January 19, 2005

January 19, 2005 | Commentary on

Letting Freedoms Ring

The rituals of swearing in a U.S. president always touch a deep chord. Goose bumps never fail some of us, nor does a sense of awe that this is possible in a country the size of the United States with such a diverse population. It's a beautiful thing to behold.

The American democratic system is so solid that it could absorb the shocks and the challenges of the 2000 election, as well as the jitters leading up to the 2004 election. Today, 60 percent of Americans say they are optimistic about the future of their country in the second Bush term.

Still, the democratic system we are fortunate enough to live under is too easily taken for granted. Human failings -- like ambition, envy and greed -- can cloud its fundamental importance in our daily lives.

For this, a great antidote is Natan Sharansky's book "The Case for Democracy," subtitled, "The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror." This "call for moral clarity" is recommended for anyone tempted by cynicism about the democratic process.

It is also crucial for anyone seeking insight into what motivates President Bush. After reading the book, Mr. Bush called Mr. Sharansky and co-author Ron Dermer into the Oval Office for an hour-long discussion. As someone who has experienced the absence of freedom on the body and mind, Mr. Sharansky has crucial insights to share. A political prisoner of the Soviet Union for nine years (1977 to 1986), he earned his credentials.

In a nutshell, this is the Sharansky test for a free society: Can you walk into the town square and shout out your views without fear of reprisal? If you can, you have the first precondition for democrac: freedom. If you cannot, you have a society where fear rules.

But even in a "fear society," where habitual doublethink is necessary for day-to-day survival, the human spirit will reach toward freedom when it becomes a possibility. What Mr. Sharansky wants to impress on the reader is that totalitarian societies fall like houses of cards when the fear factor is removed. That was not understood in the West, which watched in amazement as the Soviet Union collapsed. Soviet dissidents, however, were not surprised.

Mr. Sharansky especially wants to apply his experience of Soviet totalitarianism to the Arab world today, where fear of autocratic regimes and the harsh rules of Sharia law repress entire populations.

If Mr. Sharansky is right to argue that Arabs have learned to live with doublethink the way the Soviets did, they too will prefer freedom given the chance. He firmly rejects the idea that Arab Muslims are inherently unable to embrace freedom and democracy. If he is right on these points, the grip of Muslim fundamentalism in Arab populations is less firm than we in the West tend to believe.

The case still needs supporting evidence, though. What are we to make of opinion polls in Pakistan, for instance, that show Osama bin Laden more trusted as a world leader than George Bush? Are we to dismiss them as mere propaganda? Still, things are changing in the Arab world, in part through external pressure from the United States. In Afghanistan this fall, a population, hitherto thought incapable of anything like democratic practices, voted by the millions to elect President Hamid Karzai. Voters included Afghan women, who under the Taliban regime had not even been permitted to leave their houses.

Last week, Palestinian voters for the first time held something resembling a real election. Rather than a one-party election giving a rubber stamp to a dictator, Yasser Arafat, there was actually a choice this time. That said, there are reasons to have reservations about President Mahmoud Abbas, whose statements in favor of terrorists during the election campaign were indeed disturbing.

Later this month, Iraqis will elect their own government for the first time. It can only be an incomplete vote in a country where Sunni areas are beset by crippling levels of violence. For this reason, doubts will surely be cast on the election's validity. The election in itself will not make Iraq a democracy, but it could be a crucial first step and should move ahead.

Mr. Bush on numerous occasions has stated, "Freedom is not America's gift to the world, but God's gift to humanity." It will be easier to bestow that gift if Mr. Sharansky is correct that all peoples yearn to receive it.

Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation. E-mail: helle.dale@heritage.org .

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times