David Keyes 58.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois knew that Egyptian intelligence agents were likely
monitoring our phone call with blogger Kareem Amer, which took place shortly
after his release from military prison last month after serving four years for
criticizing then-president Hosni Mubarak. “To anyone listening to this line,”
Kirk said, “Kareem Amer is extremely influential in the United States
What was a powerful US senator doing on a conference call in the
middle of the night with a young Arab blogger? And why was he touting Amer’s
influence in Congress? Much of diplomacy takes place at the level of
high-ranking government officials.
Kirk was practicing a different
approach – one that prioritizes individual dissidents and works to embolden
freedom fighters in closed societies.
This approach is attracting renewed
attention now that Egypt’s and Tunisia’s dictators fell in a single month and
Libya’s tyrant is teetering.
The senator has made the freedom and
well-being of one young Internet activist his own foreign policy
Shortly after Amer was imprisoned, Kirk (a Republican)
personally called to check on his status, and asked my organization, which
supports online pro-democracy dissidents, to notify him if there were any
SOME WOULD call focusing on a single dissident a diversion that
relegates more important foreign policy objectives to the back burner. That is
exactly what one senior White House official told Avital Sharansky when she
tirelessly campaigned for her husband (and my former boss) Natan Sharansky’s
release from the Soviet gulag in the 1980s.
The official pointed to a map
of the world and reviewed the multitude of disputes between the Soviet Union and
the US. “Do you really believe that we can subordinate all these issues to the
question of your husband’s release?” he asked Avital.
“What you don’t
understand,” she responded, “is that only when my husband is released from
prison will you be able to resolve these issues.”
Kirk is taking a lesson
from Avital Sharansky. Washington is grappling with a host of important issues
in the Middle East, among them economic treaties, oil shipments, weapons and
war. They may seem much grander than the fate of a single young
But it is precisely the ideology which imprisons students and
bloggers that prevents authoritarian governments from advancing toward true
peace and prosperity.
LAST MONTH, I traveled to Washington with Natan
Sharansky, now a citizen of Israel and its former deputy prime minister, to meet
with US policy-makers to stress the importance of supporting freedom and
publicizing dissidents’ names. In the 1980s, such efforts literally saved
Sharansky’s life, at least according to former Soviet leader Mikhail
In 1997, Gorbachev was honored at a dinner in New York along
with Irwin Cotler, who served as Sharansky’s lawyer and later became Canada’s
minister of justice. Cotler told me he pulled Gorbachev aside and asked a
question that had been vexing him for years: Why did Gorbachev actually decide
to release Sharansky? Speaking through a translator, Gorbachev replied: “I never
knew anything about Sharansky. I never even knew the name. I came to Canada when
the minister of agriculture and I appeared before a Canadian parliamentary
committee on agriculture, but instead of getting questions about agriculture, I
got questions about Sharansky.
I left the parliament building and saw
placards of Sharansky. Wherever I went, I was confronted by Sharansky.
I came back to the Soviet Union and I said, ‘Who is this guy Sharansky?’ I got
the files and said, ‘Well, he might have been a troublemaker, but he isn’t a
criminal. So we ordered his release.’” Much lip service is paid today to the
cause of dissidents, but the realist strain in American foreign policy still
runs deep. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently announced an additional
$25 million to support Internet freedom. This is a welcome move, but it pales in
comparison to, for instance, the $60 billion in arms recently sold to protect
the theocratic dictatorship of Saudi Arabia – a government that blocks hundreds
of thousands of websites and prohibits women from leaving their homes without
the permission of a male guardian.
Policies that downplay the importance
of human liberty may seem necessary in the near-term, but they are ultimately
The great Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov said it
best: “In the end, the moral choice turns out to be also the most pragmatic
Prioritizing dissidents over dictators remains the most moral
and pragmatic choice.The writer is executive director of Advancing Human
Rights and cofounder of
firstname.lastname@example.org This article
first appeared in The Daily (www.thedaily.com)