Bushs buddy

In the relationship between Israel and the United States, no value is more cherished than the mutual commitment to democracy. In fact, Israel is the only democracy among almost two dozen Middle Eastern states. This historic bond is embedded in the political philosophy of Natan Sharansky, who sets forth (with Ron Dermer) in “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny & Terror.”

Sharansky writes about democracy with great faith in its redemptive powers — a thought familiar to anyone who reads the neoconservative political commentators. He describes the struggle as Manichean, one of freedom’s light vs. authoritarian darkness. Indeed, President Bush’s favorite Israeli may be Sharansky, whose views on the expansive powers of free societies are grist for the Iraq mill and elsewhere. Bush and Sharansky have spent time together talking about these ideas.

Sharansky, who spent nine years as a Soviet refusenik, was the first political prisoner to be released by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989. Sharansky then devoted himself to the struggle to free Soviet Jewry. For the last decade he has served in high profile posts in the Israeli government, currently as minister of Jerusalem and diaspora affairs. To the free world, Sharansky’s dissent in the face of Soviet oppression was heroic. The United States gave him a congressional medal to commemorate his achievements. Somehow Sharansky managed to live to tell about it.

But this book is less a memoir (like his “Fear No Evil”) than a statement of political philosophy. While not overly academic in tone, the text indulges in some academic distinctions, such as Sharansky’s “free societies” and “fear societies.” One protects the right to dissent. The other maintains stability through terror. This reads a bit like Political Science 101, a kind of Israeli Tom Paine.

Still, his firsthand witness entitles Sharansky to at least propose, even if a healthy skepticism abides, that free speech and democratic processes are a panacea for the malignancies of totalitarianism. Coincidentally, the demise of hate-monger Yasser Arafat furnished an opportunity for Sharansky to pitch this book’s optimism to Bush. In a speech last summer, he looked forward to a post-Arafat world, stating that liberty will “blossom in the rocky soil of the West Bank and Gaza.”

Sharansky has a unique story to tell about his own life, and by any measure he has “earned” his standing as a pundit on freedom and tyranny. But his politics, which the Washington Post labeled as a “tough-love case for Palestinian democracy,” seem at times simplistic. He tends to ignore the abuses that are possible in free societies, declaring at one point, “There is no such thing as a belligerent democracy.” But in fact most democracies are not pacifist and they do go to war (not always for the best reasons).

Sharansky is understandably equivocal about Palestinian prospects, reasoning that peace will only come about when its people are truly free, and that this could take decades to be realized. The long history of demagoguery and dictatorship in the Arab Middle East entitles us to cynicism, but we can hope. What is the alternative?

He is a man of convictions, but his expectation for a free society under the Palestinian Authority tends to ignore the impacts of the occupation. His faith in democracy taking hold, even if favorable preconditions are absent, sounds familiar to American ears. In any case he correctly reasons that it will take patience to plant democratic values and nurture their growth. He rightly despises the immoral Arab leaders who let their people down and who poison the wells from which that nurture is drawn.

Sharansky’s faith in democracy and its attainment is rooted most of all in the right to hold a minority view. He says that only societies that protect that right are reliable partners for peace, which certainly explains the Palestinian’s unreliability. Sharansky’s own international celebrity is based upon his role as a major dissenter to Soviet tyranny. It is an inspiring story and Sharansky commands appropriate political credibility for his personal saga.

“The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny & Terror” by Natan Sharansky with Ron Dermer ($26.95, Public Affairs, 303 pages).