Skip to main content


Free societies vs. fear societies

Natan Sharansky discusses the prospects for democracy in the Middle East and Russia and how in President Bush he has

Free societies vs. fear societies

Israeli cabinet minister Natan Sharansky landed in New York just after his boss, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and Palestinian Leader Mahmoud Abbas shook hands at a plush Red Sea resort on the coast of the once-disputed Sinai Peninsula, jointly agreeing to "cease all acts of violence against Israelis and Palestinians everywhere."

For Mr. Sharansky, the rapid move toward peace in Israel could mark the second such political watershed in his life. A Soviet dissident who spent nine years in the gulags as a prisoner of conscience, his freedom and subsequent emigration to Israel were made possible only after Moscow's fall. Now he is a leading official for Mr. Sharon's ruling coalition.

His trip to the United States coincided with the arrival on leading bestseller lists of his latest book, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom To Overcome Tyranny & Terror. Key to its success was an impromptu endorsement by President Bush. He summoned Mr. Sharansky to the White House late last year for an hour-long discussion and later publicly encouraged his own staff to read the book. Mr. Sharansky, he said, is a "heroic figure" who "talks about how freedom can change the globe."

WORLD asked Joel Rosenberg, its former political columnist and bestselling author of The Last Jihad, who once worked as an aide to Mr. Sharansky, for an interview with the Israeli official, which took place Feb. 12 at the Madison Hotel in Washington, D.C.

WORLD: Why do you believe there is such interest in your views on democracy right now?

Sharansky: There are two reasons, really. The first is 9/11. The second is President Bush.

After the horrible attacks on America on 9/11, many people in the United States began to realize that Western attempts over the years to bring about stability by supporting dictators in the Middle East have been very problematic. Dictatorships are inherently dangerous and belligerent, and 9/11 made many people realize that it is not enough just to destroy the terrorists. You must change the governing structures in the countries that produce the terrorists.

For 20 years I've been saying that it's better to have a democracy that hates you than a dictator that loves you. Many people thought my speeches and articles on this topic seemed either too abstract or too grounded in my struggle with the Soviet system. Also, the desire within Western democracies to find immediate solutions to problems always seemed to encourage Western leaders to find "reliable dictators" as their first choice, rather than to push certain countries to become true democracies.

But President Bush, from the very beginning hours after 9/11, saw this new war as a challenge between the world of freedom and the world of terror. And he made it clear that we must not only destroy terrorists. We must also encourage the change of regimes that have long supported terror. . . . In President Bush I have found another dissident as well.

WORLD: How do you assess new Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen)? Do you share Mr. Sharon's optimism that the conditions are ripe for a "historic breakthrough" with the Palestinians?

Sharansky: No doubt there is a new opportunity. Sometimes it is easier for new leadership to change the course of a country or a people from the direction of past leaders because they are not fully responsible for the decisions of the past.

The most important reason for optimism is because the leader of the free world believes and is saying openly that the only path to peace and security in the Middle East is to expand and promote democracy.

Will it really happen? That is still a very big question, and I am very, very cautious. Look, it doesn't matter how good or bad Abu Mazen is. The question is whether the world will make a linkage between democratic reforms in the Palestinian society and the peace process. Even if Abu Mazen really wants to make peace and really wants to create a healthy democracy in the Palestinian society, it won't be easy for him. He will only do it if there is a strong demand of him from the U.S., Israel, and Europe. He will only do it if the free world says, "We will only keep embracing you and supporting you if you embrace democratic reforms, if you keep moving to create a free society instead of a fear society."

Obviously, President Bush is making this linkage. But he is a rather lonely voice on this topic, both outside America and even inside America. Even the career diplomats within his own State Department seem uncomfortable with the notion of supporting freedom and democracy. So we shall see.

WORLD: Do you believe Mr. Abbas is capable of reining in Hamas and other terror groups?

Sharansky: He can. But he'll only do it if he has no other choice. . . . Abu Mazen needs to be pressured by the free world. He needs the free world. He needs their verbal support, their financial support, their encouragement and legitimacy. So the U.S. and Europe and our own government have a lot of leverage. We need to keep pressing him to do the right thing. If he cannot or doesn't want to, then we have no interest in him as a partner.

WORLD: What was your reaction to the recent elections in Iraq?

Sharansky: I am very optimistic. We should be clear that a democracy has not yet been built in Iraq. It is being built. Free elections usually come at the end of the democratic process, not the beginning. There is much more to be done to create democratic institutions and to create a society where people feel free to think what they want and say what they want and criticize their leaders without fear of reprisal. Still, the elections were an important first step.

People demonstrated that they were ready to take big personal risks to vote, and that was extraordinary. They have had a very hard experience of living in a fear society, and when given an opportunity of moving from a fear society to a free society, they risked their lives to do it.

WORLD: What is your sense of the future of democracy in Russia? A growing number of observers in the West are concerned that Vladimir Putin is becoming a new Russian dictator. They point to the Kremlin's takeover of television stations, jailing of political opponents, and ending democratic elections for provincial governors.

Sharansky: Look, for a thousand years Russia never was a democracy. But I believe the Russian people want to be free. There have been tremendous changes there in the past 10 or 15 years. Millions of people are not enslaved in gulags like they once were. Millions are not working for the KGB anymore. Millions do not live in fear that one mistaken word and they'll be thrown in prison. This is real progress. There have been some serious retreats. But look, 12 years after the French revolution there was Napoleon. There are ups and downs in the development of democracy in any country. Now Putin is restricting many areas of Russian life. The free world should not be hesitant to raise these issues or to encourage the Russian government to expand freedom, not restrict it.

WORLD: Why do you believe Russia is selling nuclear technology to Iran when Iran is now recognized as a leading terrorist threat to the United States?

Sharansky: Putin told me . . . back in '97 that the day will come when it is clear that it is Western sales of technologies to Iran which will be just as critical to helping Iran develop weapons of mass destruction, maybe more so, as Russian technologies. And sure enough, a year ago when the scope of Iranian activities was discovered, everyone could see that the technologies that flowed through Pakistan, England, and Holland have created a big danger. Unless something happens, within one or two more years Iran will develop nuclear weapons.

WORLD: Is an emerging Russian-Iranian alliance a direct threat to Israel's security?

Sharansky: The free world seems blind to taking effective measures to stop this impending disaster. Now it must be clear that the free world cannot afford to permit the regime of the Ayatollahs to have nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. The Iranians have made their intentions perfectly clear. They intend to destroy Israel and the other "Satans" in this world.

WORLD: What should be done to stop Iran?

Sharansky: As I point out in my book, Iran is a unique example of a country where in one generation a society of true believers in radical Islam has become a society of double-thinkers. That is, in their hearts and minds most Iranians are disgusted with their government and disillusioned with radical Islam, even though with their lips they must avoid being critical for fear of government reprisals.

There are many Iranians eager to change their government. With some encouragement from the free world I think we can help the people of Iran to bring about democratic change. I was glad to see President Bush speak directly to the Iranian people in his State of the Union address. But it is not enough. The United States and Europe-the entire free world-must do much more to encourage the forces of freedom and reform within Iran, before it is too late.

WORLD: Do you foresee a scenario where Israel would be forced to take military action against Iran?

Sharansky: If it is too late and democratic change will not happen in Iran, and so much time was wasted, and the free world was too cautious to support the dissidents in Iran, then there is a very real danger that Iran will get nuclear weapons. And the free world will have no choice but to act. But I don't want to discuss specific scenarios. Let us hope it does not go that far.

Joel C. Rosenberg

Joel C. Rosenberg

Joel is a New York Times bestselling author and a former WORLD correspondent.