The Magazine

Dissident in Chief

George W. Bush meets with democrats.

Jun 18, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 38 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Venezuela's Hugo Chávez is even more egregious rhetorically, and his recent policy decrees amount to the farthest-reaching repudiation of market principles since the end of the Cold War. Chávez seems to have found a willing stooge in Bolivia's Evo Morales. In Ukraine, the sheen of the Orange Revolution is gone. Vietnam is locking up Catholic priests. The Cedar Revolution in Lebanon is tottering atop a weak state structure barely able to withstand the brutal forces of the neighborhood. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak pocketed the adulatory congratulations of a success-hungry Bush administration for deigning to allow an actual opposition candidate in his 2005 presidential "election," while making sure the opposition was too weak to mount a serious challenge.

There's more, of course. To the list of places where things are getting worse, one must append a list of places where things aren't getting any better. The buzz in the social-science literature these days is about "sustainable autocracy" and the capacity of tyrants to learn from the mistakes that brought down their predecessors.

And the Bush administration's response has been? Well, let's just say that if your declared policy is to promote "democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture," you ought to have an answer to the question of what activities you are undertaking to that end. The administration does not have such answers.

Indeed, one of the swiftest criticisms of the Bush second inaugural was that Bush didn't really mean it. By this account, the rhetoric was always empty and was intended to be. Some of the critics raising objections along these lines, for example on the Washington Post editorial page, were sincerely concerned to close the gap between high-minded principle and dubious practice in favor of more vigorous action in support of the principle. Other critics were more interested in "gotcha," the exposure of Bush hypocrisy, an accusation that conveniently allowed them to avoid saying which side they came down on.

Now, one should not underestimate the difficulty of undertaking a major transformation of U.S. foreign policy, or the internal resistance one is likely to run into. In certain respects, the Prague meeting on "Democracy and Security" seemed queued up to assist Bush in the task. It was organized by two of the most prominent and successful dissident freedom fighters the world has produced, Natan Sharansky (late of the Soviet Union, now a former Israeli parliamentarian and author of The Case for Democracy) and former Czech president Václav Havel, plus José María Aznar, prime minister of Spain from 1996 to 2004 and the guiding hand on its hugely successful economic reform.

The meeting brought together dissidents and activists from around the world, including Saad Eddin Ibrahim of Egypt (sentenced to seven years but freed by an appeals court under international pressure), Chinese Uighur advocate Rebiya Kadeer, Moscow Helsinki Group chair Ludmilla Alexeeva, Amir Abbas Fakhravar (imprisoned and tortured by the Iranian government), Belarus opposition leader Aleksandr Milinkevich, former Bolivian parliamentarian José Brechner, Palestinian democracy advocate Issam Abu Issa, and Garry Kasparov, for 20 years the world's top-ranked chess player and now a leading advocate of democracy in Russia.

This only begins the list. Then you have to add the number of people present who were active in Solidarity and Charter 77 or other opposition groups back in the day. The amount of moral courage represented at the Czech Foreign Affairs Ministry's Czernin Palace, in the very meeting room where the Warsaw Pact was dissolved, ought to give even the most cynical a moment of pause. I found myself speaking on a panel that included Iraqi women's rights advocate Zainab Al-Suwaij and Eli Khoury, one of the leaders of Lebanon's 2005 Cedar Revolution.

Bush is a well-known admirer of Sharansky and his latest book, and that apparently was the connection that got the president to stop over in Prague on his way to the G-8 meeting in Germany. The speech he gave was a variation on the theme of the second inaugural: "The most powerful weapon in the struggle against extremism is not bullets or bombs-it is the universal appeal of freedom. Freedom is the design of our Maker, and the longing of every soul. Freedom is the best way to unleash the creativity and economic potential of a nation. Freedom is the only ordering of a society that leads to justice. And human freedom is the only way to achieve human rights." He went on to say, "In the eyes of America, the democratic dissidents today are the democratic leaders of tomorrow," and referred specifically to the cases of several he was about to meet-and to a number of others stuck in jails around the world from Belarus to Vietnam.