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PRAGUE - During one of the breaks in the deliberations of the Conference on Democracy and Security, which took place in Prague last week, an Iranian exile related an anecdote told by dissidents in his country: A mullah goes to wash his hands before prayer. Suddenly a raven alights and, as is typical of ravens, it snatches the soap. The mullah goes and brings more soap, and again the raven comes and snatches it. The story repeats itself, until the mullah gets angry and threatens the raven with a terrible punishment. "What can you do to me?" wonders the raven as it flies away. "A lot," replies the mullah. "I can declare your flesh halal (permissible for Muslims to eat). The hunters will do the rest."

Not all the 40 dissidents and human rights activists who attended the convention, which was organized by the Shalem Center in cooperation with the institutes of former Czech president Vaclav Havel and former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, have met mullahs, but they are all familiar with cruel regimes. In a paraphrase of Tolstoy, one could say that happy countries are all alike, but every unhappy country has its own mullahs. Among the 17 countries represented - including Russia, Egypt, Sudan and Saudi Arabia - there are so many conflicts of interest that it is hard to find the common political interest. As opposed to the heterogeneity of the dissidents themselves, the identity of the Israelis and the senior U.S. administration officials among the organizers and invitees was striking in its uniformity: They were all neoconservatives - from Natan Sharansky, the conference's initiator, to President George W. Bush, who exploited this convenient platform for personal aggrandizement before embarking on a meeting with Vladimir Putin at the G-8 summit.

From this ideological identity stems one of their other prominent traits: These are the people who still divide the world into absolute good and evil, describing themselves as representatives of absolute good. That is their weakness as well as the secret of their strength. As opposed to post-modernist relativism, they present a picture of a world in which there is in fact an orderly list of proper basic values, all of them theirs. Their sense of absolute justice is enviable, even if most of the world looks as though that list got lost in the mail en route.

In light of this, the interesting question is not why representatives of this group have appropriated to themselves the right to set norms of democratization and human rights, but rather what motivates prominent figures with entirely different worldviews to entrust personal and national problems to these of all people. A partial answer is power. For now, the power and the money are to be found mainly in the hands of this group.

The full answer can be reached through the process of elimination: The neocons draw their power to dictate criteria for democratization and human rights from the structural weakness of the United Nations, which has failed to fulfill this role. The liberal organizations dedicated to protecting human rights have failed as well. They have narrowed their role to publicizing lists that rank countries according to their meticulousness in enforcing human rights, as though they were ranking soccer teams.

Their criteria are also somewhat surprising. Even an ordinary leftist, who does not consider Israel a beacon of human rights and democracy, cannot help but ask himself what tools Amnesty International uses in order to produce a result in which Israel's total score (according to MEMRI - the Middle East Media Research Institute) is lower than that of Sudan. Faced with the complexity of a system that gives rise to such a result, it is simpler to hear Sharansky say that he advised Bush to offer Putin a large stick and a large carrot, but Bush did not listen, and instead offered a small carrot and a small stick. One could claim that size is also a relative thing, but at least it really can be measured.