For Democracy, Warts and All.

Author:Meyer, Karl E.
Position:Book Review

The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror Natan Sharansky, with Ron Dermer New York: PublicAffairs, 2004

The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad Paperback edition, with an afterword on Iraq Fareed Zakaria New York: Norton, 2004

In turning these pages, I was reminded of the Pushmi-pullyu, the creature with identical horned heads facing fore and aft that enlivens the Dr. Dolittle children's stories by Hugh Lofting. Like the Pushmi-pullyu, these volumes are joined at the hips but face opposite ways. For Natan Sharansky, formerly a prisoner in the Soviet gulag, now an Israeli politician, freedom is for everyone and its expansion promises universal peace. Not so fast responds Fareed Zakaria, the India-born Newsweek editor who also favors the global promotion of democracy, but limited by serious checks on popular intolerance and illiberal demagogues. Together the books constitute a linked pair of contrary arguments ably articulated on a theme all the more topical following George W. Bush's inaugural commitment to sowing democracy even in rocky soil.

Both authors write with a passion and authority born of biography. As a Soviet dissident and Jewish refusenik, Sharansky was punished for his heresies with nine years' imprisonment. After his release in 1986, he resettled in Israel, winning election to the Knesset and becoming a hawkish ally of the right-wing Likud Party. He presently serves in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's coalition cabinet as minister for Jerusalem and diaspora affairs. What gives ampler resonance to his arguments is their endorsement by President Bush, who invited the author to an Oval Office meeting. And who indeed has a better right than Sharansky to uphold the cause of dissidents, and to reproach those who pander to tyrants? Besides facing down his KGB tormentors, he joined with the eminent physicist Andrei Sakharov in energizing a broad-based Soviet human rights movement during the 1980s. Justly, he dedicates The Case for Democracy to the memory of Sakharov, "a man who proved that with moral clarity and courage, we can change the world."

He did, and they did. Justly, too, Sharansky lauds the landmark Helsinki Final Act of 1975, in which the Soviet Union gained formal recognition of Europe's post-1945 boundaries while agreeing to a human rights code binding on all 35 signatories, including most Western democracies and the Soviet bloc. The act thus forged a direct link between human rights and East-West relations, a link whose true strength was misjudged alike by Leonid Brezhnev and Henry Kissinger. Sharansky tartly faults the former secretary of state for prizing detente and stability at the expense of justice, and for deferring to Communist godfathers as well as tyrannies in Chile, Greece, Indonesia, and the Arab Middle East. Neither Brezhnev nor Kissinger foresaw the proliferation of "watch committees" whose existence enabled first Jimmy Carter and then Ronald Reagan to censure gross abuses at review conferences in Belgrade (1977), Madrid (1980), Ottawa (1985), and Paris (1990), by which time the Soviet empire was nearing the boneyard.

So why not apply the same leverage to today's autocracies? Sharansky details his vain attempts to end Western coddling of Middle East despots, and disputes the common calculation, even among Israelis, that a corrupt autocrat like Yasir Arafat could best gain Palestinian...

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