The Magazine

Honoring Democracy

From the January 24, 2005 issue: Honor points the path of duty; the path of duty for us is the defense of liberty.

Jan 24, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 18 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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LAST TUESDAY'S OVAL OFFICE INTERVIEW appeared to be over. Washington Times editor in chief Wesley Pruden had thanked the president. But President Bush had something to add:

"If you want a glimpse of how I think about foreign policy read Natan Sharansky's book, The Case for Democracy. . . . For government, particularly--for opinion makers, I would put it on your recommended reading list. It's short and it's good. This guy is a heroic figure, as you know. It's a great book."

What a plug! But the praise is deserved. And it's good news that the president is so enthusiastic about Sharansky's work. It suggests that, despite all the criticism, and all the difficulties, the president remains determined to continue to lead the nation along the basic foreign policy lines he laid down in his first term. As with any foreign policy, there have been deviations--some reasonable, some unfortunate--from the basic course. As with any administration, there have been errors of judgment and failures of execution--some defensible, some indefensible. But the Bush/Sharansky path is both right and necessary. And with the Afghan and Palestinian elections just behind us, and the Iraqi election coming up, our progress along that path should become more visible.

Bush has eloquently explained the essence of his foreign policy many times, and he undoubtedly will do so again in his second inaugural address this week. But, as we await that speech, one quotation from Bush's recommended guide may be helpful. The following is from a July 2000 article by Sharansky--once a political prisoner in the Soviet Union, now a politician in Israel--quoted in The Case for Democracy:

The same human rights principles that once guided me in the Soviet Union remain the cornerstone of my approach to the peace process. I am willing to transfer territory not because I think the Jewish people have less of a claim to Judea and Samaria than do the Palestinians, but because the principle of individual autonomy remains sacred to me--I do not want to rule another people. At the same time, I refuse to ignore the Palestinian Authority's violations of human rights because I remain convinced that a neighbor who tramples on the rights of its own people will eventually threaten the security of my people. . . . A genuinely "new" Middle East need not be a fantasy. But it will not be brought about by merely ceding lands to Arab dictators and by subsidizing regimes that undermine the rights of their own people. The only way to create real Arab-Israeli reconciliation is to press the Arab world to respect human rights. Israel must link its concessions to the degree of openness, transparency, and liberalization of its neighbors. For their part, Western leaders must not think the Arabs any less deserving of the freedom and rights that their own citizens enjoy--both for their sake and for ours.

True then, and true now, for Israel and for America.

There is more enlightened guidance in Sharansky's book. He comments in the preface, "During my long journey through the world of evil, I had discovered three sources of power: the power of an individual's inner freedom, the power of a free society, and the power of the solidarity of the free world." The Case for Democracy focuses on the latter two sources of power. Sharansky's earlier book, Fear No Evil, a memoir of his days as a dissident and a prisoner in the USSR, elaborates on the first source of power--the power of an individual's inner freedom. That book is well worth reading too.

For it is the power of citizens' inner freedom that gives them the strength to defend freedom in the world, and it is true inner freedom that is the fruit of that defense. Sharansky's inner freedom, acquired in the exercise of his extraordinary courage and understanding, made it possible for him to accept his conviction to the Gulag with equanimity. As he said on July 14, 1978, in his statement to the Soviet court that convicted him in a show trial:

Five years ago, I submitted my application for exit to Israel. Now I am further than ever from my dream. It would seem to be cause for regret. But it is absolutely the other way around. I am happy. I am happy that I lived honorably, at peace with my conscience. I never compromised my soul, even under the threat of death.

Living honorably--surely that is the goal of a free people, both at home and abroad. President Bush will face many difficult foreign policy challenges in his second term. After consulting all complications of interest and calculation, he will surely want to repair, as Sharansky did, to the standard of acting honorably. As Churchill put it in his history of World War II, there is a "helpful guide" to nations facing difficult choices: "This guide is called honor."

"It is baffling to reflect," Churchill adds, "that what men call honor does not correspond always to Christian ethics. Honor is often influenced by that element of pride which plays so large a part in its inspiration. An exaggerated code of honor leading to the performance of utterly vain and unreasonable deeds could not be defended, however fine it might look." "Here, however," Churchill continues, writing of the choice Britain faced at Munich in September 1938, "the moment came when Honor pointed the path of Duty, and when also the right judgment of the facts at that time would have reinforced its dictates."

Today, in Iraq and beyond, honor points the path of duty, and the right judgment of the facts reinforces its dictates. The path of duty for us, as it was for Churchill and Sharansky, is the defense of liberty. As he takes the oath of office for the second time, having won a deserved reelection from the American people, this is Bush's challenge, and his mission.

-- William Kristol