February 18, 2003


SAKHAROV'S ADVICE (Michael Barone, 2/24/03, US News)
As this is written, it is not known whether another U.N. resolution against Iraq--the 18th, as Donald Rumsfeld points out, not the second--will be proposed and approved. And it is not known what the course of action will be. But it is already time to talk about what comes next. Guidance comes from two of the authentic heroes of our times, the Soviet dissidents Andrei Sakharov, who died in December 1989, and Natan Sharansky, who is now deputy prime mini-ster of Israel. In the early 1970s, Sakharov and Sharansky opposed U.S. detente with the Soviet Union, and today Sharansky recalls Sakharov's advice to American policymakers: "Do not trust governments more than governments trust their own people." Woodrow Wilson sought to make the world safe for democracy through instrumentalities of international law. Democracy was imperiled when those instrumentalities failed. Sharansky and Sakharov teach that the world can be made safe for democracy only by more democracy. Safety is possible only when people are free.

Sakharov lived long enough to see this lesson partially proved. Sharansky describes what was happening in Russia in the 1980s and early 1990s: "Themoment you give people a little bit of freedom, they want it all; the moment the virus of freedom is set loose, there is no way back. The soldier with his gun was tired." America and Russia have been at peace since 1991. Sharansky saw what happened when Israel rejected this lesson in 1993 when it sought peace with Yasser Arafat in Oslo. Yitzhak Rabin argued then that Arafat could be trusted to suppress terrorism because he would not be constrained by a "Supreme Court, human-rights organizations, and free press." But Arafat is a dictator and, as Sharansky argues, a dictator's "primary goal, and greatest headache, is how to keep the people under control. To do so, he always needs an enemy, against whom he can constantly mobilize his people." Arafat, given the choice of 98 percent of his goals or terrorism, chose terrorism.

The leaders of the states sponsoring terrorism in the Middle East give practical and ideological support to terrorists--Saddam Hussein, the Iranian mullahs, and Syria's Bashar Assad openly, the Saudis covertly--because they are dictators desperate to control their people.

WAITING FOR WAR IN DAMASCUS: Syria has been opening up. A war will shut it down. (Helena Cobban, Boston Review)
The stasis in the country’s governmental bodies has been remarkable. Many of the ministers who were in office when I used to travel to Syria in the late 1970s were still sitting in (more or less) the same dusty offices two decades later. Predictable merit-based policies for hiring, training, and promoting civil servants; standard operating procedures across the board; the maintenance of efficient internal archives—all the mundane features of an organization that enable it to perform well and generate effective replacement leadership have been notably missing from Syria’s ministries. And so, according to my Syrian acquaintances, many of the attempts that Asad fils started to make to bring in new faces ended up failing rather badly. It often proved impossible to find anyone with the knowledge base needed to take over. The older-generation folks whom the president sought to replace were not always eager to share their own knowledge of their work with their successors, and in many ministries the institutional archives simply don’t exist.

For a while, however, the new president seemed to be trying to open up the political system. In November 2000, just five months after his inauguration, he gave presidential amnesty to some six hundred political prisoners, some of whom had been in jail for decades. In January 2001 he announced that the emergency law that had been in force for nearly forty years had been “frozen”—though it was not rescinded completely.

Throughout the following half-year the country experienced a phenomenon that has been described by some as a “Damascus spring.” But the intended reference to the “Prague spring” of 1968 is overdrawn. In 2001 Damascus witnessed nothing of an intensity comparable to the remarkable flowering (and subsequent crushing) of prodemocratic forces that Prague saw in 1968. In early 2001 a number of prodemocracy intellectuals, including two parliamentarians, started to quietly host small gatherings inside their homes to discuss ideas for building a democratic movement. They sketched the outlines of what some prodemocracy organizations might look like. Independent parliamentarian Riad al-Seif reportedly was planning to start a political party called the Movement for Social Peace. Economist Arif Dalila helped to found a network called Committees for the Revival of Civil Society. Lawyer Habib Issa and physician Walid al-Bunni helped found the Human Rights Association of Syria. . . . That was about it. Heady stuff in a country where projects like these had not been attempted for more than forty years, but not earth-shattering.

For some months, the regime stepped back and let the discussions continue, though everyone assumed the Mukhabarat knew more or less what was going on. A complex cat-and-mouse game ensued, especially in cyberspace. In an irony of history, expanding Internet access for Syrians had long been one of Bashar al-Asad’s personal campaigns; by 2001 the country had two state-sanctioned Internet service providers that served some tens of thousands of Syrians at a base cost of around $10 per month. The democracy advocates set up their own websites; when the government managed to block them, they would switch to proxy servers.

In early August 2001 one of the prodemocracy parliamentarians, Mamoun al-Homsi, apparently crossed a significant red line. The state authorities charge that on August 7 he began a hunger strike in support of his prodemocracy demands. Two days later he was arrested. He was charged with trying to change the constitution by illegal means, harming national unity, and defaming the state—and also with owing around $1 million in back taxes. In September nine more prodemocracy activists were arrested, including those named above. At the end of the month Asad issued a decree that further tightened existing restrictions on the press. Among its provisions were a ban on publishing “details of secret trials” (such as the ones the ten activists were undergoing) and a ban on anyone owning periodicals who was not a “Syrian Arab.” [...]

One key sign that the regime has not considered itself to be in mortal danger has been its relatively relaxed reaction to the manifestations of popular discontent that continued to occur even after the arrests of late 2001. There have reportedly been some tens of such protests, most of them apparently spontaneous or nearly so. Most of them concerned the Palestinian question, an issue on which, admittedly, the strong popular sentiment runs in the same direction as official rhetoric. But on some occasions demonstrators challenged the regime. For example, one friend said that fall 2002 saw a couple of demonstrations in Damascus protesting zoning laws that mandated demolition of a number of homes to make way for new highways. One of those demonstrations, my friend said, had been quite spirited, and the conflict was resolved only after several days of open confrontation between the government and protestors. [...]

In Syria, as in all the other countries of the Middle East, there is considerable popular and governmental apprehension about the possibly calamitous knock-on effects of an American strike against Iraq. But one outcome that no one in or near the government seems to fear, and that none of the people I met during my recent visit to Damascus even judged worth mentioning, was the prospect that such a war might provoke a democratic opening in Syria. The major political reaction in Arab societies to attempts by outsiders to impose their will by force is to resist those attempts and to breathe new life into the tired old arguments that repressive regimes use about the overriding importance of “national unity” and “national security.” Democracy will certainly come to Syria someday, through persistent, careful, and sometimes dangerous organizing work by the country’s own homegrown
democratizers. Democracy will come in spite of American military posturing and military adventures in the region, not because of them.

Some of us are old enough to recall the eagerness with which the Left continually proclaimed that the peoples behind the Iron Curtain actually liked being communist, as evidenced by the way they'd turn out to protest various American actions. Of course as soon as Soviet control of Eastern Europe crumbled the same folks who'd been protesting sought out Western media to tell them that they'd been forced to participate in anti-Western demonstrations.

Ms Cobban apparently believes that the Assad regime is relatively popular, as evidenced by how few protesters there are in the streets. And, in what we'll charitably describe as a moment of mild myopia, she makes much of the fact that repression of the nascent pro-democracy movement lightened in late 2001. It might have been worthwhile for her to note that this coincided with George W. Bush's announcement of an Axis of Evil and that Mr. Assad may have preferred not to be added to it. It also seems a bit dubious for her to have put so much weight on a few--how does she put it?-- apparently nearly spontaneous protests calling for the regime to be more pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel. One might equally well have lauded Hitler for not cracking down on anti-Semitic demonstrations. Does she really not recognize that scapegoating is an age-old tool of dictatorial regimes?

Between columns like this and the marches this weekend--so reminiscent of those back in the Reagan era, decrying the U.S. plan to upgrade our intermediate-range missiles and demanding a nuclear freeze--it seems fair to wonder whether the Left learned anything from the final, victorious years of the Cold War.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 18, 2003 11:27 AM

Au Contraire, it most certainly does not seem "fair to wonder".

At what point has the Left learned one damn thing about the folly of most of what they believe?

Posted by: Andrew X at February 18, 2003 11:54 AM

I'm trying to be magnanimous--work with me...

Posted by: oj at February 18, 2003 12:12 PM

David Warren had an excellent column
yesterday on why the left is so forgetful: "It is human nature, only to remember the times when you were right, and so the people who are never right must be content with remembering nothing".

Posted by: Jed Roberts at February 18, 2003 1:26 PM

"it seems fair to wonder whether the Left learned anything from the final, victorious years of the Cold War. "

Many of us did. We're Republicans now.

Posted by: ralph phelan at February 19, 2003 2:21 PM

"it seems fair to wonder whether the Left learned anything from the final, victorious years of the Cold War. "

Many of us did. We're Republicans now.

Posted by: ralph phelan at February 19, 2003 2:22 PM
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