Commentary Magazine

The Case for Democracy by Natan Sharansky

The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror
by Natan Sharansky with Ron Dermer
Public Affairs. 256 pp. $26.95

Natan Sharansky Surely numbers among the foremost champions of freedom of recent times. A leading voice of Soviet dissent during the 1970’s, he was largely responsible for transforming the demand that Soviet Jews be allowed to emigrate to Israel into the most influential protest movement in Soviet history. As a prisoner in the gulag, charged by the Kremlin with treason, Sharansky became a leading symbol of resistance to totalitarian brutality. During his nine years of incarceration—he was the first political prisoner released by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev—he never compromised, never complained, and never lost hope in the inevitable triumph of his cause.

There were other dissidents whose courage and dedication to freedom were just as strong. But Sharansky played a uniquely important role in the process that culminated in the collapse of Communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. By insisting that emigration was an absolute right, Sharansky and other leaders of the movement for Soviet Jewry directly challenged a fundamental device of Communist control. The movement also challenged the premises of détente between the United States and the Soviet Union, persuading Americans like Senator Henry Jackson to push for legislation that conditioned trade with Moscow on its willingness to permit the emigration of Jews and other groups.

After his release and arrival in Israel, Sharansky devoted himself to the assimilation of the large contingent of Russian Jews that had arrived during the final years of the Soviet state. A founder of the Yisrael b’Aliyah party, which was established specifically to represent the interests of these new immigrants, he has served in the cabinets of both Labor and Likud governments, and is one of Israel’s most respected political leaders.



In The Case for Democracy, written together with the journalist Ron Dermer, Sharansky argues that only through the democratization of Palestinian society and the Arab world generally can a genuine peace be forged in the Middle East. In setting forth this thesis, he draws heavily on his experiences as a human-rights advocate in the Soviet Union. His contention is that the ideas and tactics responsible for democracy’s triumph during the cold war can be applied with equal effectiveness to the challenge of expanding freedom’s reach among Israel’s Arab neighbors.

Sharansky cites an admonition by Andrei Sakharov, the spiritual leader of Soviet dissent: a state that mistreats its own people cannot be trusted to live in peace with its neighbors. To Sakharov, it was Soviet totalitarianism that bred the global environment of mistrust that defined the cold war. Similarly, Sharansky sees the authoritarian nature of the Palestinian Authority and the repressive regimes of other Arab states as the major roadblock to normal relations with Israel.

Sharansky has been sounding this theme since he began his involvement in Israeli public life. By his own account, he has urged four prime ministers—Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak of Labor and Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon of Likud—to incorporate democratization into Israel’s negotiating position. In every case, he has been politely turned down. Ariel Sharon summed up the prevailing attitude when he told Sharansky that his ideas had “no place” in the brutal politics of the Middle East. Others called them a “utopian fantasy.”

Sharansky remains undeterred. Harking back to the cold war, he recalls how the first President Bush rejected his advice to adopt a policy that would encourage those forces, already well at work, that were leading to the breakup of the Soviet Union. Bush responded that such a policy would undermine Gorbachev and foment instability. In the end, the Soviet Union dissolved, Gorbachev was swept from power, and Bush appeared as the defender of a doomed and discredited system. The need for stability, Sharansky concluded, is one of the most misused arguments in political life. “In its name,” he writes, “autocrats are embraced, dictators are coddled, and tyrants are courted.”



Foremost among the coddled autocrats has been Yasir Arafat, whom Sharansky regards as the most serious impediment to peace in the region. He is appalled that successive Israeli governments, the United States, and other Western countries have based their policies on strengthening Arafat’s position while ignoring his utter lack of concern for the well-being of his own people. Sharansky is especially critical of the Oslo Accords for creating an environment in which both Israeli leaders and outside powers conspired to ignore Arafat’s corruption and authoritarianism on the grounds that his leadership was essential to peace. That Arafat closed newspapers, rigged elections, and suppressed voices of dissent was bad enough. But Sharansky was even more disturbed by the democratic world’s refusal to insist on even the most minimal demands for human rights and good governance as preconditions for aid.

In writing about Arafat’s indifference to the economic conditions of Palestinians, Sharansky speaks from experience. As minister of trade and industry during the 1990’s, he advanced several ideas for cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that would have contributed to the Palestinian economy while also forging closer ties between the two peoples. But the proposals were rejected by Arafat, who seemed uninterested in projects that might create sources of wealth and power outside of his direct control.

Sharansky’s experiences with independent-minded Palestinians, on the other hand, have left him optimistic about the prospects for political change should the Palestinians break free of Arafat. He would like to see the goal of Palestinian democracy incorporated into the formal diplomatic stances of the United States and other parties involved in the peace negotiations. Globally, in a kind of extrapolation from this position, he advocates the creation of an entirely new institution, consisting exclusively of democratic states, as an alternative to the tyrant-infested United Nations.

Sharansky believes that democracy is a universal value, that no people would choose dictatorship if offered an alternative, and that it is as great a mistake to think that Arabs prefer an iron hand as it was during the cold war to argue that the Russian people were indifferent to freedom. There are those laboring in anonymity and under extreme duress for democracy in the Arab world; they deserve the same support, he insists, as the Sakharovs, Havels, and Sharanskys of an earlier era.

As Sharansky sees it, the critics of a democracy strategy are pseudo-realists, refusing to recognize that, in the post-9/11 world, there is no separating the free world’s interests from its values. “In an age of weapons of mass destruction and global terrorism,” he writes, “the dangers of ignoring the absence of democracy in any part of the world have increased dramatically.” Relying on dictatorships as guarantors of stability is worse than folly; it is potentially deadly.



The timing of The Case for Democracy is propitious. During the presidential campaign, John Kerry openly declared a preference for seeking stability rather than democratic change in such strategically crucial countries as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia, and Pakistan. Meanwhile, questions have been raised about the seriousness of President Bush’s commitment to a policy that seeks to expand democracy in the Middle East.

Skeptics of democracy promotion will dismiss Sharansky’s views as naive or, out of respect for his impressive biography, will damn his ideas with faint praise. To buttress their case, such critics may point to Sharansky’s own “road map” for peace in the region. It centers on a three-year period during which the outside world would collaborate to strengthen government and civil society among the Palestinians. After this period of institution-building, elections would be held and serious negotiations would begin toward a final peace settlement. Given current Middle East realities, this is a scheme whose feasibility must be seriously doubted. Indeed, Sharansky himself reports that Israeli politicians were unimpressed by President Bush’s call to make reform of the Palestinian Authority an issue in the peace process.

But if there are weaknesses in the details of Sharansky’s case for what amounts to a refashioning of the Middle East’s political culture, he is surely right that democracy is the key to real peace in the region, not to mention victory in the war on terrorism. And if he occasionally exaggerates the relevance of the cold war to the situation in today’s Middle East, it is worth remembering that those formerly Communist countries that embraced democracy have fared well, economically and politically, and live in peace with their neighbors, despite the fears of diplomats that the breakup of the Soviet empire would trigger region-wide unrest.

The Case for Democracy is suffused with the optimism that sustained Sharansky during his years of imprisonment. He conveys a genuine love for the Jewish people, respect for ordinary Palestinians, and faith in democracy. It is hard to imagine a more compelling advocate for the cause of freedom.


About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

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