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
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
Bush's freedom agenda got off to a remarkably fast start. Iraqis by the
millions voted in fair elections. Lebanon's "Cedar Revolution" 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
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, the "Arab Spring" ended almost as fast as it had begun. 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 once more. 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 and 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, Sharansky
was always 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," he told me last week, "the free world would be
much stronger in its confrontation with the Soviet Union."
In the 1970s and 1980s, "realists" believed in appeasing Moscow and ignoring
dissidents, whom they saw as too weak to make a difference in Soviet policy.
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
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."