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A Lasting Freedom Agenda

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By Jackson Diehl
Monday, April 30, 2007

"We are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom." Could it be that President Bush pronounced those words just 27 months ago? At the time they seemed grandiose and reckless but promising of a historic change in U.S. foreign policy. Now they mock a second term that has seen the virtual collapse of Iraq's democratic experiment, the consolidation of autocratic governments in Russia and Venezuela, the extinction of the liberal reform movements that Bush briefly inspired in the Arab Middle East -- and the de facto reversal of Bush's "freedom agenda" by his own State Department.

Who can make sense of this disaster? Perhaps the Russian-bred intellectual, maverick Israeli politician and perpetual dissident who helped inspire that soaring second inaugural address -- Natan Sharansky. Two years ago Sharansky was the improbable toast of the White House. Bush was recommending Sharansky's newly published book, " The Case for Democracy," to virtually everyone he saw; he told the New York Times that it was "part of my presidential DNA." At her confirmation hearing as secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice proposed adopting Sharansky's "town square" test, by which countries would be judged on whether their citizens felt free to shout out unpopular opinions in public.

Bush is still a fan: He awarded Sharansky a Presidential Medal of Freedom in December. But less than three months later the former refusenik -- who spent nine years in the gulag for pushing the cause of human rights in the Soviet Union -- was back at the White House to tell Bush that neither Rice's diplomats nor the administration as a whole had been faithful to the cause of democracy. Rice has gone from demanding reform in Egypt to coddling78-year-old autocrat Hosni Mubarak; she's been calling Saudi Arabia's regime "moderate" and "mainstream." ("What's moderate about Saudi Arabia?" Sharansky demanded. "Its record of religious tolerance?") Bush himself has chosen to ignore Vladimir Putin's slide into dictatorship and has welcomed corrupt Central Asian strongmen to the White House.

At that February meeting, Bush seemed to concede Sharansky's point. "The president was very forceful in saying that he's not going to give up the agenda," Sharansky told me last week. "But he is lonely."

Sharansky is comfortable with political loneliness. In Israel he's been derided as much for his support for Arab democracy as for his opposition to concessions to the Palestinians. Over salad and steak at a kosher deli in downtown Washington, he described an American president he sees as a fellow dissident, isolated in his view that the West should insist on moral clarity in dealing with undemocratic regimes.

"It's not that the democracy policy was adopted and applied and turned out not to work," Sharansky said. "There was never a strategy for applying it. There was no unity of purpose. Hardly any political leaders besides Bush believed in the concept. Even here in America there was terrible resistance. It's not enough that the president believes in the policy and wants to act. He has to be able to carry the country and the bureaucracy with him."

Sharansky has seen this happen before. As a Soviet dissident, he was exultant when President Jimmy Carter promised to make human rights promotion a top priority of his presidency and responded to a letter from Sharansky's mentor, Andrei Sakharov. "Then one after another we were arrested. Carter spoke out but did nothing," Sharansky recounted. "We all felt abandoned and terribly disappointed."

That's how most Arab liberals in the Middle East now feel about Bush. But Sharansky sees the shift toward greater human freedom as a series of waves. "It's a very rare phenomenon that this policy exists in a U.S. government," he said. "It existed for a short period of time in the '70s, and it existed for a brief time now, more strongly. It will come back again, and stronger the next time. It will happen because the countries of the free world will realize that we are in a fight for survival with extremist ideology around the world, and we have no stronger weapon than the desire of people to live in freedom."

Sharansky hasn't given up on Bush. In February, he proposed to the president that he attend an unusual conference Sharansky is organizing with former dissident and Czech president Vaclav Havel and former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar -- a dialogue between dissidents and political leaders. Beleaguered advocates of human rights from Egypt, Syria, Sudan, Cuba, Belarus and Russia, among other places, are expected for the meeting June 4-6 in Prague. And now, so is Bush. "It will give him a chance to renew his policy," Sharansky said. "People who live under dictatorship still believe in it, and will go on fighting for it."


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