President George W. Bush was back in Washington today, to mark the opening at his Bush Institute in Dallas of the “Freedom Collection.”

It was of course a gathering of many officials of his administration, but was far more: a reminder of how far support for what Bush used to call the “Freedom Agenda” had slipped in today’s Washington. The Bush event included a speech by the former president, but also remarks by dissidents from Syria, China, and Cuba and a live interview via Skype of Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma. Present also was Viktor Yushchenko, former president of the Ukraine and leader of its “Orange Revolution.” During his eight years Bush met personally with 180 key dissidents from 35 countries, the people whom the Bush Institute’s director James Glassman today called “the non-violent shock troops of democracy.” The support that Bush and his wife Laura, who spoke as well and who took a special interest in ending the dictatorship in Burma, gave to such dissident leaders is notably absent today.

Bush’s own speech recalled the themes of his Second Inaugural Address but updated it for the “Arab Spring.” He had three key messages. The first was that a regime can be brought down in a day, but building “durable accountable civic structures” takes years and may see many reverses. “The day when a dictator falls or yields to a democratic movement is glorious,” Bush noted, but “the years of transition that follow can be difficult.” Nevertheless, he argued, the alternative of ignoring the desire for freedom in the name of stability is a grave error:“[T]his foreign policy approach is not realistic…. Nor is it within the power of America to indefinitely preserve the old order, which is inherently unstable.

Second, Bush paid tribute to the leaders who sacrificed so much to lead the struggle for freedom, whose victory at any given moment was not, he said, a “historical inevitability.” “The outcome of a freedom revolution is determined by human choices and the creation of durable democratic traditions,” Bush said.“In every nation, a few eyes open first. It is dissidents who see the shabby reality of oppression and refuse to live any longer with lies and humiliation. They show defiance and courage and stubbornness. But above all, they have a genius for hope. Vaclav Havel said that politics is not the art of the possible. It is the art of imagining the impossible – and then making it happen. From Havel, to Mandela, to Aung San Suu Kyi, dissidents have practiced the art of the impossible.”

Finally, Bush argued strongly for American support of these struggles for freedom. “America does not get to choose if a freedom revolution should begin or end in the Middle East, or elsewhere. It only gets to choose what side it is on. … But America’s message should ring clear and strong: We stand for freedom – and for the institutions and habits that make freedom work for everyone.” He went on to say, “This work will require patience, creativity, and active American leadership.”

The Bush Institute, co-located with the Bush Presidential Library now under construction at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, focuses on several themes in addition to human freedom: educational reform, economic growth, and global health (a reminder of the work Bush did against AIDS and malaria in Africa). The “Freedom Collection” has opened now, with 60 interviews of the likes of Havel, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, and Wei Jinsheng of China discussing their own stories, and artifacts like the Cuban dissident Oscar Elias Biscet’s Medal of Freedom (which he has said should never enter Cuba until the country is free). The goal is to archive these freedom struggles and help both Americans and dissidents everywhere learn from them.

Bush began his remarks today by saluting the freedom fighters: “We honor your sacrifice. We celebrate your courage. And we will support your struggle for as long as it takes,” he said. Obviously he and Mrs. Bush meant it. His visit was a reminder that “active American leadership” of this cause is critical, and of how much it is missed.

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