The President's Philosopher: The Holes in Natan Sharansky's Democratic Manifesto

By Young, Cathy | Reason, May 2005 | Go to article overview
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The President's Philosopher: The Holes in Natan Sharansky's Democratic Manifesto

Young, Cathy, Reason

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 Ran 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 hardliner 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.

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The President's Philosopher: The Holes in Natan Sharansky's Democratic Manifesto


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