Jewish World Review Jan. 3, 2005 / 22 Teves, 5765

Jonathan Gurwitz

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Ignoring naysayers, democracy advances | Remember the voices of pessimism after Sept. 11, 2001?

Afghanistan, they said, was the graveyard of empires, a hodgepodge of ethnic groups, a warren of warlords and opium growers, a mountainous and primitive purgatory halfway around the world for which it was delusional for the United States to seek regime change, let alone democratic regime change.

Despite such predictions of doom and gloom, the United States and its allies prevailed in Afghanistan, representatives of its disparate ethnic groups came together to write a modern, liberal constitution and the Afghan people   —   10 million of them   —   went to the polls to elect a head of state for the first time in a national history that stretches back 5,000 years.

The same voices said in recent months that Ukraine lacked a democratic tradition, was the cultural birthplace of Russia, firmly and properly ensconced in the Russian sphere of influence, and a political powder keg to which the United States and its allies should be loath to light the fuse of Western reform.

Yet millions of Ukrainians took to frigid streets after the fraudulent presidential election of Nov. 21 to claim their independence, sever the decrepit hand of Russian autocracy and, through a new election, peacefully select a leader committed to freedom and a future tied to the West.

Now people are aspiring to emulate these demonstrations of democratic power from Russia and Eastern Europe across Central Asia, along an axis from Kiev to Kabul. In Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, democratic reformers are emboldened while autocratic leaders are anxious.

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But for a handful of dissidents in the East and maligned theoreticians in the West, few would have predicted the democratic flame could bring light to a world of formerly totalitarian darkness. Fewer still believe that such a flame can be kindled in the heart of the Middle East.

One who does is Natan Sharansky, a former prisoner of the Soviet gulag, now an Israeli statesman and the author of the new book "The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror." (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)

Among the influential readers of Sharansky's tome is the supposedly literary-challenged president of the United States, George W. Bush, who spent more than an hour recently discussing it with its author and has commended a dog-eared copy to his staff.

A cursory examination of recent history bears out Sharansky's thesis. Free people rarely, if ever, go to war against other free people. Peaceful relations between nations are largely contingent on how governments protect individual freedoms within nations.

Two practical demonstrations of that thesis take place in coming weeks. First in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where Palestinians will for the first time elect a leader in a meaningful presidential election. In advance of that election   —   and in the absence of Yasser Arafat   —   more than 600 prominent Palestinians, including current and former Palestinian Authority cabinet ministers, PLO officials and intellectuals took out a front-page advertisement in the Palestinian press calling for democratic reform and an end to violence.

Then in Iraq where, as interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, people will have "a unique opportunity to close a chapter of decades of tyrannical rule and shape their own future by participating in the first free and fair elections in decades."

Just as autocrats in Eastern Europe and Central Asia fear the successful exercise of democratic power on their doorstep, so, too, do the dictators and oligarchs of the Middle East tremble at the prospect that a new axis of democracy may extend from Ramallah and Baghdad through Cairo, Tripoli and Tehran.

The voices of pessimism abound, as they did in Afghanistan and Ukraine. Combining the imperial derision of the past with the totalitarian scorn of the present, these voices say Arabs cannot be expected to embrace democracy.

Palestinian and Iraqi majorities may say otherwise.

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JWR contributor Jonathan Gurwitz, a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News, is a co-founder and twice served as Director General of the Future Leaders of the Alliance program at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. In 1986 he was placed on the Foreign Service Register of the U.S. State Department. Comment by clicking here.


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12/19/03: Behind the Iraq rhetoric, democracy starts to build
12/16/03: Anti-war myths quickly eroding
12/03/03: Want fair, balanced? Separate intelligence, politics
08/12/03: N. Korea, Iran paradox to anti-war crowd
06/29/03: Real sports heroes don't make headlines
06/26/03: Strange bedfellows are a sure sign of rocky times
06/26/03: What Einstein taught Bush
06/26/03: JFK's message of struggle for freedom still stands
06/19/03: Most Americans understand this cynical equation
04/22/03: War opponents share burden of guilt
04/10/03: Iraqis get liberation and respect
03/28/03: Constitutionally protected SOBs
03/25/03: Morality changes with the times
03/12/03: Will all of those, ahem, "sincere" peace activists remember the Iraqis tomorrow?
02/27/03: Blood already on UN inspectors' hands

© 2003, Jonathan Gurwitz