A Cassandra in his own country
by Jonathan Rosenblum
February 10, 2005
President Bush has been plugging Natan Sharansky's new book, The Case for Democracy: the Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, as if he were receiving a percentage of the profits. "If you want a glimpse of how I think about foreign policy read Natan Sharansky's book, The Case for Democracy," he told the publisher of the Washington Times. He said the same in a CNN interview from the Oval Office.
The need to spread democracy around the globe was the overarching theme of Bush's second inaugural address, as it is the theme of Sharansky's book. Sharansky's thinking is "part of my presidential DNA," the President told Elisabeth Busmiller of the New York Times before his State of the Union address.
For months, the president has been pushing the book on White House staffers, and he summoned Sharansky and co-author Ron Dermer from a book tour to meet with him in the White House. Scheduled to last 20 minutes, the meeting went on for more than an hour. And it was followed by another with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, who cited Sharansky's "town square test" of freedom in her recent confirmation hearings.
Nor is this the first time that the congruence between Sharansky's thought and the president's been evident. The President's historic June 24 2002 Rose Garden speech borrowed heavily from a speech of Sharansky four days earlier at the American Enterprise World Forum in Beaver Creek, Colorado, attended by Vice-President Cheney and Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wohlstetter.
One would think that our government would show some interest in the ideas of a cabinet minister so in tune with the thinking of the President of the United States, if only for advice on how to couch Israel's case. But no. Prime Minister Sharon once told Sharansky, "I can understand how your ideas were important in the Soviet Union, but they have no applicability to the Middle East."
The Israeli media has shown no more interest in Sharansky's book. Nahum Barnea dismissed the book in Yediot Ahranot in a few sentences that provided no indication he had read it.
And last week Ha'aretz's Amir Oren broke the "scandal" that President Bush had not purchased The Case for Democracy while browsing at Barnes and Noble, but had received a copy from a mutual friend of his and Sharansky. Oren also found something sinister in the fact that co-author Dermer's brother, David, the Democratic Mayor of Miami Beach, endorsed Bush because of concerns over John Kerry's stance on Israel.
The rest is silence.
Admittedly, The Case for Democracy is not a scholarly book. It is very much based on Sharansky's personal experiences in the Soviet human rights movement. He shows no expert knowledge of Arab society. Reciting a long list of other countries once dismissed as incapable of democracy, in which free institutions thrive today, does not prove that the Arab world too will readily transform itself in the direction of freedom.
After the recent successful elections in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, the burden of proof is on those who insist that Arabs or Moslems have no desire for freedom.
Nor can Sharansky be easily dismissed as a pie-in-the-sky idealist. The Helsinki Watch group of which he was a leading member did much to expedite the fall of the Soviet Union. From that success, Sharansky derives the general principle that the free world can play a major role in the expansion of freedom by conditioning foreign relations on a country's recognition of the human rights of its own citizens. That is certainly no less true today when the United States enjoys an overwhelming preponderance of power.
Why, then, is Sharansky ignored in Israel? Largely because he resists easy classification on the Right/Left spectrum. Today he is often dismissed as a denizen of the far-Right. Former admirers from his days as a Soviet dissident and refusenik puzzle over how their hero became "so hawkish that he has accused Ariel Sharon of being soft on the Palestinians," as Dana Milbank of the Washington Post recently described him.
Yet his confidence in the ability of the Palestinians to create a free society distinguishes him from those on both the Right and Left. And he is more accepting of major territorial concessions to the Palestinians than most of those on the Right. "The principle of individual autonomy remains sacred to me, he writes, "I do not want to rule another people."
Yet his demands for Palestinian democracy are anathema to the Left, which is eager to implement what it views as a "fair" solution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict -- a return to the 1967 borders along the lines proposed by President Clinton at Camp David. The Israeli Left hates Bush for refusing to impose its solution on Israel and for echoing Sharanky's demands that the Palestinians earn their state.
For Sharansky, concessions to the Palestinians that are not linked to the creation of a government respectful of the human rights and committed to improving the material well-being of its citizens only endanger Israel's security. He never tires of reciting the lesson learned from his great mentor Andre Sakharov: "A neighbor who tramples on the rights of its own people will eventually threaten the security of my people."
Sharansky may have President Bush's ear, but in his own country he remains a lonely Cassandra.
Related Topics: Peace Process
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