Pact With the Devil

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: May 11, 2011 12:01 AM
Pact With the Devil

Why write a newspaper column when someone else has said it so much better and shorter?

The someone in this case is Natan Sharansky, who went from unsuppressible Russian dissident to outspoken Israeli leader without skipping a beat. Now he's summed up the basic problem with American policy in the Middle East, which has just come a cropper again.

American policy continues to flounder, he contends, because it lacks sufficient respect and appreciation for man's yearning for freedom. His own faith in freedom has never faltered, even in the darkest hours, when faith such as his was considered folly.

Everybody knew the Soviet Union, aka the Evil Empire, was going to be around indefinitely and its captive nations would remain, well, captive. This view was called realism, and its adherents took it for granted -- right up to the time the Soviet Union collapsed in a heap, taking its far-flung empire with it.

Natan Sharansky, whether free or imprisoned at the time, never bought that kind of "realism." And it was his distinctly minority view that proved the accurate one. He's seen so clearly over the years because he's held to a single, saving realization: that men wish to be free. And will be.

Strangely enough, the "realists" who belittle principle in foreign policy inevitably prove unrealistic when principle -- no matter how long denied or diverted or dammed up -- breaks through like an irresistible flood, and sweeps tyranny away.

Natan Sharansky came to understand all this early. The way Solzhenitsyn did in a succession of Soviet labor camps, and Vaclav Havel in Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia. And the way Liu Xiaobo, Nobel laureate and political prisoner, does today in Communist China, wherever he is being held.

Sharansky had felt the power of The Thaw in Russia. He'd heard the ice crack, and knew that, despite all the serried ranks of tyranny, freedom would arrive unbidden some day, naturally, like the long-awaited spring.

Today it's an Arab spring, and it's broken out from Tunisia to Syria and points east. Its ripples spread every day in every way. And where they will flow next is every dictator's fear, every unbowed protester's hope.

Hope has stirred, then revolution, and soon ... well, we shall see. The only thing sure is that, when freedom reaches high tide and breaches the walls that once confined it, an American administration will, once again, be awfully surprised.

Why is that? Because we thought we had the Mideast figured, and put our faith not in freedom but in princes. And in the magic of Realpolitik. Just as all those old Middle East hands in the State Department, aka the Arabists, sagely advised us to do. They knew best, didn't they?

So we worked out a deal: We'd give the kings and oil sheikhs and bemedaled autocrats what they wanted from us -- arms, money, cover -- and they'd keep the people, that great beast, quiet. Now we can't figure out quite what's happening, or what we should do about it.

Here, let Natan Sharansky explain, as he did in the Washington Post the other day:

"For decades, the policy of the free world toward the Arab and Muslim Middle East was based on a simple principle: The overriding aim was stability, purchased by deals struck with leaders. That the leaders in question were autocrats of one stripe or another mattered little; neither did the cruelty and rank corruption endemic to their rule. To the contrary, tyranny was seen as the guarantor of stability, just as corruption guaranteed that the regimes' friendship could be bought. ... Repeatedly, however, and now definitively, that pact has been exposed as a sham, yielding not stability but its opposite."

Will we ever learn? The lesson is simple enough: No matter how long it is suppressed, freedom will break through -- and upset the best-laid plans of diplomats and deal-makers.

Ah, but tyranny can be so attractive. It's simple, understandable and seemingly permanent. That's why it's such a temptation to make a bargain with it. It's a temptation as old as Faust.

Freedom is no simple thing. It can be a slow, tricky, unpredictable process. It can percolate through a society slowly -- or hit like a flash flood. As if out of nowhere. Americans should have learned as much by now, the 150th anniversary of the great war that made us a nation. O, Freedom! It can be long in coming, but it will come. Something in man will stir, and when it does ... all deals are off.

Keeping faith with freedom will require strong nerves and constancy of purpose. Just as it does now in Egypt, where a new regime is flirting with the mullahs in Iran and trying to cloak one of the world's more notorious terrorist outfits -- Hamas, in the Gaza Strip -- in respectability. It is at such times that Washington should do even more to support Egypt's democratic parties against the Muslim Brotherhood -- just as, after World War II, when the Communists threatened to overwhelm Western Europe's political system, this country did everything it could to support the democratic parties that eventually prevailed.

Cynics will scurry about looking for complicated explanations for these latest revolutions in the Middle East when the simplest is staring them in the face: Freedom will not be denied forever. No more than it can be turned back in this Arab Spring. It may have to go underground for a time, like a fresh-water spring. Or it may recede like a river returning to its banks. But it will flow on somewhere, and one day break through to the surface, an undeniable fact. Even if it can be diverted for a time, it will come back stronger than ever, like the sea overwhelming Pharaoh's chariots.

There are some truths much too basic, even mythic, for our capital-E Experts, the Scowcrofts and Kissingers and Brzezinskis of the world, to absorb. As soon as reality overturns all their talk of Detente or a Grand Bargain or whatever today's catch phrase may be, these great thinkers don't change their minds. They just redouble their losing bets on Realpolitik, like a desperate amateur at the roulette table, and call it Statesmanship.

Or as Natan Sharansky describes the reflexive response of our intelligentsia to being caught off guard once again:

"Surveying the fall or near-fall of the Arab dictators, some in the West have reverted to habit, turning wistfully to well-organized structures within the society shaped by those same dictators: notably, the military on the one hand, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups on the other. The unspoken idea is to replicate the old pact but with a different set of players with whom the West can continue to do business on the same terms.

"Once again the goal is stability and security, rationalized now by pointing to the alleged absence of any other centers of potential leadership within Arab society, and by the 'discovery' of moderate elements within some of the region's worst actors. This is delusion squared. What is really being justified is an abdication of the free world's own ability to influence the momentous developments now gripping the Muslim world."

In the end, all these modern, up-to-date, scholarly Fausts have only their theories to assert, not any principle. That is why they are reduced to reacting to events instead of shaping them. And why, once again, an American administration has been surprised by something as fundamental as man's yearning to be free.

Foggy Bottom, the well-named locale of our State Department, has seldom looked foggier. For in the midst of this Arab Spring, American diplomacy remains icebound, without direction or determination. It does not act but reacts, and so must always play catch-up. Hewing to principle may be a difficult and perilous approach to foreign policy, but at least it's not a forever surprised one.