Does democracy end tyranny?

Natan Sharansky, a distinguished fellow at the Shalem Center in Israel, is a former Soviet dissident who spent nine years in a KGB prison. Later, he served as a member of the Israeli government. He is the coauthor of "The Case for Democracy."

THE U.S. AGENDA to promote democracy in the Middle East appears fatally wounded. The results of recent elections in Iraq, Egypt and especially Gaza and the West Bank have led many to conclude that this agenda is terribly misguided: wonderful in theory but disastrous in practice, enabling the most dangerous and antidemocratic elements in the region to gain power through democratic means.

If true, this is certainly a worrisome turn of events. Can the skeptics be right? Is it simply too dangerous to promote freedom in the Arab world? Must the United States give up on promoting democracy and go back to supporting authoritarian governments that do its bidding?

That was the old policy. But foreign policy “realism” -- the notion that the free world could buy security by supporting repressive dictators who would act in American national interests -- collapsed on 9/11. That was when it became clear to many policymakers that regimes that repressed their subjects were creating breeding grounds of fanaticism and terror.


Today, many people believe that the antidote to fanaticism is to open these societies to dissent, to the free exchange of ideas, to the opportunities offered by a free market and to the hope that comes with democratic life.

Based on this diagnosis, President Bush launched a bold policy that promised to give democracy a central place in American statecraft. In terms of rhetoric, the change was indeed dramatic. In his second inaugural address, Bush promised to support democratic movements everywhere with the goal of “ending tyranny” in our world. By declaring terrorists to be our enemies and democrats to be our partners, Bush injected an indispensable dose of moral clarity into U.S. policy.

But, despite what I believe to be the president’s genuine commitment to promote sweeping change, the policy shift hasn’t matched the rhetoric, with one glaring exception: an intense focus on holding elections everywhere as quickly as possible. This has been a mistake because, although elections are part of the democratic process, they are never a substitute for it.

I believed this when I submitted a plan to Ariel Sharon in April 2002 for a political process that would culminate in the creation of a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state alongside Israel. At the time, no one was thinking seriously about peace because, after the worst month of terror attacks in Israel’s history, we had launched a large-scale military operation to root out the infrastructure of terrorism in the West Bank.

I believed, however, that the crisis presented an opportunity to begin a different kind of political process, one that would link the peace process to the development of a free society for Palestinians. I had argued for many years that peace and security could be achieved only by linking international legitimacy, territorial concessions and financial assistance for a new Palestinian regime to its commitment to building a free society.

Despite my faith in “democracy,” I was under no illusion that elections should be held immediately. Over the previous decade, Palestinian society had become one of the most poisoned and fanatical on Earth. Day after day, on television and radio, in newspapers and schools, a generation of Palestinians had been subjected to the most vicious incitement by their own leaders. The only “right” that seemed to be upheld within Palestinian areas was the right of everyone to bear arms.


In such conditions of fear, intimidation and indoctrination, holding snap elections would have been an act of the utmost irresponsibility. That is why I proposed a plan calling for elections to be held no earlier than three years after the implementation of a series of democratic reforms. Three years, I believed, was the absolute minimum for democratic reforms to begin to change the atmosphere in which free elections could be held. Unfortunately, the plan was never implemented.

The recent election of Hamas is the fruit of a policy that focused on the form of democracy (elections) rather than its substance (building and protecting a free society). Rather than push for quick elections, the democratic world must use its considerable moral, political and economic leverage to help build free societies in the Middle East. We should tie trade privileges to economic freedoms, encourage foreign diplomats to meet openly with dissidents and link aid to the protection of dissents (as Bush did when he helped force the release of Egyptian democracy advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim).

Any regime, elected or not, that works to build a free society should be seen as a partner, if not a friend. Likewise, any regime, elected or not, that chokes freedom should be seen as an adversary, if not an enemy. Obviously, any regime that supports terrorism is hostile to the most fundamental principles of a free society and should therefore be treated as an enemy.

Helping democracy take root in the Arab world will take time and persistence. Most Arab governments will try to stamp out any spark of liberty. But the democrats within these societies are our partners. We can help them by refusing to support those who repress them, and by making clear through both our statements and our policies that the efforts to expand freedom within their societies will benefit their countries as much as ours. The alternative is to return to the pre-9/11 delusion that a tyrant’s repression of his own subjects has no consequences for us.