When President Bush addresses the Conference on Democracy and Security in Prague Tuesday, his audience will comprise some of the world's most indomitable champions of democracy and freedom.
Several of them the president already knows, including Natan Sharansky, the renowned former Soviet refusenik; Vaclav Havel, the one time political prisoner and former Czech president; and Chol Hwan Kang, author of The Aquariums of Pyongyang, a memoir of his years in the North Korean gulag. Many of the others, who will be coming from Egypt, Russia, Syria, Belarus, Iraq, the Palestinian Authority, Kosovo, and Iran, Bush will be meeting for the first time.
But he has spoken to all of them before. In his second inaugural address, Bush vowed to make the promotion of freedom and democracy the mainspring of American foreign policy. "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you," he pledged.
To the unfree world's dissidents and rebels he directed particular encouragement: "Democratic reformers facing repression, prison or exile can know: America sees you for who you are -- the future leaders of your free country."
Bush's freedom agenda got off to a remarkably fast start. Iraqis by the millions voted in fair elections. Lebanon's forced an end to Syria's long military occupation. Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak agreed to face opponents on the next presidential ballot. A campaign for women's suffrage was launched in Kuwait. Saudi Arabia, for the first time, held elections for municipal officials.
The result was what many began to call an "Arab Spring" -- not without astonishment at the blossoming of democratic reform across so much of the Middle East. The Independent of London doubtless spoke for many when it asked, in a striking Page 1 headline: "Was Bush Right After All?"
Alas, what many began calling the "Arab Spring" collapsed almost as fast as it began. From the seizing of journalists in Libya to the aggrandizement of Hezbollah in Lebanon to the canceling of elections in Egypt, regimes that had begun opening doors to liberty and democratic reform slammed them shut.
And not only in the Arab world: Freedom and the rule of law retreated in such countries as Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and Russia, too. Increasingly embattled at home after Hurricane Katrina, Bush focused less on the promotion of liberty abroad. The freedom agenda ever since has been little more than a memory.
But when Bush speaks to the dissidents and democratic activists assembling in Prague this week, he has the chance to breathe new life into that agenda and recommit his administration to the pursuit of human and democratic rights. He may never have a more perfect opportunity to restate the case for moral clarity in the conduct of international relations -- and to explain why linking those relations to the advance of democracy and civil rights is a prerequisite to lasting peace and security.
For Sharansky, who is co-hosting the conference along with Havel and former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, the Prague gathering is a dream come true. During his years as a Soviet dissident and political prisoner, he was acutely aware of the lack of communication between leaders in the West and the dissidents behind the Iron Curtain. "I believed that if only we could make our case directly, the free world would be much stronger in its confrontation with the Soviet Union," Sharansky told me last week.
In the 1970s and 1980s, "realists" believed in appeasing Moscow and ignoring dissidents, whom they saw as too weak to make a difference. They didn't understand that the best way to undermine a totalitarian regime is to weaken the control it exerts over its subjects -- and the best way to do that is to amplify the voices from within calling for freedom and democracy.
President Reagan, who did understand, labeled the Soviet Union an "evil empire" and put Moscow's treatment of dissidents and refuseniks high on the international agenda. As Sharansky and co-author Ron Dermer explain in "The Case for Democracy", their 2004 best-seller, the Kremlin eventually caved under the pressure that resulted.
What worked in the Cold War will work in the conflict with radical Islam, Sharansky insists, if only the free world will support the beleaguered human rights and democracy advocates in Iran and the Arab world. "If President Bush will say clearly to democratic dissidents in the Middle East, 'You are our partners, and we are going to work through you' -- that would strengthen their position tremendously."
Our strongest weapon against the global jihad, says Sharansky, is that people prefer to live in freedom, not fear. "Help those people who are fighting for it from within," he pleads. "That is the most important thing."
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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