With the U.S. military effort in Iraq having bogged down, with Islamists winning elections in Egypt and the Palestinian territories, with the rebirth of democracy in Lebanon thwarted by Syrian and Iranian intervention, the momentum of George W. Bush’s foreign policy, which had flowed high in the “Arab spring” of 2005, has ebbed. The Conference on Democracy and Security, which met in Prague June 4-6, grew out of former Soviet dissident and leading Israeli intellectual Natan Sharansky’s sense of the need to reinvigorate the Bush administration’s flagging project of promoting democracy in the Middle East.
Sharansky found the ideal co-convener of the conference in Vaclav Havel. The former Czech president and the circle of one-time dissidents close to him (such as deputy prime minister Sacha Vondra and the Czech ambassador to Israel Michael Zantovsky) have demonstrated an unflagging and unparalleled dedication to the cause of freedom in the eighteen years since they won their own. They have, for example, set up a committee to monitor Beijing’s human-rights record during the 2008 Olympics and have had their diplomats succor dissidents in Cuba. In addition to their unusual dedication to principle, these Czech freedom-fighters keep a wary eye on Russia, where Vladimir Putin’s success in restoring dictatorship and a bullying foreign policy has put all of the former subject states of the Soviet empire on the qui vive.
Spain’s former prime minister Jose Maria Aznar joined as a third sponsor of the conclave. Aznar, who lost his post in 2004 when Spanish voters succumbed to al Qaeda’s intimidation, has remained a steadfast friend of the U.S. despite the strong European trend to the contrary. (Although this trend will now perhaps change, with the ascents of Merkel and Sarkozy.)
President Bush delivered an outstanding keynote speech, notable for several reasons:
1) It was as forceful a statement of commitment to the global democratic cause as one could imagine from an elected leader, dispelling any idea of second thoughts and signaling his determination to soldier on as long as he is in office. “The most powerful weapon in the struggle against extremism is not bullets or bombs, it is the universal appeal of freedom,” Bush said. He then added a lovely line that may live on in the annals of presidential oratory: “Freedom is the design of our Maker, and the longing of every human soul.”
2) Bush’s delivery was smooth, well-paced, and confident, suggesting perhaps how comfortable he was with his audience and his subject. Not only did he avoid his trademark malapropisms, he even did a workmanlike job of pronouncing the names of Arab and eastern European dissidents.
3) In addition to its moving rhetoric, the speech contained a notable action point. The President said he had “asked Secretary Rice to send a directive to every U.S. ambassador in an unfree nation: seek out and meet with activists for democracy [and] those who demand human rights.”
4) In rattling off the names of five “dissidents who couldn’t join us because they are being unjustly imprisoned or held,” Bush mentioned figures in Belarus, Burma, Cuba, and Vietnam, all of which are easy to talk about. Then he named a tough one: Ayman Nour, the Egyptian presidential candidate currently languishing in jail. No country has been seen as more of a weather vane of U.S. determination about democracy promotion than Egypt, where Washington has so many other diplomatic interests. During Secretary Rice’s last visit to Egypt, her failure to mention Nour was widely read as a sign of American retreat. But if retreat it is, the Commander in Chief apparently hasn’t gotten the message.
Tomorrow, I’ll report on some of the other highlights of the conference.