In January 2005, George W. Bush delivered what will surely go down as one of the most ambitious inaugural addresses in presidential history. He pledged the United States to "the ultimate goal of ending tyranny" in the world through the promotion of "democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture." In other words, he proposed the eradication of the most consistently recurring character in politics since its misty origins in prehistory, the dictator or ruler or strongman.
No small number of people thought this was perfectly crazy at the time. But what is perhaps more startling is how many people thought what Bush had to say was an aspiration worthy of a nation founded to vindicate the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Moreover, some, including me, went farther, viewing Bush's project favorably not just as the latest articulation of the longstanding American declaratory obsession with saving the world by example and deed, but as a plausible one in terms of policy, especially given the less-remarked sentence two paragraphs later, in which Bush described the task he set out as "the concentrated work of generations."
But there are, of course, serious questions here: What is a policy dedicated to "ending tyranny" supposed to look like? For that matter, is the best way to end tyranny really to promote "democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture," and, if so, how and on what timetable? And what about those pesky tyrants who have something of use to the United States, such as oil or information, or something the United States might fear, such as nuclear weapons? Do they get a pass, and, if so, for how long? And if years turn into decades and then generations, isn't such a policy more properly described as one of accommodation of tyrants when necessary?
And of course, now we have the problem of Iraq, a war that began for security reasons, turned into an attempt to create a democracy, and now seems primarily intended to avert civil war, genocide, or the triumph of a religiously inspired terrorist ideology. Kanan Makiya, a proponent of the war and once of the proposition that Iraq was ripe for democracy, described the pass we have reached at a gathering last week in Prague of current and former dissident promoters of liberalism and democracy from all over the world: Iraq, he said, is the "sword of Damocles" hanging over democracy promotion.
In the context of domestic politics, the Democratic rank and file, once sympathetic to such concerns as human rights and opposition to authoritarian governments, has now largely flipped, rededicating itself to the proposition of leaving well enough alone. When I told a fellow soccer dad, a smart, witty, and politically attuned Washington lawyer and unabashed partisan Democrat, that I was going to miss the team party because I was off to Prague for a conference on democracy promotion to which, ahem, Bush was going, he noted ruefully, "Sure, there are plenty more places we can screw up in the name of democracy."
Republicans probably ought to take a moment to ask themselves what they would think about Iraq if Bill Clinton had decided to go to war there in 1998, which he nearly did, and run into the same problems we now have. Republicans, after all, arrived late to the nation-building party, for which the George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice of campaign 2000 openly expressed something close to contempt. And if, as things were going from bad to worse in Iraq, Clinton had given a speech sounding the theme of the Bush second inaugural, it's hard to imagine the GOP response wouldn't have been to declare him a dangerous Wilsonian lunatic.
As matters stand, even for those who sympathize with the Bush vision, there's one more problem, and it is not small: What exactly has Bush done since January 2005 to "promote democratic movements and institutions," let alone "in every nation and culture"? Where is tyranny now on the run as a result of new U.S. pressure? China hasn't budged except to redouble its engagement with dictatorial regimes abroad in defense of the claim that a country's form of government is nobody's business but those who run it. Russia's Vladimir Putin has become increasingly authoritarian, bombastically so.
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.
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.