As Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party were moving toward capturing political power in Germany, in the aftermath of the last democratic parliamentary elections there in March 1933, there was no indication that the German Communist party was mounting any concerted response against the threat.
The relative inaction of the Communists reflected the belief among its leaders that the new Nazi-dominated government was the dying gasp of moribund capitalism. According to the prevailing Marxist doctrine of the time, Hitler’s government signaled the temporary triumph of Big Business and would create the conditions for a “revolutionary upturn,” accelerating the momentum toward a “proletarian revolution.”
Taking into consideration all that happened after 1933, those German Communists sound today like a bunch of lunatics. But in a way, the grand expectation that the Nazis would help ignite a Communist revolution in Germany made a lot of sense at that time if one had been a Marxist activist believing in a doctrine that assumed that realities of Germany and the world were predetermined by political and economic forces; that sooner than later the Good Guys the workers and their leaders the Communists were bound to defeat the “reactionary” capitalists and their “agent” Hitler. In its time, that was the Big Picture. The rest were just small details.
Now that Communism is more or less dead and the few Marxists still around tend to seek refuge in social science departments in universities, the tendency among the chattering classes is to talk about the Death of Ideology, not to mention the End of History.
The members of the political and intellectual classes have all become born-again pragmatists and realists committed to practical solutions to the problems confronting the nation-state and the market. The Big Picture consists of the small details managed by the government officials and business executives that meet each year in the Swiss resort town of Davos.
Alive and Well
But there is certainly one place in this world in which the devotion to a grand ideological doctrine remains as powerful as ever; where political leaders and their intellectual coaches still assume that that the reality of the world is predetermined by powerful political and economic forces.
That place is Washington, D.C., and these days, if you listened only to American President George W. Bush’s inaugural speech or his State of the Union Address, you would have concluded that a historic “revolutionary upturn” has taken place in Iraq that would be accelerating the tempo toward a “democratic revolution” in the Greater Middle East and elsewhere. Indeed, the neoconservative ideologues who have dominated the foreign policy thinking of the Bush administration and have been the architects of the war in Iraq (and Iran? and Syria?) are sounding more and more today like the Marxists of Germany in the ’30s.
Forget those “little details”: you know, no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and no Saddam-bin Laden ties; the anti-American insurgency; Abu Ghraib; the rising political influence of the Shi’ite clergy; signs of civil war. What counts is the march toward victory of democracy in Iraq and the spread of freedom and liberty in the entire Muslim world. The theocracy in Saudi Arabia? The military regimes in Egypt and Pakistan? These are just two more examples of those “small details.”
These let’s-make-the-world safe-for-democracy noises emanating from the White House are for real. If you watch Mr. Bush’s body language as he calls for the spread of freedom worldwide, you do get the impression that he is a believer. And not unlike those ’30s Marxists, the vision espoused by Mr. Bush and the neocons makes for good reading and has a prophet that promises to lead all of us the promised land of liberty and democracy.
The book is The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, and the prophet is the author, former Soviet dissident and current Israeli right-wing politician Natan Sharansky, who is confident that America should lead what will turn out to be a victorious crusade for global democracy. And for the cynic (aka realist), he has a clear message: “To suggest, as the skeptics do,” writes Mr. Sharansky, “that the majority of a people would freely choose to live in a fear society is to suggest that most of those who have tasted freedom would freely choose to return to slavery.” Indeed, Mr. Sharansky has become a cross between the Karl Marx of the Democratic Revolution and the Michael Jordan-style endorser of the American democratic brand, as well as a regular guest in the White House. Mr. Bush has revealed that Mr. Sharansky’s book has been his favorite bedtime reading and that he invited the former Israeli cabinet member for a discussion on how “the power of freedom” can transform the Middle East.
On a recent interview on CNN, Mr. Bush mentioned the “book by Natan Sharansky, who was imprisoned in the Soviet Union. He’s a heroic figure. He’s now an Israeli official who talks about freedom and what it means, and how freedom can change the globe. And I agree with him. I believed that before I met Natan Sharansky. This is a book that, however, summarizes how I feel. I would urge people to read it.”
And while discussing Mr. Bush’s foreign policy during her confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared that “the world should apply what Natan Sharansky calls the ‘town square test’: if a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society. We cannot rest until every person living in a ‘fear society’ has finally won their freedom.”
Not surprisingly, Bill Kristol, the editor of the leading neocon magazine Weekly Standard, is thrilled, writing recently that “it’s good news that the president is so enthusiastic about Sharansky’s work. It suggests that, despite all the criticism and the difficulties, the president remains determined to continue to lead the nation along the basic foreign policy lines he laid down in his first term” and, well, use the full political, economic and military resources to ensure that China and Russia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan, and other US allies in the war on terror not to forget the above-mentioned Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan pass the “town square test.”
Is it the responsibility and obligation of the U.S. to conduct such tests around the globe, and does this democracy crusade really help advance core U.S. national interests?
In fact, in his book, Mr. Sharansky argues that in the Arab world, morality and American political interests are one and the same: as the best guarantee of its national security, America must use all the tools at its disposal to promote democracy throughout the region.
Mr. Bush can repeat Ronald Reagan’s achievements in the former Soviet bloc in the ’80s: confront an ideological enemy, defeat it, and bring freedom to a region that has lived under tyranny. This is a vision that represents the post 9/11 Bush Worldview. Like Mr. Bush, Mr. Sharansky has a Manichaean view of a world divided into good and evil, democracy and tyranny, “free society” and “fear society.”
Like Marxism, it sounds like a great theory, but what exactly has it to do with the real world? How exactly would the breakup of Iraq and/or a bloody war there and/or the rise of a pro-Iran Shi’ite government and/or the creation of an independent Kurdish state and/or the need to maintain large numbers of U.S. troops there forever (in order to prevent the previous scenarios) advance U.S. interests in the Middle East?
Problems Worth Considering
Will the erosion in the rights of women and minorities under a Shi’ite government in Baghdad mark the triumph of American-style democracy? Will Christians and women who are not shrouded in black be able to walk into the town square in Najaf, Karbala, and Sadr City and express their views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm?
And what would be the results of the “town square test” if it were applied in U.S.-occupied Fallujah or Israel-occupied Nablus? Indeed, when one considers that Mr. Sharansky has been one of the most right-wing Israeli politicians he describes the West Bank and Gaza Strip as being “disputed” rather than “occupied,” admires the Jewish settlers, and even accused Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of being too soft on the Palestinians the notion of “moral clarity” espoused by Mr. Sharansky (and Mr. Bush) doesn’t sound very convincing.
American commentator Pat Buchanan had it right when he confronted Mr. Sharansky on a NBC television news show: “If you believe in democracy that much, would you allow the fate of the settlers in Gaza to be decided by all the people of Gaza? Let them vote on whether the settlers should stay or go.”
Mr. Sharansky would not agree to permit the Palestinians to make that decision, and he refuses to acknowledge that Palestinians too want freedom from foreign rule, and recognition of Palestinian nationalism as legitimate. For the Israeli ideologue, the notion of making the Middle East and the West Bank safe for democracy under American leadership is self-serving.
It is an attempt to draw the U.S. into a never-ending war against the Arab world in a way that would serve the interests of Mr. Sharansky’s ultra-nationalist vision of a Greater Israel ruling over the Palestinians until they are ready for democracy.
Is President Bush, who summoned Mr. Sharansky to the White House nine days after his reelection victory, buying into the Israeli politician’s doublespeak? Many of the neocons in Washington certainly do and insist that Mr. Sharansky’s book provides a coherent summary of the global vision of the White House. And they are not going to permit any little unsettling detail to slow the momentum toward the revolution.
Reprinted from the Singapore Business Times, reprinted with author’s permission. Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd.