Free societies vs. fear societies

Interview | Natan Sharansky discusses the prospects for democracy in the Middle East and Russia and how in President Bush he has

Issue: "Lebanon: Democracy now," Feb. 26, 2005

Israeli cabinet minister Natan Sharansky landed in New York just after his boss, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and Palestinian Leader Mahmoud Abbas shook hands at a plush Red Sea resort on the coast of the once-disputed Sinai Peninsula, jointly agreeing to "cease all acts of violence against Israelis and Palestinians everywhere."

For Mr. Sharansky, the rapid move toward peace in Israel could mark the second such political watershed in his life. A Soviet dissident who spent nine years in the gulags as a prisoner of conscience, his freedom and subsequent emigration to Israel were made possible only after Moscow's fall. Now he is a leading official for Mr. Sharon's ruling coalition.

His trip to the United States coincided with the arrival on leading bestseller lists of his latest book, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom To Overcome Tyranny & Terror. Key to its success was an impromptu endorsement by President Bush. He summoned Mr. Sharansky to the White House late last year for an hour-long discussion and later publicly encouraged his own staff to read the book. Mr. Sharansky, he said, is a "heroic figure" who "talks about how freedom can change the globe."

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WORLD asked Joel Rosenberg, its former political columnist and bestselling author of The Last Jihad, who once worked as an aide to Mr. Sharansky, for an interview with the Israeli official, which took place Feb. 12 at the Madison Hotel in Washington, D.C.

WORLD: Why do you believe there is such interest in your views on democracy right now?

Sharansky: There are two reasons, really. The first is 9/11. The second is President Bush.

After the horrible attacks on America on 9/11, many people in the United States began to realize that Western attempts over the years to bring about stability by supporting dictators in the Middle East have been very problematic. Dictatorships are inherently dangerous and belligerent, and 9/11 made many people realize that it is not enough just to destroy the terrorists. You must change the governing structures in the countries that produce the terrorists.

For 20 years I've been saying that it's better to have a democracy that hates you than a dictator that loves you. Many people thought my speeches and articles on this topic seemed either too abstract or too grounded in my struggle with the Soviet system. Also, the desire within Western democracies to find immediate solutions to problems always seemed to encourage Western leaders to find "reliable dictators" as their first choice, rather than to push certain countries to become true democracies.

But President Bush, from the very beginning hours after 9/11, saw this new war as a challenge between the world of freedom and the world of terror. And he made it clear that we must not only destroy terrorists. We must also encourage the change of regimes that have long supported terror. . . . In President Bush I have found another dissident as well.

WORLD: How do you assess new Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen)? Do you share Mr. Sharon's optimism that the conditions are ripe for a "historic breakthrough" with the Palestinians?

Sharansky: No doubt there is a new opportunity. Sometimes it is easier for new leadership to change the course of a country or a people from the direction of past leaders because they are not fully responsible for the decisions of the past.

The most important reason for optimism is because the leader of the free world believes and is saying openly that the only path to peace and security in the Middle East is to expand and promote democracy.

Will it really happen? That is still a very big question, and I am very, very cautious. Look, it doesn't matter how good or bad Abu Mazen is. The question is whether the world will make a linkage between democratic reforms in the Palestinian society and the peace process. Even if Abu Mazen really wants to make peace and really wants to create a healthy democracy in the Palestinian society, it won't be easy for him. He will only do it if there is a strong demand of him from the U.S., Israel, and Europe. He will only do it if the free world says, "We will only keep embracing you and supporting you if you embrace democratic reforms, if you keep moving to create a free society instead of a fear society."

Obviously, President Bush is making this linkage. But he is a rather lonely voice on this topic, both outside America and even inside America. Even the career diplomats within his own State Department seem uncomfortable with the notion of supporting freedom and democracy. So we shall see.


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