The Case for Democracy: A Book Review

Natan Sharansky, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny & Terror, Pubic Affairs, 2006.

Books on world politics typically have a very short half-life; their relevance quickly diminishes as events overtake their analysis. That, however, is not the case for Natan Sharansky’s 2004 book, The Case for Democracy. In fact, this small book is just as relevant today as when it first appeared in print.

In addition to allowing Sharansky to outline his theory of democracy, The Case for Democracy is a memoir and a history of major world events. Drawing on his personal experience as a political prisoner in the Soviet Union as well as having served in two Israeli cabinets, Sharansky lays out in clear prose the distinction between free and fear societies and how championing democratic reforms can be used to advance the cause of human rights in repressive nations.

In addition to political theory, Sharansky provides useful criteria for judging whether a country is democratic as well as when a criticism of Israel is actually anti-Semitism in disguise.

What Constitutes a Free Society?

His first item of business is to clarify what constitutes a free society and why holding elections is not an adequate measure of whether a society is free. Without the four freedoms––speech, religion, assembly, and press––elections are meaningless. Nor does adding “democratic republic” to the name of one’s country make a society democratic or free.

Sharansky also challenges the political theory behind much of Western foreign policy since World War Two. In case after case, Western leaders have made deals with dictators, claiming that the stability they provided was more important than promoting the rights of those countries’ citizens. Followers of the “realistic,” or Kissinger, school of international relations typically distrust the people of countries ruled by autocrats and dictators. They claim pressuring those rulers to grant freedoms to their citizens will only destabilize those countries and could lead to worse conditions.

Sharansky takes the opposite view. He promotes the notion that all people––including those who have never experienced democracy––yearn for freedom and that the main reason the citizens of countries ruled by dictators aren’t campaigning for their rights is that they can’t. To voice dissent or call for change is a death sentence in many parts of the world. Few people of repressive nations feel free to speak out unless the leaders of the Western nations––primarily the United States––show they are paying attention and support their freedom movement. Failure to do so––such as when President Obama failed to support the protests against Iran’s autocratic regime––is a missed opportunity to help foster democratic reforms.

Realist School Corollary: Appeasement by any other Name

There’s a corollary to the realists’ thesis that the failure of people to speak out for change is because they like what they have and that to pressure those nations to grant democratic rights will only create chaos and possibly open conflict. Proponents of that school of thought argue that by dealing with dictators the West gives them room to reform their societies from the top. That is the rationale behind providing voting rights to every member of the United Nations even when they openly violate the membership vow to grant human rights to their citizens. That theory of reform failed miserably in practice. After seventy years, the autocratic members of the United Nations have shown little inclination to provide human and democratic rights to their citizens.

History as Teacher: The Soviet Union and Israel

The middle chapters of The Case for Democracy recount the experiential basis for Sharansky’s view that promoting democratic rights is the best weapon the free world has against countries that oppress their citizens and engage in hostile behavior towards other countries.

He reviews how an unheralded provision of the 1975 Helsinki Agreement, which the Soviet Union signed because they needed technological and financial aide from the West to shore up their crumbling economy, required signer countries to uphold the basic human rights of their own peoples. That provision enabled proponents of freedom to rally behind Soviet dissidents. Sharansky reports when that link in the chain of oppression was removed, the volume of internal opposition increased exponentially leading in fifteen years to the downfall of the Soviet system.

The main lesson here is that dictatorships do not reform themselves willingly. Sharansky argues that societies that depend on fear for their survival need external enemies in order to justify repressive measures at home. Without external enemies the logic of internal suppression collapses. Citizens see that people in other lands have rights and ask why not us. Many realists, unfortunately, refuse to learn the lesson of the Soviet Union. As an indication of how far off course that outlook can take people, Sharansky quotes a U.S. state department official as referring to Iran as a democracy. No wonder the Obama administration thought Iran could be a reliable and honest partner to a nuclear deal.

Israel Also Failed to Learn the Lesson

Sharansky recounts how the Israeli government has failed over and over to put into practice the lesson learned from Helsinki. Israel’s biggest mistake was signing the 1993 agreement with Yasser Arafat in Oslo that not only failed to achieve peace, but also enabled Arafat to escalate his terrorist war against Israel. Sadly, prime minister after prime minister has mistakenly assumed they could trust Arafat and his successor Mahmud Abbas. Israeli prime ministers too often listened to U.S. presidents who preached the notion that dealing with the enemy you know is better than the one who might replace him. The one exception was George W. Bush’s standing up to Arafat in 2002 enunciating a statement of democratic principles that was later undermined by the realists in Washington and Tel Aviv.

History Lessons Not Known

What’s remarkable to me on a personal level is how little I knew of the history Sharansky relates despite the fact that I’ve been a moderately alert follower of world affairs since my college years. That suggests the American people are also largely uninformed about these events and about the crushing logic of Sharansky’s thesis that the ONLY way to defeat a country like the Soviet Union or its contemporary equivalents short of waging war is to require that they institute human rights reforms in order to partake in the benefits free societies offer the citizens of the world.

Thus, I believe U.S. must assert that products produced by slave or child labor cannot be part of any trade deals and must be embargoed. Further, trade deals should not be made with countries that repress religious or political dissidents. That would include China and most Muslim nations. To ignore slavery and the repression of religious and human rights strengthens dictatorships and weakens the West.

Here many readers will interject the realists’ arguments despite the fact that they not only failed to advance freedom in totalitarian countries, but also undermined the standing of the U.S. and other Western nations in the eyes of oppressed peoples. To cave to murderers like Yasser Arafat tells would-be protesters that their lives may be subjected to a trade to gain stability. The Neville Chamberlain story is not a one-time tragedy, but has been repeated over and over.

Realist theorists might also argue Moslem countries are different from the rest of the world in that there’s no indication that the average person desires freedom. Sharansky refutes that theory by listing individuals he has met and corresponded with who desire democratic change. He also could have cited cases of moderate Arabs murdered by the PLO for working with Israel, or the stories of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali refugee who has spoken out on female genital mutilation and other issues despite efforts to shut her up and Mosab Hassan Yousef, a Palestinian whose father was one of Hamas’ founders and who became a Christian and a double-agent for Israel. Both have published easily accessible books.

The Case for Democracy appeared after Sharansky’s autobiography, Fear No Evil (1988), and preceded his long essay Defending Identity (2008). All three are essential reading. A fourth book, entitled Never Alone, is due out September 1, 2020. All can be read by teenagers and young adults who are growing up in a world where distorting the past is the means to controlling the present. People who care about world peace and democratic rights should take the time to read all four.

Appeasement: Our Western Illness

I suspect when asked if they know what the word appeasement means most educated people will say, “Yes. It has to do with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain giving part of Czechoslovakia to Adolph Hitler in 1938, claiming he had achieved “peace in our time.”

In fact, however, the lesson of appeasement was not learned. It is alive and well, causing myriad problems in our Western political universe. I’ll relate examples offered by Natan Sharansky in his extended essay “Defending Identity” and then point out how the appeasement disease still survives in the West in the 21st century.

Natan Sharansky is one of the most well-known of a group that came to be known as the “refuseniks.” He was exiled to Siberia by the Soviet Union because of his refusal to confess his crimes and name his co-conspirators. His crimes were these: He was active in publicizing human rights violations by the Soviet Union and he sought to move to Israel.

Eventually, Sharansky and the other refuseniks won. They delivered a deathblow to the Soviet Union as a result of their courageous refusal to cooperate even when faced with death. His case gained widespread support from ordinary citizens throughout the West. Ronald Reagan helped push the Soviet regime into the dust bin of history, but his voice alone without Sharansky’s moral stand, would have run up against a brick wall.

After moving to Israel, Sharansky was invited to serve as a minister in two administrations. He very publicly resigned from both because the prime ministers were engaged in appeasing Israel’s enemies in ways Sharansky believed would be devastating for the young nation.

In 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak entered into negotiations at Camp David with Yasser Arafat. Sharansky objected when Barak offered Arafat more than any other Israeli leader had offered the Palestinians, including a pledge to divide Jerusalem. Why? He believed Barak was foolishly appeasing Arafat who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent Israelis. In return for peace, Barak was willing to give up important locations essential to the Jewish people’s historical identity­­.

The second time Sharansky resigned from an Israeli government was in 2005 when Ariel Sharon decided to evacuate Gaza––a strip of land along the Mediterranean that was home to twenty-one Jewish communities. He argued that doing so unilaterally would not bring peace to Israel, nor would it improve life for the Palestinians. Unfortunately, his prediction came true. Gaza has turned out to be an open sore on Israel’s southern flank with no clear resolution in sight.

The common thread of the two situations was the leaders were willing to appease their enemies––giving up a lot in return for little or nothing. Despite the common narrative that Israel is responsible for the lack of peace in the Middle East, the truth, the reality of the situation is that Israel has consistently offered concessions while consistently losing opportunities to stand firm on principle.

Another example cited by Sharansky is Oslo––the 1993 Agreement that was supposed to bring about a resolution of the conflict that began with the formation of a Jewish state in 1948. Sharansky argues Oslo was flawed for two reasons. First, it failed to deal with the fact that Yasser Arafat was a dictator. Strengthening him was the worst thing that could have happened to the Palestinian people as can be seen today given that nothing close to democratic rights exists in the PLO-dominated territory. If we in the West believe our rhetoric––that all human beings are entitled to certain basic rights, why do we keep ignoring the fact that the Palestinians lack the right of free speech, free assembly, freedom of religion and the right to choose their own leaders?

The second evil perpetuated by Oslo was Israel’s failure to insist that the PLO recognize the Jewish people’s right to a Jewish state in its current location. Failing to demand that concession has meant the PLO could continue to foster hatred of Jews, pay the families of deceased or imprisoned terrorists, and claim their right to the entire region. The consequence was that Israel has had to devote a major portion of its population and resources on security.

Western International Appeasement

America and Europe have consistently tried appeasement in dealing with China and Iran resulting in greater problems amplified today by the economic and military agreement between the two nations. The entire world is endangered by the aggressive policies these nations display today in large part because they do not believe the West will go beyond rhetoric to stop them.

The case of Iran is the clearer of the two. Iran’s aggression in its region has led to wars in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, with resulting tens of thousands killed and hundreds of thousands of refugees. How has the West responded? President Obama tried to buy off Iran with a foolish deal that asked them to postpone becoming a nuclear power in return for a huge financial payment. Fortunately, President Trump revoked America’s part of the agreement, but Europe has demurred, emboldening Iran to continue to be aggressive on several fronts.

Many advanced the theory that by playing nice with China they would reform their totalitarian practices. Instead China today is an aggressive dictatorship, repressing ethnic minorities, attempting to take over Taiwan and Hong Kong and dominate the South China Sea region, while pushing on its border with India. China’s economy has grown thanks to the West’s willingness to ignore China’s predatory policies in return for access to its market. In response, China engaged in the theft of Western technology and limited its market in multiple ways while undercutting Western economies with its state-owned enterprises.

The West’s failure to demand Iran and China conform to Western human rights practices in order to receive the benefits of our technology was and remains a huge mistake. President Trump is correct in placing demands on both countries, although I worry that U.S. pressure can only achieve limited results without Europe’s support.

Domestic Appeasement

Appeasement is a popular ploy in the U.S. to tamper down demands by domestic populations. I’m not arguing that minority communities don’t deserve a share of our nation’s riches, but instead of policies that expand equal opportunity, our political class has favored hand-outs to selected representatives, enriching a few at the expense of the many.

The failures of hand-out programs such as welfare, public housing and affirmative action is evidenced by the fact that 60 years after this policy was started as Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the same groups are legitimately pointing out that they have greater poverty, greater unemployment and greater numbers in prison that the majority population.

The Great Society created a political class that each year comes to Washington claiming to represent their people while asking for more money and more programs. Sadly, the poverty program cheerleaders refuse to recognize that enormous progress has been made outside these poverty programs simply by people taking advantage of opportunities to get an education and obtain skills that could be translated into economic advanced.

The Trump presidency demonstrated that more could be accomplished for minorities by means of an expanding economy than all the handout programs combined.

The Alternative to Appeasement

Appeasement is the tendency to believe giving in to the demands of others can put an end to the problem. Even when the demands are legitimate, there has to be a price paid before an exchange can be effective. As Natan Sharansky demonstrated giving in to Israel’s enemies without getting sufficient concessions in return was disastrous.

We have learned that in the case of demands made in foreign relations, the dominant side has to view those making the demand as enemies with regard to that specific negotiation. Mexico and Canada were America’s enemies when trying to replace NAFTA. Thinking in that mode resulted in an one hundred percent better agreement. Iran and China are our enemies, not our friends. As a result, a quid pro quo should be required of any agreement.

In domestic conflicts, financial aid should only be given when the receiving community has agreed to honest and thorough record-keeping demonstrating that the aid went to the intended audience. If that had been done in the past, the record of fraud and abuse in these programs would have been cut in half and needy people would have gotten help. But even beyond accounting, receiving communities must agree to engage in additional steps on their own behalf, such as requiring recipients to participate in programs designed to elevate them out of poverty. An example would be schooling for those who are not proficient in English; another would be schooling for adults who dropped out of school without completing high school.

Appeasement is giving in to demands without asking anything in return. It is often agreed to out of guilt. Its time to recognize appeasement didn’t end with Nevile Chamberlain. Its continuing record of failure in international and domestic relations should teach us a lesson. Leaders must display backbone. Giving in may gain short-term peace, but rarely solves the problem and typically results in worse problems down the road.

Peace should not be the Goal. It can only be the Result.

We all pray for peace, but beyond our prayers, there is the practical truth that when peace is the goal, the result is often war, suffering, and death. The most obvious example is Neville Chamberlain’s giving away part of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, proclaiming he had achieved “peace in our time.” Chamberlain’s trading lives for peace emboldened Hitler, and before it was all over sixty million were dead. The Oslo Agreement between Israel and the PLO is another example of a disastrous deal made for peace.

The Oslo Agreement is Israel’s nakba––the name the Palestinian militants give to the formation of the state of Israel. It means day of catastrophe.

In return for “peace,” Israel gave Yasser Arafat control over millions of Muslim Arabs, converting them overnight into Palestinians. Israel’s leaders naively thought Arafat would settle for the ability to rule over the so-called West Bank, but he did not. He accepted Israel’s giving him an arm and a leg, but getting those parts only motivated him continue his quest for the entire body, a goal that continues to drive his successors.

Why Peace Deals Fail

The reason seeking peace often results in the opposite is that people naively believe peace is the means to an end. As a result, they give up too much to achieve the appearance of peace, often sacrificing the substance. To claim one has achieved peace without providing for the security and well-being of your people is an invitation to nakba.

The goal of any negotiation between opposing parties must be security, not peace. Giving the PLO the ability to rule Territory A was a security disaster. It has led to the death and injury of hundreds of Arabs and Jews because it made it easy for the PLO to promote lone-wolf acts of terrorism while taking in millions of dollars of aid from the West. Giving financial aid to terrorists is just plain stupid. It has allowed the PLO to establish absolute control over its own population denying them freedom of thought in part by disseminating school books that teach hateful untruths about Jews and lies about the history of the region.

What the world needs now . . . is Identity and Freedom

No less person than the refusnik, Natan Sharansky, the only non-American to be honored with both the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, opposed the Oslo Agreement. Why? Sharansky was shocked to learn after being released from a Soviet prison that the West was abandoning “identity and freedom”––the values that brought down the Soviet Regime. “The liberal world . . . decided that the highest liberal value is peace,” Sharansky said at a recent event, “but that’s exactly what the communists were saying.”

Speaking of the downfall of the Soviet Union, Sharansky said “ . . . our victory showed the world how freedom and identity go together.” He believes people can only wage a successful fight against dictatorships when there is something more important to them than their physical survival. “It’s people’s identity, national identity, religious identity” that motivates them to rebel.

No matter what terms President Trump’s team proposes when they finally get around to presenting them, Israel must focus on long-term security, not peace. Its leaders must assume the Palestinian Authority will take any concession as permission to violate the terms of the agreement and to pursue its ultimate goal the destruction of a Jewish state.

Israel’s Unique Role

Natan Sharansky believes “Israel has an absolutely unique role [to play] in today’s world . . . to connect two basic desires of people and to keep them together. National identity and freedom.” To abandon that role would be a disaster not just for Israel and the Jewish people, but for the world.

 

Facing the modern KGB: What we can learn from Natan Sharanksy

Fear No Evil, by Natan Sharansky, 1998 edition (Public Affairs)

What would you do if you were arrested as a result of actions you’d taken on behalf of your religious and/or political beliefs, threatened with execution or long imprisonment, but offered leniency if you confessed and testified against your colleagues? Most of us would automatically say we’d resist, but consider the kind of pressure levied by Robert Mueller and his team of investigators against Lieutenant General Mike Flynn, who as a result of being accused of lying to the FBI, lost his job, had his life and that of his family destroyed, and has been facing prison time for two years while Mueller and the boys (there are no girls on that team as far as I know) pressured him into naming names. In other words, he was punished before he was convicted. But this is America, you are probably saying. Nothing like that could happen in America. Wrong.

If Robert Mueller hasn’t personally studied the methods of the KGB, I’ll bet someone on his team has. The KGB was masterful in their methods. Torture, you’re imagining, but would it surprise you to learn that physical torture, such as beatings and waterboarding, were not used in the case of political prisoners like Natan Sharansky, the Jewish refusnik who spent nine years in the Soviet prison system many of them in the Gulag, the Soviet Union’s desolate Siberian territory.

The KBG specialized in psychological torture, such as threats to imprison one’s family and loved ones; isolation in punishment cells where you were not allowed to lie down during the day; promises of better treatment and shorter sentences if you only name names––these methods it turns out were effective on 99% of those sucked into the system. Sharansky was the one percent who successfully resisted.

How you ask? By refusing to cooperate on any level with the KGB. He refused all offers and all threats. He accepted long stays in punishment cells even though he knew he might die as a result. He lost so much body weight that he had severe heart problems that required long prison hospital stays. He went on hunger strikes over principled issues, including demanding his copy of Psalms be returned to him or demanding that his letters home be released to his family. He protested when other prisoners were mistreated even though it meant more stays in punishment or prison cells, but he knew from day one that only by having nothing to do with the KGB could he survive his ordeal without selling out his soul.

What gave him the courage to stand up to the KGB when almost no one else could? A combination of factors, including a sharp mind that he used to become a child chess prodigy, a relationship with the woman he married only days before being arrested in 1977 whose garnered support from thousands including world leaders like France’s Mitterand and the U.S.’s Ronald Reagan, and the fact that his commitment to Judaism allowed him to separate himself from anything and everything that had to do with the Soviet Union.

Anyone wanting to strengthen their own system of belief––religious or secular––can benefit from reading Sharansky’s memoir which was first published two years after he was released in a prisoner exchange in 1986, which brings us back to 2018 and the Mueller investigation.

Hampered by one’s belief that the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice are incorruptible, and that KGB methods would never be applied in this country, good men such as Mike Flynn when arrested by Robert Mueller naively assume they can tell the truth and not be victimized. Of course, I wasn’t present at any of those interviews. So, I must speculate on the basis of what is known, and it is clear that Mueller’s methods of exacting cooperation and confessions out of people whose deeds were not criminal must be modeled on the techniques perfected in the Soviet Union. How else can one explain what has been done to Mike Flynn despite the fact that the FBI agents who interviewed Flynn did so under false pretense while he was still an official of the Trump White House and who did not believe he lied. His failure to understand that others were out to get him and the President at any cost would allow them to undertake such nefarious methods is what led to his downfall. Hence, his recent confession must be understand as that offered by a man who has undergone two years of psychological torture and who has confessed as part of a deal that might keep him out of prison and save his family further suffering.

I doubt Mike Flynn will be writing about his experience with America’s version of the KGB. His plea deal will probably require him to swear he’ll never reveal the details of how they got him to confess. Natan Sharansky withstood nine years of psychological warfare on his character. How long this country must wait for the American KGB to be brought down is anybody’s guess.