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What Do Dissidents Want?

A little support from Washington, for starters.

Feb 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 22 • By ELLEN BORK
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Perhaps no one understands this better than Vaclav Havel, the playwright and political prisoner who became the first president of post-Communist Czechoslovakia. Havel declared himself bothered “much more” by President Obama’s treatment of the Dalai Lama last year than by Washington’s reversal on stationing a missile defense system in the Czech Republic. “It is only a minor compromise,” said Havel, “but exactly with these minor compromises start the big and dangerous ones, the real problems.” 

If dissidents make the connection between strategic objectives and human rights more readily than do many people in positions of power it is because dissidents understand, from their own experience, that doing nothing when confronted with a matter of principle has consequences even if they were not intended. Dissidents suffer the costs when democratic societies compromise, and are bolstered and safer when the same societies stand up for principle, and for them.

When the United States undermines the Dalai Lama, or stays on the sidelines while Iranians try to change their government, or looks the other way as the Kremlin perverts democratic institutions, there is indeed a trade-off. But it is not the one that officials seeking strategic breakthroughs intend.

Ellen Bork is director for democracy and human rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative.

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