger remains firmly fixed on real or imagined external enemies. (That’s why the leaders of Syria, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia, fear societies all, need the “Zionist entity” as a safety valve for their citizens’ wrath.)
Sharansky has no time for the argument that certain societies are incapable of organizing themselves in a free, democratic manner. Just as people say the dream of Arab democracy is nothing but wishful thinking, people once said the Germans, Japanese and Russians would never evolve into free societies. Today, the notion that Japan or Germany will devolve into tyranny is almost impossible to believe, and while trends in Vladmir Putin’s Russia are worrisome, Sharansky calls the country a “bastion of freedom” compared with the old state that kept him in prison, and says it is far too early to write off Russian democracy. “To believe that the Russians long for a return to a totalitarian past…is like believing that African-Americans who suffer from unemployment and poverty long for a return to slavery,” he writes.
Sharansky, who led a Russian immigrants’ political party in Israel, served in several cabinets involved in the seemingly endless peace process with the Palestinians, and his experiences – and the lessons learned – make up the bulk of The Case for Democracy. Instead of promoting the development of a free Palestinian democracy, Israel and the West actually supported and strengthened Yasser Arafat’s tyranny, on the premise that he would provide “stability” and prevent the rise of Islamic fundamentalists like Hamas. Sharansky says the process was therefore doomed from the start, and that today Israel faces a Palestinian society even poorer, more disaffected and more “anti-Zionist” than it was during the first intifada.
The author also points to American policies toward the Soviet Union as models for how and how not to deal with dictatorial states. In the early 1970s, when the Nixon administration worked toward “detente” – coexistence and cooperation – with the communist tyranny, the Soviet leadership was emboldened. By contrast, when Ronald Reagan was willing to call the Soviet Union for what it was and act accordingly, it was the beginning of the end for a political system that enslaved a third of the world’s population. Sharansky says the USSR may never have collapsed had the American government not been willing to publicly support its jailed dissidents and human-rights activists, and even recounts the story of how Reagan’s much-maligned “evil empire” speech gave his dissident comrades renewed hope and optimism. “Tapping on walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagan’s ‘provocation’ quickly spread through the prison,” he writes. “The dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth – a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us.” (Lest you dismiss Sharansky as a shill for the Republicans, he also praises the late Democratic Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson for his outspoken opposition to detente, and condemns Republican “realists” like Henry Kissinger and George H.W. Bush, the latter of whom urged Ukranians not to secede from the USSR in 1991. The promotion of democracy – and “realism” – transcends party boundaries.)
The Case for Democracy is not a perfect book – Sharansky seems too optimistic about Russia, for example, and I would have liked more detailed information about democratic dissident movements in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. But it is an important and stirring one, and its message deserves to be heard by all. President Bush has read and praised the book, and I hope he takes its lessons to heart – especially the next time the Saudis come calling.