The President's Philosopher

The holes in Natan Sharansky's democratic manifesto.


During the 2000 presidential debates, then-candidate George W. Bush famously declared that his favorite political philosopher was Jesus Christ. Now there's a runner-up: Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and political prisoner, now an Israeli politician and cabinet minister. Bush's lavish praise for Sharansky's book The Case for Democracy prompted The Jerusalem Post to quip that Sharansky had "the White House doing his promotion free of charge."

Talking to The Washington Times before his inauguration in January, Bush suggested reading Sharansky's book for "a glimpse of how I think about foreign policy." Around the same time, he told The New York Times' Elizabeth Bumiller that the book was a part of his "presidential DNA." While Bush did not invoke Sharansky in his State of the Union address, the foreign policy part of his speech, with its theme of global freedom as the only sure way to end terror, clearly bore Sharansky's genetic imprint.

The Case for Democracy, co-written with Sharansky's adviser Ron Dermer and published in late 2004 by PublicAffairs, lays out a fairly simple thesis. The world, it argues, is divided into "free societies," in which people can speak freely without fear of prison or physical harm, and "fear societies," in which they cannot. The subjects of the latter want liberty; "freedom is a universal desire," and the idea that some countries and societies are ill-suited for democracy must be emphatically rejected. "Fear societies" are not only nasty to their own subjects but prone to outward aggression and thus dangerous. Western democracies, and in particular the United States, have a calling to "spread freedom around the world."

Both Sharansky's message and the messenger himself have been controversial for a variety of reasons, not least his reputation as a hard-liner on the Palestinian question. In The Case for Democracy, he argues that the real culprit in the Palestinians' suffering has been the corrupt and despotic Palestinian leadership and that no solution is possible until that changes; he also maintains that repressive Israeli measures must be seen in the context of the threat of terror.

Both assertions are to a large extent true. At the same time, even pro-Israel commentators, such as New York Sun columnist Hillel Halkin, have taken Sharansky to task for failing to speak out against Israeli abuses toward Palestinians in the occupied territories. (While there are plenty of others speaking out on this issue, Halkin rightly notes that taking a stand on it would have bolstered Sharansky's moral authority.)

Leaving aside for now that contentious issue, how viable is Sharansky's overall argument? His analysis of how "fear societies" function, largely rooted in his own Soviet experience, is spot-on. One of the strongest parts of his narrative has to do with the history of the struggle for human rights in the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Soviet regime. Sharansky's hero is Ronald Reagan, whose faith that communism was doomed and that freedom would rise on its ruins helped precipitate the Soviet implosion. He pointedly contrasts Reagan's strikingly prophetic 1981 speech dismissing communism as "a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written" with the blather of pundits who bemoaned Reagan's "Sovietphobia" and cautioned against meddling in the Soviets' internal affairs.

But Sharansky's treatment of his former homeland also highlights a principal weakness in his book: a democratic triumphalism that at times doesn't seem quite reality-based. The former Soviet Union is, in his grand narrative of freedom's march, a resounding success story, a living refutation of the naysayers who have declared the Russians culturally ill-suited for freedom. "The Russian people replaced tyranny with a democratic government," he writes. "Nonetheless, little more than a decade later, some still question whether Russians really want to live in a free society."

The Case for Democracy treats such questioning as self-evidently absurd. Yet in recent surveys, more than a third of Russians expressed a preference for authoritarian rule, a somewhat smaller fraction preferred democracy, and the rest didn't care one way or the other. Russian President Vladimir Putin's systematic gutting of political liberty in Russia garnered approval ratings of about 70 percent; when his popularity plummeted recently, it was in response to cuts in social benefits.

Tellingly, Sharansky never mentions Putin and makes only a brief reference to "the bumps on Russia's road to democracy." In fact, the human rights group Freedom House recently moved Russia from its "partially free" category to "not free." Some bump.

Sharansky is equally disdainful toward skepticism about the prospects of democracy building in the Middle East, and in Iraq in particular. Here, too, his argument is long on abstract rhetoric and short on facts.

The idealism of The Case for Democracy is certainly more appealing than isolationism or realpolitik cynicism. Unfortunately, it is rooted in an oddly simplistic view of human nature and culture. You needn't take the racist view that some peoples are genetically, inherently unfit for freedom to recognize–as Sharansky grudgingly does himself–that some cultures have evolved in ways that have stifled, or severely inhibited, the growth of institutions and attitudes favorable to liberal democracy. It doesn't take an extraordinary degree of cynicism to question whether a society where ethnic and religious strife is pervasive and where a large segment of the population embraces an early medieval version of family values is ready to become a democratic model for the region.

The desire for freedom is a powerful force, but the willingness to trade freedom for security, and even to escape the responsibilities freedom entails, is no less a part of human nature. People may want the freedom to speak their minds, but all too often they're not terribly keen on freedom for those whose views or lifestyles they find offensive.

Indeed, these tensions exist even within well-established liberal democracies; witness the debates over "hate speech," or pornography, or "incitement" to terrorism, or even criticism of the military and the president in wartime. Unfortunately, Sharansky glosses over these tensions, making only a brief reference to the debate over the PATRIOT Act as an example of the difficult balance between civil rights and security that democracies have to make when confronted with a terrorist threat.

I'd like to believe that Sharansky is right and that the triumph of freedom everywhere is possible. There is still cause for hope in Iraq, particularly after the elections (though Sharansky himself warns against fetishizing elections when other preconditions for freedom are absent).

With Arafat's death, a more democratic Palestinian leadership may become a reality. The news from Russia may be bad, but Ukraine recently witnessed an amazing display of people power that overturned a rigged election without bloodshed. And of course, it's true that even the most freedom-unfriendly societies can and do evolve; Sharansky rightly points out that France, Germany, and Japan once might have looked like bad bets for democracy too.

But is it a good idea for the West, and the United States in particular, to undertake an active mission of democracy building in countries where the evolution toward freedom is at present slow, fitful, or nonexistent? Certainly democracies should use their leverage where possible to promote human rights and freedom in the unfree world. But this goal must be tempered by a realism that Sharansky's book does not exhibit.

The Sharansky doctrine could turn out to be a very costly prescription for America–a prescription whose benefits are uncertain and whose risks are very high.?