An interview with Natan Saransky

David Gregory: Nine days after the presidential election you were in Washington, invited to the White House to meet the president to talk about your book. What did you talk about?

Natan Sharansky: We talked about the book of ideas, that freedom is for everybody, that all the people in the world deserve and want to live in freedom, and that… has a very important role to play by encouraging, supporting freedom, by speaking straight to the dissidents.

And I was very impressed by the determination of the president who said, "Now, I have a very strong mandate" - it was just some days after the victory, he was rather happy with it. He said, "And I'm going to the world the next four years exactly to do this, to promote security through freedom and democracy."

And then he said, "Okay, it's very interesting theory which I read in your book, but how then you apply?" He started mentioning different parts of the world, how we apply it. That was the discussion.

Gregory: Did he want your advice?

Sharansky: Uh, I think he wanted to hear my opinion. I think maybe sometimes he feels himself rather lonely in following his convictions and his ideas, and I think it was important for him to find out that he's not the only dissident in this world.

Gregory: You call him a dissident in the book?

Sharansky: No, at the end of the conversation I told him, "Mr. President, now I see that you are a very well dissident because politicians look at the polls and they behave in small ways in accordance to the polls."

Dissidents are loyal to the idea and go ahead whatever happens. So I see, I'm very happy to see your determination and conviction, but I want to warn you that dissidents, we're often alone, and sometimes it's very difficult to be alone." But then he said he's on their side.

Gregory: President Bush has been called a lot of things. I don't think "dissident" is one of them.

Sharansky: Well, for me it was an important compliment. I don't share it with many people, and they think also you did as a compliment.

Gregory: Your own reaction when you found out here are ideas that you believed for so long, and now the President of the United States wants to have you to the White House to talk about them. How does that feel?

Sharansky: Well, when I was saying to him that, "You will be alone, but history will be on your side." That's my feeling that I had at that moment, because really it was very upsetting on such an obvious and clear idea which really has to unite the free world, those who are for human rights and those who are for security, they get it. Both things are inseparable from the idea of free society, it's so obvious for me. But both from the left and the right, I was constantly called a very naive somebody who's not connected to reality.

And I, with my co-author, Ron Derme,r wrote this book. In fact, we decided that if the articles or speeches don't help, maybe with the help of the book we can encourage debate in academic circles and think tanks, that even for politicians it will be impossible to avoid it. What you didn't expect, of course, was that we start with a politician, the President of the United States of America. And now we have to figure out how to go down from president to academy and to think tanks.

Gregory: You've spent so much of your life struggling to get your voice heard, and now it's being heard in such a big way, do you feel vindicated in some way?

Sharansky: Yes. When I was listening to the inaugural speech of the president, I was thinking of two things. First of all, what a pity that my teacher, Andrei Sakharov, didn't live to hear this speech because it was his words which I heard in the speech of President Bush. And the second thing, how important that the speech is heard at this moment by dissidents all over the world.

I remember how important for us were the speeches which were coming from the leaders of the free world, like President Reagan, what an encouragement for us to see that the leaders of the free world are supporting us, that see us as their allies, and they believe this - to hear, to see how your book helps President Bush to strengthen his message and to deliver it to dissidents all over the world was very satisfying.

Gregory: You talk about the inaugural address. Let's look at just one portion of what the President said and get your reaction to it.

[Videotape from Jan. 20, 2005: President Bush says: “We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery.”]

Gregory: In effect, your words.

Sharansky: Yes. I remember when he said these words in the speech. I said, "Oh, my God." It was working so long for looking for the right words, you know, to hear them now, they're coming to you back in such a powerful way.

Gregory: Do you think you've given voice to the president's foreign policy?

Sharansky: I think that the president has some convictions as his... to believe that freedom is for everybody and that the free world has an important role to play. And then he found a very, I would say, powerful maybe summary of these views, and the expression of these views which he liked and he used it.

Gregory: Who is the president talking to in his inaugural address?

Sharansky: Well, definitely he was speaking there first of all to American people, I expect, and to allies all over the world. But for me, he was speaking first of all to the dissidents of this world, to the people behind the mask, to the people who are living in fear societies and who want to change things. They need encouragement. They need to feel that they are not alone in this world. And it is extremely important that the president spoke to them and brought this message.

Gregory: Was he encouraging inciting revolution in some way in countries like Iran?

Sharansky: Definitely he was encouraging people who want to bring change that way. And sometimes I hear, 'but can we impose democracy on other countries?' Nobody can impose democracy. You can only impose dictatorship by supporting dictators. And he made it very clear in his speech the time when we were supporting dictators to bring peace and stability to this world is behind us. We are supporting those who want to live in freedom.

Gregory: What are some concrete steps that the president could take to prove to you that he's serious when he says he wants to end tyranny around the world?

Sharansky: Well, I think that's all the principle, it's important to establish the principle that the dictatorial regime is over. He said lasting tyrannists cannot be our allies.

But then you are trying to apply it to practical purpose of every country, and they would see, would like to see, that whether we are talking about Iran, or whether we're talking about Pakistan, in each of these countries there develops a kind of linkage between practical steps, whether we are talking about support for these countries as allies, financial support, other types of support, cooperation, or whether it is more aggressive measures that we are talking about, but there is a clear linkage between the policy of United States and the question of human rights.

Gregory: Do you think the president's serious about doing this?

Sharansky: I hope he is. I have no doubts - I have no reason to doubt about it. At least he was very serious in conversation with me in the last month, in the number of his statements, approaches, negotiations, high-level meetings. He proves that he is serious.

Of course, we must see it in reality, but if you look on Iraq, if you look at the elections in Iraq, how many Americans would go to the polling stations knowing they can be killed? Doesn't mean that Iraq people love freedom more, of course not, but it means that the Iraq people who know what is fear society, oppression, to move from fear society to free society, and President Bush definitely is encouraging them to do it.

We saw it in Ukraine. It's important that hundreds of thousands of people are ready to stand in the streets and to say we don't want to live in fear society. But the fact that the free world admittedly supported them is extremely important.

Gregory: You praise the president's words. You say he's serious. Yet in the book you accuse him of in effect turning his back on the ideals that he espoused in the inaugural address when it came to pushing democracy in the Palestinian territory.

Sharansky: Well, I am critical of the policy of United States when it is not consistent. President Bush made a great speech, historical speech, in June 2002 about the need for democratic changes in the Palestinian Authority. But then somehow he permitted others, who probably had less trust in democratic changes in Palestinian Authority, to prepare a plan where all these democratic changes were pushed aside and were not linked at the absolute and necessary condition for future peace process.

So, yes, I am true to the idea, I'm not true to specific one or another.

Gregory: But does it disappoint you that in that instance where it really mattered to you and others that the president in your view was not true to that ideal?

Sharansky: No. I think I was concerned with the fact that when the president presented the idea, he didn't have enough support from different institutions and people around him to follow this idea exactly. And the only problem that we are still in the very beginning of the process. And one of the ideas, the importance of this book is to - in the very beginning of the process, that not only it's important to present the idea, it's very important to be firm in promoting it and going ahead and using all the institutions, all the instruments which the United States has to support this idea.

Gregory: You've described being a dissident as a lonely existence. With the president talking really the same way you are, do you feel less lonely?

Sharansky: Of course. In the Middle East, for example, I am saying that I am cautiously optimistic. And I would say frankly that maybe the only reason for optimism is not another summit, because after all there are many summits, and summits by themselves are not bringing change. The reason for optimism is there is a leader of the free world who believes that the way, the path to peace and stability should be paved with freedom, with democratic reforms. That's what gives hope, and, yes, I feel myself now less lonely.

Gregory: Let's talk about advice. What should the president do about Iran?

Sharansky: Iran is a perfect example how in one generation the country of true believers - I'm using the terms of our book - turns into the country of double thinkers, when almost everybody believes in their official ideology and in one generation almost nobody believes this ideology.

Iran today reminds me very much of the Soviet Union's worst years, when the leaders hated America, the leaders were speaking against freedom of the western world, but all the people double thinkers, silent majority. They loved freedom, loved the west, loved America, admired America. And that's I believe the situation in Iran.

That's why on one hand we are short of time, we are running out of time. In another year or two this regime can have a weapon of mass destruction, and they don't make a secret that they will use it. On the other hand, the situation's ripe and the free world, the President of the United States of America and the other leaders have to support openly, demonstratively, directly, the dissidents who want change.

There are now many dissident groups who are calling for referendum. The leaders of the free world have to support this cause, have to link it to their policies of Iran.

Gregory: What about our friends in the Middle East, Egypt, Saudi Arabia? What should the president do?

Sharansky: Well, Saudi Arabia I think is one of the sad examples how this principle of linkage between democracy and international relations was absolutely abandoned. I was asking many of the leaders of the United States of America, after 1981, after the Gulf War, why is Saudi Arabia safe? It didn't make any linkage to human rights. Why didn't the U.S. demand something, even minimal, in changing of the law, of improvement of the rights for women? And always... Saudi Arabia is not about democracy. Saudi Arabia is about our stability, stability of the free world.

Think. Ten years later we all saw what kind of stability is coming from Saudi Arabia. These tribal dictators of Saudi Arabia, for their own survival, need an enemy. For their own survival of dictators, they need to support Wahabbiism, and it means that they were giving ideological and financial support to terror all over the world. Their stability meant terror in the free world.

That's why today Saudi Arabians are an important ally, but the United States of America must start making very clear the linkage between relations of Saudi Arabia, between their systems, support of all types, and step by step changing the equation of human rights.

Like in the case of Soviet Union, start with the immigration, move to the rights of opposition to come to Saudi Arabia, to visit Saudi Arabia. Move to the rights of someone who wants to open opposition press to do it. And step by step, very quickly, these changes will be encouraged, because after all, more and more people in Saudi Arabia are becoming double thinkers. More and more people want change.

If you think they all are loyal citizens, look what is happening on the airplane which is flying to London. People already in the airplane are changing their behavior, changing their clothes, start speaking differently. That shows that they really want this change.

Gregory: How does it make sense for the security of America or the security of Israel to encourage regime change in Saudi Arabia when the alternative could be so much worse?

Sharansky: Well, if there are democratic changes, they can never be worse. It's always better to deal with democracy which hates you than a dictator who loves you, because real democratic leadership depends on their people. Real democratic leadership has to deliver to people what they want, and that's why war will be always be the last option for democracy.

While dictators, even friendly dictators, they need enemies to keep control over their own people, and sooner or later you, free world, United States of America, can become this enemy.

Gregory: But why - look at Afghanistan. I mean, why necessarily will the will of the people — and I don't mean Hamid Karzai — but I mean, look at the Taliban. Why would the replacement of the Saudi Royal family result in a democratic government?

Sharansky: If - first of all, elections, it's not beginning of democracy, it's the end of the democratic process, meaning that only free elections in free society, they're all free institutions where people are not afraid to say publicly what kind of lives they want to have. These are really free elections.

So in this process, when people have an opportunity to choose between living in fear or living in freedom, they will choose to live in freedom and to make sure that these leaders depend on them, and that's why for these leaders, even if they will be religious fundamentalists, for these leaders, if it is a democratic way of running the country, the war will be the last option.

At the same time there are going to be changes after this. When Hitler came to power as a result of democratic elections, it's not democratic elections which have to be blamed. It's when one year after democratic elections Hitler declared that now there will be no more democracy, no more elections. That is the moment when the free world had to change their attitude to Hitler. But instead of this there was a policy of appeasement.

So it's not the policy of encouraging of democracy, but appeasement of dictators which creates problems.

Gregory: A critic said of the president's inaugural address, it was, "a recipe for endless war." Do you disagree with that?

Sharansky: Absolutely.

Gregory: Why?

Sharansky: First of all ... The free world doesn't have to fight with dictatorships. Dictatorships are very weak from inside because they are spending all their efforts to control their own people. All the free world has to do is to stop supporting dictatorships, and if nevertheless, someone would have to fight dictatorship, it's only because before you were appeasing them for such a long time that they became dangerous for you.

You had to fight with Hitler after the long period of appeasement. You had to resist Soviet Union after the long period of appeasement. You had to fight with Saddam Hussein after many years of appeasing Saddam Hussein when some leaders of the West, including United States, thought that this is in the interest of the stability of the free world to have Saddam Hussein against Iran and so on.

But if instead of this, instead of this policy of appeasement, you stop supporting dictators, then you guarantee that very quickly the people in their countries will make sure that they will move from fear societies to free societies, and that's what will bring real stability to this world.

Gregory: But it's the process of this change. If you somehow depose the Saudi royal family and then have Islamic fundamentalists democratically elected and now in control of the world's oil supply, anti-Israel, anti-American. Isn't this a perpetual cycle of conflict?

Sharansky: Yes, of course. If you simply replace or help to replace one dictator with the other - and this is more or less what you are saying - then you gain nothing.

Gregory: But it could be the will of the Saudi people.

Sharansky: Yes. Well, that's, that's where the disagreement is. I say that the will of overwhelming majority of people in every country to live differently in accordance with their tradition, in accordance with their religion, but to live without fear, without fear that you will be arrested if you say something wrong or your children say something wrong. And the moment the people make this choice between free and fear society, this society is not dangerous to you any more.

That's why I'm saying it's important, if you are encouraging democratic changes in one or another country, it's impossible that people themselves will choose one dictator - will replace one dictator with the other dictator. And fortunately you can see it is the free world which decides whether this dictator's good for us or bad for us. And if the free world, who in fact by supporting our dictator is imposing dictatorship on the people. You cannot impose freedom. You can impose only dictatorship. Freedom you can encourage and you can.

Gregory: Let me ask you about Iraq. The president sold this war to the American people saying that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. He did not in the end. And there are critics who say that talking about democracy in Iraq now is nothing but a rationalization for the war.

Sharansky: Well, I personally believe that if the president was serious to win the war against terror, the world war against terror, he had to fight regime of Saddam Hussein, because regime of Saddam Hussein was giving a lot of legitimacy, a lot of confidence, a lot of support to the world's terror. The very fact that there is a regime which can blackmail the free world for many years by using the weapon of mass destruction and not to be punished for it, was very dangerous.

We in Israel lived with it- for 10 years we didn't know whether we would be attacked or not. Saddam Hussein publicly was giving $25,000 to every family of a suicide bomber. It's not the money which is important. The very fact that here is an opportunity, here is Saddam Hussein demonstrating he's giving support to suicide bombers and got away with it.

Saddam Hussein became the source, the base for the world of terror and the source of confidence or belief that we, the terrorists of this world, can win.

So when after 9/11 President Bush decided that is not some exceptional fact of terrorism, there's a whole system of terror which is challenging the free world, that's exactly what's the situation, and he has to defeat it. He had to fight Taliban, and he had to fight Saddam Hussein.

But I would say that if there was no long period of appeasement of Saddam Hussein, it could never become such a strong and dangerous regime as it's become.

Gregory: Is Iraq a democracy today?

Sharansky: It's not a democracy, of course, because there is still a lot of fear, but it made a very important step. There is now a chance. People went to vote in such big numbers under the threat of being killed at the polling stations because they want to move from the fear society in which they lived for so many years in that nightmare, to free society. And so I am very optimistic. I believe that we are in the beginning of a very important process when the first democratic Arab nation will emerge.

Gregory: Why are you so confident that the silent majority in Iraq wants democracy and is not, say, allied with the insurgency?

Sharansky: Well, I lived in this transition from living in totalitarian regime and the constant fear and the constant self-censorship, and then moving to live in freedom. Even when you are still in totalitarian regime but with inner freedom, when you are not afraid to say what you want to say, it's such a liberating and powerful feeling.

And I am sure that all the people who went through such a nightmare as the Iraqi people, who know what is a dictatorship, what it means to be afraid every day that you or your children will be arrested.

But these people are given an opportunity to change their society, to live without fear, they would choose - of course, they will have a lot of different opinions, what kind - how - what will be the level of society, whether it will be with also the free economy or like socialist type economy, what will be relations between Sunni and Shi'a. There will be many different issues.

But like we dissidents in the Soviet Union, in one prison cell, there were Ukrainian nationalists, and Russian, and pentecostal from Siberia, and the... and they all together had very different visions of what kind of life we want to live, but we knew that we wanted to live in a society where you are not punished for your views.

And I believe that the Iraqis, who now left this big prison of Saddam Hussein, want to live in a society where people are not persecuted for their views.

Gregory: You seem to argue in your book that the United States moved too quickly to hold elections in Iraq, that after World War II it would have been a mistake to hold elections within a year of liberation.

Sharansky: It is not the end of the process, it's only the very beginning. In fact, it's beginning of transitional period, as the Iraqis themselves say, and the president declared. In a year from now there will be other elections which have to finalize more or less the constitutional form of Iraq, so together it will be like two-and-a-half years from the beginning. I just believe that two, three, four years, that's what's needed for the fear society to move to a free society, of course, if there are conditions with it.

Gregory: But then how is this going to work? I mean, again, if your argument is that you should allow a few years for a liberated country to develop the institutions of democracy before you hold elections, here they've held elections so quickly.

Sharansky: It was important to move power from American Army to the people of Iraq, and I would say in the situation, in the given situation, this might be the best way of transforming it. Is it an ideal situation? Of course not, because still there was a lot of fear. Does it mean that all the voices could be heard? Of course not. We know that there are many internal struggles still there. Does it mean that all the institutions which could guarantee the freedom and security of people are in place? Of course not.

So it was important first step, but I am sure that they will continue this direction. The next directions will be in the atmosphere which will be much more free, and the results very soon will come from the policies where Iraq people will move from fear society to free society.

Gregory: Let's talk about free society. Let's talk about the free will of the Iraqi people. If it becomes theocratic, allied with Iran, anti-American, anti-Israel, will it have been worth it in the end?

Sharansky: Well, look, you say allied with Iran. Allied with - even through the ally of Iranian dictator and not the Iranian people, because the Iranian people are already afraid with this dictatorship. It's only the hesitation of the world to see in Iran nothing more than a bunch of dictators which is what keeps them.

But so I am saying that Iraq people, even if they would like to have a real religious state and so on, the overwhelming majority of people will see the war as a last option because silent majority of people then doesn't want war, and that's why in democracy, in all types of democracy, whether it is democracy in Europe or democracy in Japan, the war is always the last option. If there is democracy they're ready to make also compromises sometimes from rational point of view in order to avoid wars.

And that will be the situation with democracy. That's why I'm saying that I prefer to deal with democracy which hates me than with dictator who loves me.

Gregory: Critics dismiss you as an idealist, and I want to read something from Leon Wieseltier, the editor of the New Republic. He said that you believe wrongly about the Palestinians, that the cause of Palestinian misery has been the absence of democracy. And he wrote the following, quote, "It is a little perverse to suggest that Palestinian opposition to Israel is based primarily on something other than Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands that Israel captured in a war of self-defense in 1967. There is also Palestinian opposition to Israel's very existence, but all the democracy in the world will not mitigate it."


Sharansky: Well, even Wieseltier himself says that Israel occupied territories in the war when it defended itself. So we became occupiers in order to defend our right to exist. Now, we don't want to be occupiers. We don't want to control the other people. But we know that it will be very dangerous for us if the terrorist state will emerge in the suburbs of Jerusalem to... in Haifa.

And that's why it is in our own interest that the state which will emerge will be not terrorist state but will be democratic state. And that's why I keep saying that the depth of our concessions should be the depth of democratic changes on the other side. It is in our - it's first of all in the interest of Palestinian people, it's in the interest of the real stability in this world.

Gregory: Yeah, but his argument is not that. His argument is that, you know, you're saying that the Palestinian people are, you know, make up a terrorist state in effect, hate Israelis because they're, you know, double thinkers, and they're being incited to think this way. He says no, they hate Israel because they're occupied, their lands are occupied and democracy's not going to change that.

Sharansky: How he knows? How he going to ask Palestinian people? He can ask Palestinian dictators because we brought - yes, we the free world, America and all the rest of the world, we brought Yasser Arafat. We said, "You'll be the voice of Palestinian people. It is good for you, I quote, that you don't have restrictions of democracy because you can fight terrorists easier than us. And we will take your voice as the voice of Palestinian people."

And I remember many debates in the government how it was told you can't keep calling Yasser Arafat corrupt dictator, because even if he's corrupt dictator, he is loved by Palestinian people. They were saying again and again, Yasser Arafat is loved by Palestinian people, as Stalin was loved by Russian people. You will see what will happen after his death.

And that's exactly what is happening. There are real sincere voices of dissidents, of Palestinian dissidents who want civil society back, who want a free middle class, who want freedom of speech, and we, by not encouraging this, by supporting dictators, are in fact turning these dissidents into our enemies.

Gregory: Final question. You fought against tyranny. You witnessed the end of communism. Do you believe the final chapters, as Reagan once said, of tyranny in the Middle East are being written now?

Sharansky: Well, I hope, but I don't know yet, and I'll tell you why. I believe that the final chapters of lasting tyranny, as in the last speech of President Bush and the quote from my book, can be written very quickly if the free world will make very clear linkage between international relations and human rights, but I don't yet see that the free world is really ready, determined to do it.

Yes, I believe that the last in tyranny in the Middle East will disappear very quickly if that will be the demand, if that will be the position of the free world. And I believe that that will be the platform on which left and right in the free world, human rights activists and security hawks have to unite their efforts. There is no human rights separated from free society. There is no security separated from free society.

Gregory: You expect to see it in your lifetime?

Sharansky: Oh, yes, for sure. I saw many things in my lifetime, beginning from the destruction of the Soviet Union.

Gregory: You may be lonely, but you're still an optimist, right?

Sharansky: Oh, yeah. I think if you look on the history of all the centuries, we have all the reasons to be optimistic.

Gregory: Mr. Sharansky, thank you for your views.

Sharansky: Thank you.