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How to Be A Dissident President

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By Jackson Diehl
Monday, June 11, 2007

Prodded by Natan Sharansky and Vaclav Havel, President Bush last week reprised his second inaugural address, calling himself a "dissident president . . . standing for liberty in the world." For the most part, he bashed enemies of the United States that also happen to be dictatorships -- regimes such as Belarus and Cuba, Burma and Zimbabwe. For good measure he brought up Russia, China and Venezuela, countries the United States does business with but that are not allies.

Unfortunately, it's not hard for those countries to talk back these days. Guantanamo, said Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro, is "a disastrous thing comparable only to the time of Hitler, when there were clandestine jails with prisoners who did not have names. It's monstrous." Russia's Vladimir Putin smugly told reporters that "Amnesty International believes that the United States is the greatest violator of rights and freedoms on a global scale. I have an exact quote, if you want."

"Let us see what is happening in North America," Putin went on. "Just horrible torture . . . Guantanamo. Detentions without normal court proceedings."

Yes, Putin is a cynical autocrat whose own opponents keep turning up dead. But Bush's problem is that, in most of the world, his declarations about "freedom" and "democracy" long ago were drowned out by "Guantanamo" and "torture." If he wishes to preserve any legacy as a president who stood up for liberty, he'll have to act like a real dissident in the 18 months he has left.

How so? Of course, Bush could defy Vice President Cheney, close Guantanamo, and abandon the CIA's harsh interrogation methods and secret detentions. But he's not likely to do that unless forced to by Congress or the courts. What he just might do is flout his State Department by taking on a few dictators who happen to be allies or clients of the United States. Those governments can respond to criticism with more than words -- they can close military bases to U.S. planes, turn off oil and gas pipelines carrying energy to the West, or stop cooperating with the CIA in operations against al-Qaeda. But unlike Burma or Belarus, they are also subject to serious U.S. leverage -- they depend on American aid and investment and a U.S. security umbrella. Taking them on is principled, risky and contrary to conventional wisdom and just might produce a breakthrough -- in other words, it's the sort of thing that Havel and Sharansky stand for.

That's why the most important point in Bush's Prague speech came at the end of a sentence in which he named "dissidents who could not join us, because they are being unjustly imprisoned." The first three were from Belarus, Burma and Cuba. But the last was Ayman Nour of Egypt -- a liberal democrat who has been in jail since early last year, largely because he took Bush's second inaugural speech seriously. Nour had the temerity to challenge Hosni Mubarak's "reelection" as Egypt's president beginning early in 2005. Shortly after the campaign ended, he was sentenced to five years in prison on patently bogus charges.

The Bush administration defended him at first -- free-trade talks with Egypt were postponed, and the White House called for his release. But as the State Department bureaucracy reasserted itself in Bush's second term, the support faded. The U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Francis Ricciardone, resumed the old practice of catering to the regime and ignoring its opposition. Mubarak's son and would-be successor, Gamal, was welcomed to the White House.

Days before Bush spoke, Nour's latest appeal was dismissed by the judge Mubarak uses for political cases. Nour has been seeking release on medical grounds, citing cardiovascular disease, untreated diabetes and the harsh treatment he has received. The latter is well documented: The dissident's brave wife, Gamila Ismael, released photographs last week showing the injuries he received during his latest beating by security guards.

The rejection of Nour's appeal represented a direct rebuff of Bush by Mubarak. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice privately asked Mubarak to release Nour on medical grounds during a visit in January. So was Bush's public call for Nour's "immediate and unconditional release" in Prague the beginning of tougher action on his case? The record shows that such pressure works: The Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who was in the audience in Prague and later spoke with Bush, was released from imprisonment in 2002 after the United States threatened to withhold $130 million in aid.

A similar linkage of American aid to Nour's release might not get the same results. It would certainly upset Ambassador Ricciardone and other advocates of appeasement as usual for Mubarak and other friendly dictators. But it would show that President Bush's words about "standing for liberty" mean something. A real "dissident president" wouldn't hesitate.


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