Facing new evil empires

Posted: Mar 22, 2005 12:00 AM

It's strange yet appropriate to be discussing Lebanon again, where the United States began its war on Islamic terror in 1983. Or, rather, where Islamic terror began its war against the United States.

The fact is, in 1983, after Iranian-backed, Syrian-boosted Hezbollah bombings in Beirut killed more than 300 Americans at the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks, the United States just sailed away.

We wouldn't assume a war footing against "terror" for another 20 years. Ronald Reagan could fight only one totalitarian behemoth per lifetime, the spreading rot he knew, communism, not the still-nippable, budding blight of jihadist Islam. But 1983 was a good year for the Cold War: It was the year President Reagan branded the Soviet Union the "evil empire."

In his tiny corner of the Gulag, the renowned dissident Natan Sharansky learned of President Reagan's establishment-quaking words. As Sharansky has written, "Tapping on walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagan's 'provocation' quickly spread through the prison. We dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth." Sharansky experienced first-hand the transformative powers of truth and free-world leadership: It was Reagan administration pressure on the Evil Empire that ultimately won his release in 1986 after nine years of Soviet servitude.

Now, Sharansky, an Israeli government minister, has written "The Case for Democracy," a book President Bush has declared to be a part of his "presidential DNA." Being "the case for democracy," the book provides a theoretical underpinning for Bush's doctrinal optimism about the security-enhancing potential in the spread of freedom. But, as P. David Hornik has written in the American Spectator, Sharansky's famously hopeful philosophy is tempered by a less well-known realism. In other words, he sees through his own hearts and flowers to the facts on the ground.

These aren't always so pretty. But worse than the uglier corners of reality are the efforts to hide them. Discussing the Palestinian election, which has been followed by continued incitement and terrorism against Israel, Sharansky told the Jerusalem Post it was "shame," as the Post paraphrased, that "the world uses the same words for completely different types of processes in different government systems, thereby making moral equivalencies that don't exist." As Sharansky put it, "This election can be the beginning of the democratic process only if we don't have illusions that democracy is already there, and that all we have to do now is give them independence. If this is what we do, then we will find that we have given independence not to a democratic state, but to a terrorist state."

This is something to think about in connection with the wider Middle East, where there is now such a strong desire to see dictators fall and democracies rise. Danger lurks in allowing the ideologies and bureaucracies and armies of violence and hatred to be sucked up whole into the machinery of democracy, as though majority-rule itself will neutralize ? rather than strengthen ? such poisons. I think of this in regard to Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas, himself an unrepentant Holocaust denier (a weird counterpoint to this week's opening of a new Holocaust museum in Israel attended by world leaders), who says the terrorist group Hamas would and should hold seats in the Palestinian parliament. I think of this in regard to the appalling proposition that the United States might reverse core policy and regard the terrorist group Hezbollah as just another political party.

And I think of this in regard to a barely noted story of democratic justice, Palestinian-style ? 15 Palestinian Authority-scheduled executions of "collaborators" with Israel. Presumably, these are Arabs ? likely Muslims ? who have risked everything to prevent the mass murder and maiming of Jewish civilians. Chairman Abbas' idea of judicial review has been to turn their cases over to Sheik Akrima Sabri, who, as the P.A.'s chief mufti, is a poster-imam for Jew-hatred and the joys of "martyrdom." Not surprisingly, he is calling for the prisoners' blood.

Natan Sharansky has urged Ariel Sharon to save them. "It is unacceptable," he wrote in a letter to the Israeli prime minister, that Israel release hundreds of jailed terrorists "because of the hope of an opening to peace, (while) the P.A. is about to commit state executions of people accused of helping Israel thwart terror." Thwarting jihadist terror is what the new and improved P.A. is supposed to be doing ? along with the rest of the Middle East, someday, the democracy-theory goes. If it doesn't, of course, the empire remains evil, no matter what we call it.