Until his arrest in October 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch and oil
executive, was the richest man in Russia. He might have still been the richest
man in Russia today if he hadn’t started thinking about politics, and objecting
to the fact that under President Vladimir Putin, Russia had abandoned all
prospects for democracy.
With his billions, Khodorkovsky had the means to
finance a challenge to Putin’s authoritarian rule. His arrest in 2003 and his
10-year imprisonment was ordered and orchestrated by Putin as a means of
silencing and destroying the former KGB officer’s only potent challenger for
After 10 years behind bars, Khodorkovsky was suddenly released
from prison last Friday, immediately after Putin issued him a presidential
He held a press conference in Berlin the next day. There he
showed that prison had changed his political thinking.
Whereas in 2003,
Khodorkovsky thought it was possible to transform Russia into a democracy by
simply winning an election, after 10 years behind bars, he recognizes that
elections are not enough.
“The Russian problem is not just the president
as a person,” he explained. “The problem is that our citizens in the large
majority don’t understand that their fate, they have to be responsible for it
themselves. They are so happy to delegate it to, say, Vladimir Vladimirovich
Putin and then they will entrust it to somebody else.”
In other words,
until the Russian people come to the conclusion that they want liberty, no one
can give it to them. They will just replace one dictator with another one. In
his words, “If you have a ‘most important person’ in the opposition… you will
get another Putin.”
So whereas George Washington was seen as the first
among equals, an opposition leader who would succeed Putin, would be more like
Robespierre in post-revolutionary France.
Khodorkovsky’s remarks show
that you can’t instantly import democracy from abroad. The US defeated the
Soviet Union in the Cold War. But the Soviet defeat didn’t make the Russians
liberal democrats. Until the seeds of democracy are planted in a nation’s hearts
and minds, the overthrow of its overlord will make little difference to the
aspirations of the people.
Over the past two months, in neighboring
Ukraine, we have seen the flipside of Khodorkovsky’s warning. There, hundreds of
thousands of Ukrainians have been braving the winter cold to protest President
Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to ignore the public’s desire to associate with the
European Union, rather than with Russia. As the protesters have made clear, they
view a closer association with the EU as a means of securing Ukrainian
independence from Russia.
For the past two months, Yanukovych has been
alternatively assaulting and ignoring the masses rallying in Kiev’s Independence
And last week he signed a deal with Russia that paves the way for
Ukraine’s incorporation into Russia’s custom’s union, and its effective
subordination to the Kremlin.
At this point, the opposition and
Yanukovych are deadlocked. According to National Review’s Askold Krushelnyck,
the protesters are trying to break the deadlock by turning to the US and the EU
No, they are not asking for military support.
gathered information about financial crimes carried out by Yanukovych, his
relatives and cronies. And they are asking the US and the EU to take legal
action against them in accordance with their domestic statutes. They translated
their information into English and posted it on a website (yanukovich.info), and
ask that Western governments freeze their accounts and stop providing financial
services to their shell companies.
What Ukraine’s protesters’ actions
show is that they understand that when you are dealing with an authoritarian
regime – particularly one supported by Putin’s authoritarian regime – it is not
enough for a nation to seek democracy and independence. Outside help is also
So far, however, aside from throwing out a few angry
condemnations of Yanukovych’s assaults on the protesters, neither the US nor the
EU has done anything to indicate that it cares whether or not the Ukrainians
live freely or under the Russian jackboot.
Russia, on the other hand, has
been actively promoting its interests. And as a result, just as American
passivity in the face of Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009 empowered the regime to
pound the Iranian people into submission, so today, American and European
passivity in the Ukraine is tantamount to support for Putin.
The same of
course is the case in Iraq, where between 2003 and 2012, 4,500 US troops paid
the ultimate price to bring freedom to the Iraqi people.
On Christmas Day
this week, 38 Christians were massacred in two separate bombings in Baghdad.
Their deaths are just the latest in a nearly uninterrupted record of persecution
and massacre of Iraq’s Christian minority since the US overthrew Saddam
Hussein’s regime in 2003. At the time of the US-led invasion, there were some
1.4 million Christians in Iraq. Today only 500,000 remain. The rest have fled
the country to avoid the fate of the Christmas worshipers on
The Christians are of course not the only ones targeted in
Iraq. Since President Barack Obama pulled all US forces out of Iraq in what he
claimed was a “responsible end” of the war, Iraq has descended into sectarian
Al-Qaida forces are resurgent. According to the State Department
they are gaining control over territory in western Iraq as well as on the Syrian
side of the border.
Since the beginning of 2013, 8,000 Iraqis have been
killed. Seven thousand of them were civilians.
Iraq is an example of a
country that lacks both preconditions for democracy. From the perspective of
outside support, under Obama the US is unwilling to take the basic steps
necessary to prevent al-Qaida from taking over Iraqi territory.
month, the White House rushed some primitive drones and missiles to the Iraqi
government to fight al-Qaida. But in an interview with The New York Times,
Michael Knights, an expert on Iraqi security issues from the Washington
Institute for Near East Policy, explained that the US assistance is grossly
At a minimum, he advised, the US needs to begin carrying
out Predator drone attacks against al-Qaida forces in Iraq – and in Syria – in
the same manner it carries out such attacks against al-Qaida throughout the
region. As Knights explained, “There is one place in the world where al-Qaida
can run a major affiliate without fear of a US drone or air attack, and that is
in Iraq and Syria.”
US forces fought a ferocious, complex and protracted
battle against al-Qaida and its Shi’ite counterparts in Iraq for nearly a
decade. But during that same period, the US government spent scant resources
cultivating Iraqis who seek to build a working, liberal democracy. While Iran
lavished resources on its allies, and established more than a hundred newspapers
to propagate Tehran’s message to the Shi’ites of Iraq, the US insisted that it
didn’t have the “right” to interfere in Iraqi politics. So while Shi’ite
chauvinists in bed with Tehran’s mullahs were showered with aid, democratic
liberals received no US support.
And yet, for the first six years of the
US deployment in Iraq, just the presence of US forces deployed in strength
countrywide was enough to keep the worst sectarian passions at bay.
and Shi’ite politicians worked together, if unwillingly. They even began
learning to art of political compromise – otherwise known as
All of that began to unravel, however, with Obama’s rise
to power. Obama’s promise to withdraw US forces from Iraq meant that the US
would soon cease to serve as Iraq’s power broker.
And so, in the final
year of the US deployment in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki repositioned
himself as an enemy of the US’s military presence in Iraq. He refused to sign a
status of forces agreement with the US. And at the end of 2011, just ahead of
the US withdrawal, Maliki forced Iraq’s Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi to
flee to Kurdistan ahead of an arrest warrant issued by the Maliki-controlled
The situation in Iraq, and in Ukraine – as well as in
Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and beyond – makes clear that Obama has
killed America’s freedom agenda. And that isn’t all.
Obama doesn’t simply
neglect democratic forces in favor of authoritarian regimes. In country after
country, under his leadership the US sides with anti-American forces of
authoritarianism against pro-American forces, whether they are liberals or
Many Americans, who rightly rue Obama’s betrayal of
America’s allies, wish to see a reinstatement of George W. Bush’s freedom
For them, Khodorkovsky’s message must serve as a warning. Bush
called the battle in Iraq “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” He called the battle in
Afghanistan “Operation Enduring Freedom.”
But what the resurgence of
al-Qaida in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan make clear is that true
promotion of freedom cannot be a simple slogan. A yearning for freedom cannot be
imported to an indifferent or hostile society.
Khodorkovsky concluded his
remarks with what he considered the most important lesson he learned during his
“The main lesson that I have drawn [is]: Don’t
push your fellow citizens – be they opponents, or in power, or in the opposition
– into a corner.
No matter what, you have to live in the same country.
Tolerance, full stop.”
Supporting the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009,
and the protesters in Kiev today would have been no-brainers if the Obama
administration had the slightest inclination to cultivate US allies and the
cause of freedom more generally.
Both the Iranian democracy activists
then and the Ukrainian protesters today demonstrated through their actions that
they do not seek the mere overthrow of unrepresentative, repressive governments.
They seek freedom, and are willing to work for it. All the Iranians needed then,
and all the Ukrainians ask for today, is assistance from foreign powers, just as
George Washington’s Continental Army required French assistance to defeat the
While those are easy cases to understand, the lesson of
Putin’s Russia and of post-Saddam Iraq is that freedom doesn’t sprout from thin
air. The only way to plant democracy in nations unfamiliar with the habits of
liberty is to cultivate them, relentlessly and unapologetically, over
If you want partners in freedom in countries where neither partners
nor freedom is easily found, you have to help people who want both.
have to train them, and finance them, and help them to become significant
Otherwise, at best you will do nothing more than
replace a dictator with a dictator, and at worst, you will empower your worst
enemies, as is arguably now happening in Afghanistan and