Champion Of Freedom?

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, December 26, 2005

In 2005, President Bush set before the nation the goal of "ending tyranny in our world." In 2006, he is scheduled to attend the first meeting of Group of Eight leaders in Russia, which spent this year positioning itself as a leader of the world's pro-tyranny camp.

At best, Bush's attendance in St. Petersburg in July will demonstrate the complexities of claiming freedom-promotion as the central goal of foreign policy. At worst, it will be seen as proof that Bush's commitment to liberty is highly situational.

Freedom House, a nonprofit organization that tracks trends in liberty more closely than anyone else, insists that 2005 actually was a pretty good year. There are 89 free countries, 58 partly free and 45 not free, by its tally. Trends were positive in 27 countries, negative in only nine: "The global picture thus suggests that the past year was one of the most successful for freedom since Freedom House began measuring world freedom in 1972," the organization maintained.

Maybe so. There were obvious bright spots: elections in Liberia and Iraq, the inauguration of a democratically chosen president in Ukraine, stirrings of political change in Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.

But even those bright spots had shadows. The gainers in Arab elections were Islamist parties that may or may not be committed to the democratic process. The elected government in Ukraine faced internal and external pressures. Liberia's president will need help from wealthier countries that she may not receive.

And there seemed to be plenty of dark spots without silver linings. Bush undermined his own credibility as a champion of freedom with his refusal to abjure torture, his purchasing of positive news in Iraq and his secret detention policies.

High oil prices meanwhile lubricated the foreign policies of autocrats from Venezuela to Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia to Azerbaijan. In Africa, Uganda's ruler, once seen as a hope of the continent, threw his likely electoral opponent in jail; just this past weekend, Egypt's craven leader did the same. Nigeria's elected president was reported to be flirting with tearing up his constitution to grab a third term.

In South America, another elected president, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, consolidated one-party rule and moved to export his brand of populist autocracy to neighboring nations.

The Nelson Mandela of Asia, Burma's Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, finished the year as she began it, under house arrest and cut off from the world by her country's military dictators. North Koreans remained imprisoned inside a totalitarian nightmare, and their immediate neighbors (South Korea, China, Russia) didn't seem to care much. The contradictions between China's economic growth and its lack of rule of law grew more acute -- but China's new-generation leaders, who many had hoped would promote political reform and freedom of expression, squelched them instead.

Russia, a major oil exporter, found its energy revenue sufficient to prop up friendly dictators and even to buy a German ex-chancellor. President Vladimir Putin at year's end was poised to stifle the last outpost of uncontrolled civil society, with a law regulating nongovernmental organizations. The president and his ruling clique of former KGB agents already had brought television, provincial government, business and parliament under their control.

And Putin was not only a non-democrat at home; he was an active anti-democrat in the world. He threatened to raise gas prices for Ukraine's democrats and lower them for Belarus's dictator. He embraced Uzbekistan's strongman for bloodily suppressing a Tiananmen-like demonstration. He orchestrated phony elections in war-ravaged Chechnya. He saw democracy as a threat, at home and abroad.

So how does he come to be hosting the Group of Eight -- what used to be known as the club of leading industrialized democracies? Bill Clinton, who pressed to expand what was then the G-7 to include Boris Yeltsin's Russia, said he offered membership so that Yeltsin "would agree to NATO expansion and the NATO-Russian partnership." And when finance ministers objected that Russia's shrunken economy didn't rate inclusion, Clinton argued that "being in it would symbolize Russia's importance to the future and strengthen Yeltsin at home."

Whatever the merits of those arguments at the time, the tactics didn't work. The prospect of membership in Western "clubs" isn't inducing much cooperation, and democracy was not given a chance to gel. Russia remains "important to the future," of course, but its economy is smaller than those of non-G-8 democracies India and Brazil, and certainly smaller than China's.

St. Petersburg is lovely in July, and a U.S. president has to maintain a relationship with Russia's leader, come what may. Still, maybe Bush ought to think about spending his summer holiday with a host who shares his freedom agenda. There ought to be plenty of options in the Group of 89.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company