From Gulag to Israel

Will freedom necessarily conquer fear societies?

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

The Case for Democracy. The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror by Natan Sharansky, with Rom Dermer (Public Affairs, 2004) 303 pp.

When Natan Sharansky talks about political freedom, it behooves us to listen. Sharansky spent nine years in a Soviet prison for fighting on behalf of human rights and the right of emigration for Soviet Jews; for him the ideals like freedom that too often we in the West take for granted or treat as philosophical abstractions are concrete and real, as are the consequences when such freedom and respect for human rights are lacking. After his release from the Soviet gulag, Sharansky emigrated to Israel, where he has been a minister for the last nine years in several Israeli governments, giving him a front-row seat on the blunders, naiveté, bad faith, and sheer ignorance that has since Oslo characterized the West’s attempts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian Arab crisis.

This unique perspective informs Sharansky’s exposition of his book’s central thesis: democratic governments accountable to free citizens create a world that is orderly, stable, and peaceful, and so the Western liberal democracies have a moral and practical obligation to foster democracy and to condition their relations with non-democratic states on the sincere efforts of the latter to give human rights and political freedom to their own citizens. The Case for Democracy, though, is much richer than the foregoing description of its thesis suggests, as important as that idea is, particularly as the same ideal undergirds the Bush administration’s policy in the Middle East.

Sharansky starts with an analysis of “free” societies and “fear” societies. A society is “free” if it passes the “town square” test: “Can a person walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm?” Such societies will be free, if not always just. But those societies that flunk the “town square” test are “fear” societies, unfreeand unjust. Sharansky goes on to describe the consequences of living in a fear society, which typically fractures into three groups: “true believers,” those who sincerely believe in the regime’s ideology; “dissidents,” those who oppose the regime and speak out against it; and “doublethinkers,” those who oppose the regime yet do not publicly express their opposition, particularly to outsiders.
This gap between private belief and public speech with which “doublethinkers” live often makes it difficult for outsiders to gauge the level of dissatisfaction among the citizens of autocratic societies, and hence visitors often credit those regimes’ propaganda that their citizens are content with things as they are. Certainly, the existence of large numbers of “doublethinkers” in the old Soviet Union contributed to the ease with which Western observers were duped into missing the vast tides of unrest that ultimately sent Soviet communism into the ashcan of history. Something has to explain how someone as smart as Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith could write in 1984, only six years before the Soviet Union’s implosion, “The Soviet citizen-worker, peasant, and professional—-has become accustomed in the Brezhnev period to an uninterrupted upward trend in his well being,” in the same year also claiming “that the Soviet system has made great material progress in recent years.” Such deception is made easier because, as Sharansky notes, “many outside observers have an ideological bias that allows them to willingly suspend their disbelief and not see the effects of tyranny.”

More important, Sharanksy argues that since the number of “doublethinkers” always is greater than the number of “true believers,” outside recognition and support of dissidents and “doublethinkers” can embolden both into working against a tyrannous regime. Once a critical mass of people experience what Sharanksy calls the “exhilaration of freedom,” the regime’s days are numbered, for all people everywhere prefer freedom to fear. This is one of Sharansky’s most important assumptions: that the desire for political freedom is not culturally determined but universal to human nature, and so all peoples no matter how oppressed have the potential to become free.
Sharansky tells two other stories, both fascinating and important. The first is the “inside” story of the Soviet Union’s demise, a story whose hero for Sharansky is Ronald Reagan. Contrary to those who think that the Soviet Union would have collapsed without Reagan’s willingness to confront Soviet aggression (though you can count on half of one hand the number of Western “experts” who predicted such a collapse), Sharansky makes it clear that the previous policy of accommodation and détente, based on the mistaken notion of Soviet economic prowess, was “effectively propping up the Soviet’s tiring arms. Had that accommodation continued, the USSR might have survived for decades longer.” Unlike the so-called diplomatic “realists” and academic experts who assumed the Soviet Union was here to stay, Reagan knew that a society based on repression of its own people harbors a fatal flaw that with outside pressure can lead to collapse. The détente touted by the majority of these “experts” was simply a way for a tottering regime to buy a few more years of life by technological and economic infusions from the West.

Reagan’s willingness to call the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” to meet aggressively every instance of Soviet adventurism, and to link the United States’ dealings with the Soviets to improvements in human rights all raised the price of oppression for the ruling elite to prohibitive levels. Gorbachev’s last desperate attempts to salvage communist rule with “glasnost” and “perestroika” simply opened the floodgates, sweeping away the Soviet Union and its satellite tyrannies in Eastern Europe. But “glasnost” and “perestroika” were last-ditch policies compelled by the willingness of Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Senator Henry Jackson, and others to put the Soviets’ feet to the fire on the issue of human rights. “Had Reagan chosen to cooperate with the Soviet regime,” Sharanksy writes, “rather than compete with it, accommodate it rather than confront it, the hundreds of millions of people he helped free would still be living under tyranny.”

The other story Sharanksy tells is of the many missed opportunities and failed policies that have worsened the Israeli-Palestinian Arab crisis. Because many in the West failed to see that Arafat was the ruler of a fear society, they didn’t realize that the “Zionist” enemy was necessary for Arafat and his cronies to maintain their power; thus there would be no ultimate resolution of the crisis, for any such agreement would end Arafat’s autocratic kleptocracy: “For six years, Arafat built a society based on fear, maintaining his repressive rule by mobilizing his people for war against the Jewish state.” Thus after Oslo, “as Arafat was signing agreements and accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, his PA [Palestinian Authority]-controlled media was inculcating a generation of Palestinians to hate the Jewish state, and his PA-run schools were educating Palestinian children from textbooks that had literally wiped Israel off the map.” The result was the second intifada and the terror attacks that killed more Israelis than in any period of Israel’s history.

The mistake of Oslo was to legitimize and finance Arafat and the PA without demanding as a precondition a politically accountable democracy for the Palestinian people: on the contrary, “By allowing, and often encouraging, Arafat to create a fear society, a peace process that should have been steadily reducing a century-old animus had instead exacerbated it.” This strange accommodation and at times appeasement of a terrorist like Arafat had many reasons beyond the mistaken belief of the Americans and some Israelis that only a strong man like Arafat could rein in the militant terrorists. Sharansky gives Israel’s critics like Amnesty International the benefit of the doubt when he attributes their relentless criticism of Israel’s presumed human rights abuses and their silence about those of Israel’s non-democratic neighbors to a conscious policy not to distinguish between “free” and “fear” societies. One could argue for more sinister reasons-anti-Semitism or anti-Americanism displaced on to Israel, America’s alleged neo-colonial “client.” But whatever the motive, the result has been a “dangerous moral equivalence” between open societies like Israel, accountable to their citizens, and autocratic societies where human rights abuses are the policy of governments accountable to no one.
Sharansky’s rejection of “moral equivalence” is part of his call for “moral clarity,” which not only entails an understanding of the important differences between a “fear” and a “free” society and an insistence that a government’s oppression of its own citizens always be on the table in its relations with democratic states, but also “demands an understanding of context, of cause and effect. It demands a sense of proportion.” The lack of such clarity on the part of the Western democracies, particularly the Europeans, has contributed to what surely must be one of the most bizarre phenomena in diplomatic history: the spectacle of a state victimized by fifty years of terrorist murder of its citizens being turned into an international pariah subject to vicious censure and condemnation even as literally millions suffer and die elsewhere.

Thus the UN-appointed International Court of Justice condemns Israel’s security fence, which has reduced dramatically the number of terrorist murders of Israelis, while ignoring the issue of terrorist murder that makes the fence necessary. Thus the same UN that castigates the unfortunate consequences of Israel’s attempts to defend the lives of its citizens ignores “serial abusers” of human rights like Iran, Cuba, Syria, and China and even lets them sit on its Commission on Human Rights, a body to which Israel is forbidden to belong. Thus Israel’s volunteer ambulance service, the Magen David Adom, is the only such organization denied admission to the International Red Cross. This is more than a lack of “moral clarity”–this is moral idiocy.

Sharansky’s two stories converge in his proposal for solving the Israeli/Palestinian crisis: “the same formula that had successfully worked to end the Cold War and transform the Soviet Union–linking Western policy to the expansion of human rights and democracy–could work to build a genuine and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.” His faith in Israeli-Palestinian peace reflects his fundamental assumptions: “all peoples can build free societies,” including the Palestinians and other Arabs; “the most reliable measure of a state’s intentions towards it neighbors is its treatment of its own citizens”; and so “by linking the peace process to the expansion of freedom within Palestinian society, Palestinians will be free and Israelis will be secure.” With Arafat gone, a presumed moderate, Mahmud Abbas, poised to take over the Palestinian Authority, and an American administration in accord with Sharansky’s views, we will see in the next few years whether Sharansky’s thesis is correct.

At this point, however, that thesis raises some serious reservations. Sharanksy is right to believe that the desire for freedom is universal to humanity, and that any people can create a free government. Yet there are other goods innate to humans–the need for spiritual meaning and expression, and the communal ties of kin, clan, and nation are two other important needs of people, needs that often conflict with the need for freedom. It took years of bloody strife in the West for the conflict between these needs to be resolved, and no one can deny that the resolution came at a price, such as the weakening of religious sentiment or communal ties that characterizes many liberal democracies. Reconciling these conflicting demands is a difficult, often bloody task, one that will not be achieved simply by believing that the demand for freedom will always and everywhere trump these other powerful needs. It can, but not necessarily will do so.

Recognizing the other innate needs of people points us to the ways in which Sharansky’s analogy with the Soviet Union is of limited utility. Soviet communism was a materialist philosophy imposed on a deeply religious and nationalist people. To succeed, communism had to try to suppress those religious needs and to align its ideology with national pride. But most of all, communism had to deliver the material goods. The Soviet regime failed at all three: it could never eradicate religious sensibility from the Russian people; its nationalist pride was dealt a serious blow by its defeat in Afghanistan and by its inability to match the United States’ international clout once Reagan became president; and the cost of suppressing its own people and maintaining its military prowess kept it from providing the economic benefits its ideology claimed it could provide more efficiently and justly than democratic capitalism.
Things are very different in the Arab Middle East. There autocratic regimes have to some degree paid homage to religious sensibility, most obviously in Saudi Arabia, where the support and tolerance of Wahhabism and Islamist radicalism have helped to keep the regime in power. And Arab nationalist pride is gratified by opposing the world’s foremost bastion of liberal democratic freedom, the United States, which to the Islamist religious sensibility is a godless Sodom of materialism and depravity fostered by rootless individualism and irresponsible license camouflaged as prosperity and democratic freedom. So even though the needs for political freedom and material prosperity aren’t being met by autocratic Middle Eastern regimes, religious and nationalist needs to some degree are. It is still an open question how long such regimes can continue to perform this delicate balance, given the forces of globalization and electronic communication that every day leave the citizens of Middle Eastern autocracies more aware of how farther and farther behind their societies are. But we can’t simply rely on the power of one human need, freedom, ultimately to prevail over others equally powerful, in the absence of a demonstration that devastating failure accompanies the neglect of political freedom.

And here is where Sharansky’s other analogy falters as well–the evocation of Germany and Japan’s transformation into liberal democracies. But Sharansky fails to mention one important factor in that transformation—-the utter obliteration of those two societies in World War II, a devastation that convinced them beyond the shadow of a doubt that the way of fascism and militaristic racism was suicide. The Middle Eastern fear societies have not undergone that experience. Even in Iraq, the laudable attempts of the U.S. military to lessen the destruction of Iraqi society have left a critical mass of Iraqis unconvinced that Baathism and jihad can end not just in death but in utter failure. Part of the difficulty Israel has faced in dealing with the Arab regimes is that her three military defeats of them left their capitals unscathed. The price for attacking Israel was paid only by soldiers, never by the politicians and the people who cheered them on.

Sharansky to his credit acknowledges the special case of the Middle East fear regimes, admitting that not one of the 22 Arab states are democracies, and that there has never been an Arab democracy. But all Sharansky can say to counter his own powerful reservations is to repeat “freedom is for everyone.” Yes it is, but so is the need for spiritual meaning, so is the need for communal solidarity. The melancholy lesson of history that we seem to avoid learning is that the resolution of these conflicting human goods has always involved bloody destruction.

Whether Sharansky’s faith in the universal desire for freedom is misplaced or not in the case of the Middle East will be determined the next few years in Iraq and in Israel. But whatever the outcome, we should be grateful for Natan Sharansky’s eloquent encomium to the power of a freedom too many of us in the West take for granted.

©2004 Bruce Thornton

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