Paul Greenberg

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?

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.