Important principles may, and must, be inflexible. Abraham Lincoln
Read Natan Sharansky on President Bush in today's Wall Street Journal;
George W. Bush has the courage to speak out for freedom.
There are two distinct marks of a dissident. First, dissidents are fired by ideas and stay true to them no matter the consequences. Second, they generally believe that betraying those ideas would constitute the greatest of moral failures. Give up, they say to themselves, and evil will triumph. Stand firm, and they can give hope to others and help change the world.
Political leaders make the rarest of dissidents. In a democracy, a leader's lifeline is the electorate's pulse. Failure to be in tune with public sentiment can cripple any administration and undermine any political agenda. Moreover, democratic leaders, for whom compromise is critical to effective governance, hardly ever see any issue in Manichaean terms. In their world, nearly everything is colored in shades of gray.
That is why President George W. Bush is such an exception. He is a man fired by a deep belief in the universal appeal of freedom, its transformative power, and its critical connection to international peace and stability. Even the fiercest critics of these ideas would surely admit that Mr. Bush has championed them both before and after his re-election, both when he was riding high in the polls and now that his popularity has plummeted, when criticism has come from longstanding opponents and from erstwhile supporters.
With a dogged determination that any dissident can appreciate, Mr. Bush, faced with overwhelming opposition, stands his ideological ground, motivated in large measure by what appears to be a refusal to countenance moral failure.
I myself have not been uncritical of Mr. Bush. Like my teacher, Andrei Sakharov, I agree with the president that promoting democracy is critical for international security. But I believe that too much focus has been placed on holding quick elections, while too little attention has been paid to help build free societies by protecting those freedoms--of conscience, speech, press, religion, etc.--that lie at democracy's core.
I believe that such a mistaken approach is one of the reasons why a terrorist organization such as Hamas could come to power through ostensibly democratic means in a Palestinian society long ruled by fear and intimidation.
I also believe that not enough effort has been made to turn the policy of promoting democracy into a bipartisan effort. The enemies of freedom must know that the commitment of the world's lone superpower to help expand freedom beyond its borders will not depend on the results of the next election.
Just as success in winning past global conflicts depended on forging a broad coalition that stretched across party and ideological lines, success in using the advance of democracy to win the war on terror will depend on building and maintaining a wide consensus of support.
Yet despite these criticisms, I recognize that I have the luxury of criticizing Mr. Bush's democracy agenda only because there is a democracy agenda in the first place. A policy that for years had been nothing more than the esoteric subject of occasional academic debate is now the focal point of American statecraft.
For decades, a "realism" based on a myopic perception of international stability prevailed in the policy-making debate. For a brief period during the Cold War, the realist policy of accommodating Soviet tyranny was replaced with a policy that confronted that tyranny and made democracy and human rights inside the Soviet Union a litmus test for superpower relations.
The enormous success of such a policy in bringing the Cold War to a peaceful end did not stop most policy makers from continuing to advocate an approach to international stability that was based on coddling "friendly" dictators and refusing to support the aspirations of oppressed peoples to be free.
Then came Sept. 11, 2001. It seemed as though that horrific day had made it clear that the price for supporting "friendly" dictators throughout the Middle East was the creation of the world's largest breeding ground of terrorism. A new political course had to be charted.
Today, we are in the midst of a great struggle between the forces of terror and the forces of freedom. The greatest weapon that the free world possesses in this struggle is the awesome power of its ideas.
The Bush Doctrine, based on a recognition of the dangers posed by non-democratic regimes and on committing the United States to support the advance of democracy, offers hope to many dissident voices struggling to bring democracy to their own countries. The democratic earthquake it has helped unleash, even with all the dangers its tremors entail, offers the promise of a more peaceful world.
Yet with each passing day, new voices are added to the chorus of that doctrine's opponents, and the circle of its supporters grows ever smaller.
Critics rail against every step on the new and difficult road on which the United States has embarked. Yet in pointing out the many pitfalls which have not been avoided and those which still can be, those critics would be wise to remember that the alternative road leads to the continued oppression of hundreds of millions of people and the continued festering of the pathologies that led to 9/11.
Now that President Bush is increasingly alone in pushing for freedom, I can only hope that his dissident spirit will continue to persevere. For should that spirit break, evil will indeed triumph, and the consequences for our world would be disastrous.
Mr. Sharansky spent nine years as a political prisoner in the Soviet Gulag. A former deputy prime minister of Israel and currently a member of the Knesset, he is co-author, with Ron Dermer, of "The Case For Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror" (PublicAffairs, 2004). You can buy "The Case For Democracy" at the OpinionJournal bookstore here.