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      Op-Ed: Sharanksy's Push for Democracy

      Published: Sunday, December 26, 2004 8:03 PM
      To be sure, democracy has made great strides over the past century and has spread to places and cultures once deemed impenetrable by it. Still, a glance at the world warrants a "half-empty, half-full" caution more than it does a strident optimism.


      From 1948 to 1950, an Egyptian teacher and freelance writer named Sayeed Qutb, an admirer of the United States and the West, went to America to study educational curricula. What he saw there horrified him, and after his return to Egypt, he became a leader of the radical Muslim Brotherhood. Qutb was appalled at what he considered sexual license in America, even in those relatively innocent days of the mid-20th century.

      One does not have to be a psychological genius to conjecture that much of what Qutb felt during his sojourn was fear. The degree of sexual freedom and equality that he observed, the sight of women going around in Western attire, working on jobs, interacting with men, profoundly disconcerted him and threatened his belief system, his notion of the proper place of things.

      All this is relevant to a message that Minister Natan Sharansky has been propounding in his new book The Case for Democracy (New York, Public Affairs, 2004, with Ron Dermer), in articles and interviews, in meetings with influential figures, including President George Bush, and so on. Sharansky's message centers on a distinction between "fear societies" - dictatorships - and "free societies" - democracies. Sharansky's insistence that all societies, given the choice, will choose "freedom" over "fear" is the basis of his optimistic encouragement of the Bush administration's ambition to spread democracy to the Arab world.

      Not surprisingly, Sharansky's paradigm of a fear society is the Soviet Union, whose dictatorship he heroically defied until being allowed to leave his Siberian prison cell for Israel in 1986. Yet his paradigm, as an instance of the transition from fear to freedom, is obviously problematic. Sharansky himself acknowledges this in his book:

      "In fact, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, the setbacks on the road to democracy today - some of which are very troubling - leave many doubtful that democracy there will stand the test of time. ...But... compared to a Soviet Union in which millions worked for the KGB, millions were in prison, tens of millions lost their lives, and hundreds of millions lived in fear, present day Russia is a bastion of freedom. We must also remember that Russian democracy is in its infancy."

      After a few more paragraphs in this vein, however, Sharansky reluctantly admits that this case remains open: "If the example of Russia leaves readers unconvinced, then Japan's transition to democracy should quell any doubts...."

      In fact, Freedom House's new ranking of Russia as "not free" for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union strengthens doubts rather than quells them. Freedom House points to increased Kremlin control over television and other media, restrictions on local government, and elections that are neither free nor fair. Even granting that the situation remains much better than in the dark days of the Soviet Union, today's Russia is a weak reed on which to base Sharansky's optimism.

      To be sure, democracy has made great strides over the past century and has spread to places and cultures once deemed impenetrable by it. Still, a glance at the world warrants a "half-empty, half-full" caution more than it does a strident optimism. Russia is no longer free and China, while making progress toward economic liberalism, remains a dictatorship and a severe human rights abuser. Democracy has made only scant inroads in Africa and has a fragile hold in an Indonesia threatened by Islamic radicalism. Mark Falcoff ("Latin American Crack-up?" Commentary, July-August 2004) has written about Latin America:

      "[The] long season of democratic renewal has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Latin American citizens. In a recent region-wide survey, nearly 55 percent responded that they would support a return to dictatorship if doing so would solve their personal economic problems.... There has been a strong reaction against market-based democratic reforms.... Along with nostalgia for strongmen decked out in epaulettes and brandishing swords, the dream of a nationalist-corporatist state... has likewise begun to reappear.... [T]he wretched performance of the elected leadership in much of the region has tarnished the whole notion of democratic governance."

      And a recent poll found that 50 percent of Iraq's Shi'ites - currently viewed as the pro-American camp in that country - say they favor theocracy rather than democracy as their country's eventual form of government. This clouds the optimists' picture even further.

      Perhaps what distorts Sharansky's perspective is his focus on only a certain kind of fear - the fear of political persecution felt by people living in totalitarian societies. But there are other kinds of human fear. There is fear of the new, fear of threats to traditional values, fear of the undermining of centuries-old social structures - indeed, fear of freedom.

      Even if Sayeed Qutb's metamorphosis into the leader of an anti-Western terror organization is an extreme case, it, too, is paradigmatic. The mid-20th century America to which Qutb reacted with such horror was quaintly conservative compared to today's American and Western world, with its decadent pop culture, sky-high divorce rates, and so on. To believe that this world can convert the Muslim Arab Middle East to freedom and pluralism takes, indeed, a strong dose of optimism.

      As an Israeli, I am uneasy about the message that one of my cabinet ministers, the admirable, influential Sharansky, is spreading both on the popular level and at the highest altitudes of power. His sanguine outlook embraces the whole Middle East, including Iraq and the Palestinian Authority, even at a time when realities on the ground in both places seem to rebuff optimism. Last November 25, in a Jerusalem Post op-ed, Sharansky posited four conditions that the Palestinians must meet to prove that they are democratizing: dismantling the refugee camps; ending anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic incitement; expanding economic opportunities; and fighting terror. If Sharansky was the one administering the test, I would trust him to do so responsibly. The trouble is that more general messages like the one Sharansky is purveying can encourage eager, impatient politicians into hasty, unwise moves that lead to further disaster.