That barack obama is the antithesis of George W. Bush is by now axiomatic. The president-elect is expected to change everything, from the prevailing ideology to the government’s order of priorities to the partisan atmosphere in Washington to even the mood in America.
Amid all these differences, however, there could be an important point of convergence between Bush and Obama: supporting democracy by personally meeting with and acting on behalf of democratic dissidents.
Direct contact with dissidents from repressive foreign countries has never been popular with the State Department. It sees these nondemocratic regimes as actors with whom it must inevitably find a modus vivendi, and it sees meeting with dissidents as a provocation that could undermine those relationships. Though it seems ridiculous in hindsight, the State Department succeeded in preventing President Ford from meeting with the newly exiled Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the prominent Soviet dissident and Nobel laureate, so as to avoid “provoking” the U.S.S.R. The no-less-distinguished Dalai Lama met with President Clinton a few times, but in order not to irritate Chinese leaders, he was never received in the Oval Office and was usually granted “spontaneous” drop-by meetings.
However, this policy changed under President Bush. He routinely met with democratic dissidents in the Oval Office. Indeed, during his tenure, he openly met in different forums with more than 100 dissidents and discussed with them the situation in their countries. Among them were Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion and current leader of the democratic opposition in Russia; Sudanese human rights activist Ibrahim Mudawi; Gameela Ismail, wife of the imprisoned Egyptian democratic leader Ayman Nour; North Korean political prisoner Chol-hwan Kang; and noted Chinese dissident Harry Wu. To Bush, it didn’t matter whether those dissidents were fighting regimes that were great powers (Russia, China), so-called friendly dictatorships (Egypt) or regimes that were overtly hostile to the U.S. (North Korea and Sudan).
Still, opposition to these meetings remains strong. When former Czech President Vaclav Havel, former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and I invited Bush in June 2007 to speak to a conference in Prague of dozens of dissidents from around the world, most of his advisors were dead set against it. But when I called someone at the White House to find out what was happening, he told me not to worry. “There is only one person in the West Wing who wants Bush to come to your conference. Fortunately for you, it is the president.”
Not only did Bush speak at the conference, he met privately with every single dissident.
In some cases, Bush went even further. On more than one occasion, he put the weight of the Oval Office behind demands to release dissidents from prisons. In August 2001, for example, he threatened to hold up a multibillion-dollar aid package for Egypt if it would not agree to release imprisoned democracy advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim.
Meeting with democratic leaders is terribly important for dissidents because, even when they are not in prison, they are generally isolated in their own countries. Meeting the leader of the free world transforms the dissident in the eyes of his people from a lonely Don Quixote to the person who can expose the truth about their suffering to the outside world and influence the world to take action to address it.
Through my own dissident experience behind the Iron Curtain, I learned how crucial these meetings are. In the 1970s, when members of the U.S. Congress, beginning with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, started openly meeting with dissidents during their official visits to Moscow, it had a tremendous influence on our movement, on people around us and on the authorities.
Although these meetings would later become part of the charges against me for high treason, we knew that the only thing more dangerous for our cause, for our freedom and for our lives than being arrested was that we would be ignored by the outside world for the sake of realpolitik.
Obviously, such meetings must be backed with clear and consistent action to press regimes to become more open and free. Unfortunately, Bush’s open-door policy and direct support of dissidents was not effective enough to advance this goal.
Though there are many reasons for this, I believe that no small part of the problem was the fact that efforts to promote democracy were not widely supported within his own administration, were rejected by other governments around the world and did not win bipartisan support. Perhaps the polarization of American politics made it inevitable that Americans would not unite behind his efforts.
But the election of Obama could prove to be a turning point. Though he has yet to formulate his foreign policy, the president-elect has shown no signs that he would not support robust dialogue with democratic dissidents throughout the world. On the contrary, his speeches, books and campaign, as well as a personal meeting I had with him on this topic last year, suggest that Obama sees real change coming from the bottom up, from grass-roots action, or as he put it in a speech he gave in May, from “dissidents locked away in dark prison cells for the crime of speaking the truth.” In the same speech, he declared that America “must be a relentless advocate for democracy” and that “the first and most fundamental freedom that [America] must work for is political freedom.”
Obama finds himself in a much stronger position to lead than that enjoyed by his predecessor. He could use his wide popularity and his considerable influence over public opinion in America and across the globe to support democratic dissidents from all over the world. In doing so, he could unite Americans behind a policy that is based on the very democratic ideals that have always made America, as another senator from Illinois who became president so aptly put it, the last, best hope on Earth.
Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident who spent nine years in the gulag, is chairman of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the author of “Defending Identity.”