Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Case for Freedom

Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every
person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America's
gift to the world, it is God's gift to humanity.

President George W. Bush, 2003 State of the Union Address

With rhetoric like this it is no surprise that President Bush, who is generally accused of being illiterate, was reported lately to be reading Natan Sharansky's latest work, "The Case for Democracy: the Power for Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror", nor is it any coincidence that Sharansky quotes the President often, usually in positive terms. I finally read, or more precisely listened to this book over the weekend, and thought it very enlightening, thought provoking, and well deserving of of a detailed post. Sharansky in short makes a rather convincing argument that we must place our faith in the future of freedom and democracy, rather than the folly of the stability of accommodating despotism.

Can Democracy Flourish?

Sharansky, who spent a decade in jail as a Soviet dissident, refusenik, and human rights activist before moving to Israel and eventually becoming a cabinet minister, begins by describing what a oddly controversial idea democracy is. Many argue, for example, that democracy in the Middle East is impossible, that their society is not cut out for it. He draws parallels with the historical examples of Germany and Japan in the post WWII era, when many thought it impossible that these fascist and militarily aggressive countries could embrace democracy, a view that would be considered silly, and slightly racist in modern times. So why do people say this about Iraq or Afghanistan? Do they have a more intransigent history of despotism? Even in more modern times few experts predicted in the 1970s and 1980s that the Soviet Union would collapse and a relatively democratic Russia would take over. Now the very same experts argue that it was inevitable.

Reagan, Sakharov, and Scoop

Of course Sharansky talks at length about his experiences relative to reform, freedom, and democracy. He goes on at length about the simple, yet brilliant idealism of Ronald Reagan, who was widely criticized at the time for challenging the Soviet Union, with his aggressive "evil empire" and "Mr. Gorbachev, bring down that wall!" rhetoric. But Reagan was correct in his insistence on moral clarity and faith in freedom. Another western politician Sharansky speaks at length about is the legendary Washington State Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson and his Jackson-Vanik amendment linking the right to emigrate in the Soviet Union with trade agreements. By forcing the Soviet Union to address the issue of human rights, Sharansky argues, Jackson brought about the reforms that lead to the collapse of communist despotism, rather than settling for the safe accommodating of detente that was the fashion of the day. How sad that our beautiful state has falling so far that we are no longer represented by such noble statesmen as Jackson, but rather the intellectual embarrassment of Patty "bin Laden day care" Murray. Sharansky also discusses how he worked for a time as the spokesman for the great human rights activist, and a personal hero of mine, Andrei Sakharov. As a short aside, I had the honor of meeting Sakharov's widow, and fellow activist Elena Bonner, when she visited my class (ironically at the Jackson School) in the early 90's. I struck up a conversation with her interpreter, who was rather interested in a "Slava Yeltsinu" (Glory to Yeltsin) button that I had pinned to my jacket, that he insisted I show to Mrs. Bonner. So it should come as no surpise that I found this section very intersting. Sakharov, who spent years in exile before being released by Gorbachev, stated way back in the 60s that states could not compete economically when their citizens lived in fear rather than freedom, would become proven right by Gorbachev himself.

Helsinki vs Oslo

Historical background aside Sharansky's main argument lies in contrasting the success of the Helsinki Accords, which were based on human rights and a respect for the basic dignity of man, as opposed to the utter failure of the Oslo Accords, which were based on the support of the despotism of Yasser Arafat, in the naive hope that by empowering him, he would crack down on terrorism, and therefore enable the Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace. Sharansky rather persuasively argues, that this was impossible, because Arafat's power, in fact depended on maintaining the continuance of a conflict with Israel, and encouraged, rather than discouraged, the suffering of the Palestinian people. Only a democratic government, with a vested interest in improving the lot of the Palestinian people, would seek a long lasting resolution of the conflict, rather than inciting terrorist bombings.

Moral Clarity vs. Moral Equivalence

Sharansky speaks at length about the need for moral clarity, although he disappointingly never really defines what he means by it. He seems to indicate though that it is the opposite of moral equivalence, which seeks to blur the difference between right and wrong. Those who think that way argue that although Iran and Syria violate human rights, so do Israel and the United States, therefore everyone is equally guilty. Sharansky points out, and correctly so, that although free societies do make mistakes, they own up to their violation of human rights, while despots depend on this violation of human rights for their very existence. Both the US and Saddam Hussein did things in Abu Ghraib that were wrong, but Saddam Hussein would never investigate these misdeeds and publish photos of them, therefore acting as there is somehow no difference is naive and dangerous.

On the whole I found Sharansky's arguments profound and rather inspiring. He is not just some Hollywood celebrity or academic, but rather someone who has stood up for what he believes and at great personal cost. We must learn from the past the importance of standing up for freedom, and the folly of appeasing despotism. It will not be an easy fight, the fight against communism lasted 70 years, and in some ways still goes on, but we must never give up our faith in humanity and belief in freedom.

Also, for similar works check out the excellent, if not so idealistic "The End of History" by Francis Fukuyama, and "The Future of Freedom" by Fareed Zakaria.