JERUSALEM -- An eternity ago, in 2004, the former Soviet refusenik and Israeli government minister Natan Sharansky called George W. Bush "a dissident President" -- "jokingly," he tells me, thinking back to that first White House meeting. "I didn't think it'd be so true, that he'd be so lonely, because," as he later warned Mr. Bush, "dissidents are lonely."
The fortunes of Mr. Sharansky and his ideas about freedom rose and sunk with President Bush's opinion polls. His "The Case for Democracy" came along, three years ago, when the administration seriously looked to push it in the Muslim world. The president loved the book, and Mr. Sharansky became the in-house philosopher for the Bush Doctrine. "If you want a glimpse of how I think about foreign policy, read Natan Sharansky's book," blurbs Mr. Bush on the back cover of the paperback edition.
But democracy is a dirty word these days. So Mr. Sharansky is lonely too, bounced out of Israeli politics and out of favor. He, Vaclav Havel and other former Eastern European dissident faces of the freedom agenda are dismissed as Cold War naïfs, pernicious Utopians, or worse -- men whose moral Manichaeism has no business in the "complex Middle East."
America is back to its realist ways in the region, propping up Egyptian and Saudi gerontocrats. The day I visit Mr. Sharansky, Condi Rice is here to prod all sides to another Middle East peace conference, with no mention of political opening as part of the bargain.
Across town at the Shalem Center, his new professional home in Jerusalem's German Colony, Mr. Sharansky puts a brave face on this latest turn in his life. Nine years in a Siberian prison camp without seeing his young wife, he says, puts everything that follows in healthy perspective. His smiling eyes are framed by a recognizable bald pate and graying sideburns (he's almost 60). An anecdote or joke is never absent for long in conversation. As almost any East European will tell you, humor makes unpleasant reality go down easier.
Mr. Sharansky says of his adversaries among the Western intellectual elite: "Those people who are always wrong -- they were wrong about the Soviet Union, they were wrong about Oslo [the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace deal], they were wrong about appeasing Yasser Arafat -- they are the intellectual leaders of these battles. So what can I tell you?"
But his side is today on a back foot. The war in Iraq and the rise of Hamas in the Palestinian territories, aided by the ballot box, are Exhibits A and B in the case against the Bush Doctrine and its contention that democracy can put down roots in Arab soil.
Mr. Sharansky considers these cases immaterial. "What's happening today in Iraq has nothing to do with the question whether promoting democracy is a good idea, or whether people in Iraq want to live in freedom." The Iraqis' refusal to defend Saddam Hussein and courage in voting for a new constitution and parliament settled that argument for Mr. Sharansky. Iraq's Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites are, he says, engaged in a different, no less ferocious struggle over "identity" -- his current obsession, and the subject of his next book.
The victory of Hamas in last year's Palestinian elections is widely considered a defeat for the Bush Doctrine. Mr. Sharansky recalls seeing friends at the White House the day of the vote. "They said, 'Oh, it's the first time, it's a good experiment.' And I said, 'I fully disagree. It's a terrible experiment!' Now of course they come back and say, 'You see, you want to promote democracy and you get Hamas.'"
As he argued in his bestselling book, the West confuses the ballot box with democracy. "The election has to be at the end of the process of building free society," he says. "If there is no free and democratic society, elections can never be free and democratic."
Having not even attempted a "bottom up" overhaul of its politics and economy, the Palestinians weren't ready for a poll, he says, nor were other post-Cold War Western protectorates. He faults successive U.S. administrations for pushing votes before their time in Bosnia right after its war ended in 1995, Iraq and in the Palestinian territories. "Nobody thought in 1946 to have elections in Germany and Japan."
Mr. Sharansky says his belief that Arabs can stomach democracy hasn't wavered, but that not many others ever shared it. Typical was former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's smiling quip to him, "Good for you Natan, that you convinced Bush of things that don't exist." With benefit of hindsight, Mr. Sharansky says that, "Democracy is a rather problematic word, because democracy is about technique. I would prefer freedom. I would say people don't want to live under constant fear." It's as much as he'll concede.
His bigger concern is the West's own weak stomach. This is a familiar theme for Mr. Sharansky and others who waged the Cold War battle on the other side of the Wall. Prosperous, stable societies can lack, by these lights, moral clarity and courage and are prone to cynical compromises or gullibility. Under totalitarianism the challenge is to fight evil (he paraphrases the British writer Melanie Phillips), and in free societies it is to see evil.
For much of the last century, "the policy of the free world was to build and strengthen friendly dictators," says Mr. Sharansky. "The more the free world enjoys their freedom the more they will be reluctant to support any freedom [for others]. I saw it in my personal life [in the Soviet Union], I see it to this day. They say the Arabs are not capable of this -- such a strong racist statement." He pauses. "That's interesting. It's politically uncorrect [sic] to be a racist, but it's so politically correct now to say that promoting democracy is a bad idea."
Mr. Sharansky says Washington didn't give the freedom agenda a chance. When the administration briefly pressed Arab dictatorships, if only with tougher rhetoric, "there were results," he says, citing Egypt's release of dissident Saad Ibrahim and Lebanon's Cedar Revolution against the Syrians.
But the Saudis, Egyptians and others rightly figured the storm would pass. Hosni Mubarak bowed to pressure to hold presidential elections, then rigged them and for good measure imprisoned his opponent, Ayman Nour. "It's such a clear return to the old days when from the top you have to try to decide with the leaders who don't represent anything and ignore all your principles," says Mr. Sharansky.
"I'm very careful not to be too critical of Bush simply because I believe that the very fact that we can disagree on a democratic agenda" -- say over the wisdom of holding early elections -- "is because there is such an agenda," says Mr. Sharansky.
Walking down Emek Refaim Street, past coffee shops and groceries, Mr. Sharansky's height challenges -- a source of self-deprecating jokes -- and his prominence in Israel are clearer. On every corner, someone greets this Soviet-born Jew in a blue shirt and cap. Over a lunch of goose leg and lamb kabob, the land of his birth threatens to spoil the meal. But Mr. Sharansky, somewhat surprisingly, sounds more upbeat about prospects for democracy in that region than in the Arab world.
Obviously, he says, Mr. Putin "likes power" and won't give it up. At a Shalem-sponsored conference on democracy promotion in Prague this past June, Mr. Sharansky recalls dedicating his book to Garry Kasparov, the long-shot opposition candidate for Russian president in March elections: "To dissident Kasparov, from chess-player Sharansky." He laughs. Mr. Sharansky is no slouch, but hardly in the same league as the world chess champion. He thinks Mr. Kasparov will be safe as long as he doesn't pose a serious threat to Mr. Putin's hold on power.
In his view, the West's so-called Russia experts misjudged Mr. Putin's aspirations and political talents, particularly his ability "to use the right language in Russia." Once, when the Russian president went on an anti-Western tirade, Mr. Sharansky recalls that Secretary Rice, one of those experts, noted that Mr. Putin was ruining his image abroad. "I told her, 'He looks stupid to you but the most important thing is how he looks in Moscow, and in Moscow he looks like a hero!'"
In spite of the fast slide toward authoritarianism, Russia has economic freedoms and an absence of fear which, says Mr. Sharansky, puts the Soviet days far into the past. "To bring back that type of fear you need to kill hundreds of thousands, maybe millions." Russian democracy can be salvaged, he muses, without a coup or revolution -- say if Mr. Putin's fortunes falter or, more tantalizingly given it's the source of Russia's recent bolshiness, oil prices drop. "I'm cautiously optimistic," he says.
Mr. Sharansky considers the right to make a buck or travel freely as important as political freedoms. His Gulag-mates were almost all "economic prisoners"; the dissident campaign in the 1970s was to let Soviet Jewry emigrate, not bring down the Imperium. With a power like China, the West doesn't need to play down the freedom agenda, he says: Deng Xiaoping's market reforms brought a fair measure of liberty, defusing nationalism and making Beijing easier to work with, and China can be encouraged further down this road. In his view, international donors erred by not pushing the Palestinian Authority to open the economy of the territories for business.
Seen from the U.S. or Israel, the outlook for Mideast democracy looks grim. Here, politicians are bracing for possible war with Iran over the mullahs' nuclear program. Across the separation fence in the Palestinian territories, in Mr. Sharansky's pithy summary, civil war rages "between fundamentalist terrorists and secular terrorists." The Arab dictatorships look as immovable as before 9/11.
Missing, in Mr. Sharansky's view, is the political vision to see beyond this unhappy status quo. If Ronald Reagan managed to face down a nuclear superpower determined to destroy the free world, then surely his successors can handle a couple of poor Arab states highly dependent on Western aid. In response to the line that "democracy can't be imposed from outside," Mr. Sharansky shoots back that the Soviets improved their human-rights record after the 1975 Helsinki Accords put the spotlight on it. The U.S. and Europe have far greater economic and political leverage in Arab countries than with Moscow then to force through reforms of their economies, politics and schools. They choose not to use it.
The other charge is the Arab world lacks for Andrei Sakharovs, noble democrats with a constituency. Mr. Sharansky is unconvinced. "They were saying for many years, 'Sakharov is a nice guy but he doesn't represent anyone.' And I, as his spokesman, had to explain, 'He represents millions and millions of double thinkers who are afraid to speak.'"
Mr. Sharansky's stubbornness is famous. During his 1986 release, in exchange for a couple Soviet spies, the KGB told him to walk straight across Glienicke Bridge. He zigzagged. This account, he tells me, is partly apocryphal. That happened earlier, at the airport in East Berlin, when he meandered from the plane to a waiting car. There is a funny but less well-known story about the bridge. Mr. Sharansky was dressed in civilian clothes bought for him in Moscow, which were too big. The KGB didn't let him have a belt for his baggy pants, and he was forced to hold them up with a rope. "When I was on the bridge and I asked the U.S. [official]" -- who was guiding him across -- "'Where is the border?' At this line, he pointed. 'Oh freedom!' and I jumped over. The rope broke. At the last moment, I caught my pants.
"Then they asked me, 'What was your first thought when you came to freedom?' 'How not to lose my trousers!'"
And he laughs.
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