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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Bush's rhetoric was characteristically lofty; as for new policy, potentially the most important piece was Bush's announcement of a directive that would be sent out by Secretary of State Rice to all U.S. embassies in unfree countries: "Seek out and meet with activists for democracy. Seek out those who demand human rights." The importance of American contact with dissidents cannot be overstated. Former Secretary of State George P. Shultz has described such contacts as one of the key elements of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Bush's directive seemed almost like a response to an appeal Richard Perle had made from the podium barely an hour before, namely, that Bush must "close the gap between what he says and believes and what the machinery of our government actually does."

It's unclear how much such gap-closing Bush can or will be able to do in his remaining time in office. There is no more time for major new initiatives; he had an opportunity to do some retooling of democracy promotion in the first year of his second term, but it came to nil. And the ritual repudiation by domestic political opponents that greets every move he makes is not going to change.

He does have one serious asset at his disposal, however. And that is the power of his own presence. When the president of the United States personally meets with and affirms those who are working for democracy and human rights against formidable odds, it matters. It makes a difference to them, as any former dissident will tell you, and their stories stand, as they did at Prague, as a living rebuke to those who would like to turn their backs on the complicated challenge of aiding reformers and checking autocrats. The denunciations that Bush's Prague remarks provoked from China and Egypt are an indication of this power of presence.

Bush devoted the concluding minutes of his Prague speech to a point-by-point rebuttal of some of the arguments critics of democracy promotion have put forward: that "stability" is a better goal, that democracy can empower radicals or lead to chaos, that the project of "ending tyranny" is unrealistic. The far more eloquent rebuttal in Prague, however, was a handshake with Rebiya Kadeer or Aleksandr Milinkevich. That may be the best thing Bush can keep doing to advance his freedom agenda in the time he has left.

Contributing editor and Hoover Institution fellow Tod Lindberg's new book, The Political Teachings of Jesus, is out this month from HC/HarperCollins.