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The Door That Bush Kept Open

By Jackson Diehl
Friday, December 12, 2008

By now it's commonplace for pundits like me to point out that President Bush has come nowhere close to fulfilling the promise of his second inaugural address, which was that he would commit his government to the spread of freedom and the defense of democratic dissidents around the world. The State Department long ago squelched the president's initial attempts to act on those soaring words in places such as Egypt and Azerbaijan; even worse, many Democrats have reacted to Bush's fecklessness by concluding that the incoming Obama administration should preemptively swear off any attempt to pressure the autocrats of the Islamic world, or powers such as Russia and China, for democratic change.

There is, however, one important way in which the president has been faithful to his cause -- and one practice he has pioneered that ought to outlast him. Throughout the past several years, Bush has gone out of his way to meet personally with advocates for democratic change around the world -- especially those under pressure from their governments. He has invited them to the White House and has looked for them in their own countries. Last year, in Prague, he even attended a conference of dissidents from all over the world. While many of those who have gotten his attention come from countries with regimes that are hostile to the United States, such as Belarus and Burma, Bush hasn't shrunk from meeting people from nominally friendly countries, for example, Egypt and China, even at the cost of infuriating their governments.

On Wednesday, in honor of the 60th Human Rights Day, Bush did it one more time, inviting dissident bloggers from China, Burma, Iran, Cuba, Belarus, Egypt and Venezuela to the White House's Roosevelt Room (the last two attended via videoconference). For an hour, the president listened as the bloggers described how they attempt to circumvent state censorship to disseminate news and organize pressure for change on the Internet. His purpose, he said, was "to honor, herald and highlight the brave souls who are on the front lines -- and that's you."

Xiao Qiang, author of the China blog Rock-n-Go (http://rockngo.org), responded by describing the courageous stand taken this week by 300 Chinese intellectuals who signed a manifesto in favor of democratic freedoms and human rights called "Charter 08" -- a document that Chinese bloggers are doing their best to circulate. He pointed out that despite official controls on the Internet, there are now more Chinese bloggers than American bloggers.

Arash Sigarchi, an Iranian who was imprisoned and then exiled for his work and now operates from Northern Virginia (http://sigarchi.net/blog/), said he had asked three dozen bloggers inside Iran what message should be delivered to the U.S. president. The nearly unanimous answer: Please prevent U.S. and Chinese companies from selling Internet-filtering software to our government. ("What are the companies' names?" Bush demanded. "We'll find out their names.")

Mahmoud Saber of Egypt reminded Bush of the seven Egyptian bloggers who have been arrested and jailed by the government of Hosni Mubarak; he said the hope of Egypt's "Facebook generation" is that the next U.S. president "not support autocratic rulers in the Middle East."

Bush's personal attention hasn't always helped the dissidents. As Saber reminded the president this week, Saad Eddin Ibrahim of Egypt has been unable to return to his home in Cairo ever since he shook Bush's hand at that Prague meeting; if he does, a regime-concocted jail sentence awaits. Ayman Nour, who was sprung from a Cairo prison in 2005 by Bush's pressure and then ran for president against Mubarak, has been back in jail for three years -- a symbol of one vindictive autocrat's victory over the "freedom agenda."

For the most part, however, the attention of the American president is precious to dissidents. It gains them enormous attention in their own countries and injects their liberal ideas into arenas from which they are usually excluded. Though some may be thrown in jail on their return from the White House, they also gain a de facto immunity from torture or assassination -- otherwise a high risk in countries such as Belarus and Burma.

Bush, a practitioner of policy-by-personal-connection both for good and for ill, would clearly like to see the next president similarly commit himself. That's probably why he invited me and my colleague Fred Hiatt to Wednesday's meeting: After directing a jibe at us for our criticism of his freedom agenda failures, he said he hoped his successor would come under no less pressure to support democratic dissidents. He's right: On this at least, Barack Obama should follow Bush's example.

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