The Prague Democracy and Security Conference concluded this week with the adoption of the “Prague Document” — an attempt to set in motion a shared agenda among the world’s dissidents and a process for nurturing the democratic principles required to liberate them. President Bush, who came to make common cause with this unique band of lifelong activists and foot soldiers for freedom, repeated the grand-vision characteristic of the major addresses of his presidency. “[T]he United States is committed to the advance of freedom and democracy…I pledge…America to the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world… My message to all those who suffer under tyranny is this: We will never excuse your oppressors. We will always stand for your freedom.”
In response, the dissidents, the tortured, the former prisoners, the refugees, and the ones who had lost their loved ones in freedom’s cause gave “the leader of the free world” a very warm reception. There was applause, hand-shaking, and reportedly a lot of tears shed in a private session which followed.
There is no doubt that this president can talk the talk. But will he walk the walk? Richard Perle, the former chairman of the Defense Policy Board in the early years of the Bush administration, put it bluntly when he addressed the dissidents just prior to their meeting with the president: “This president is a dissident within his own administration, which is often as unresponsive to his vision as your governments are to you. Your message to him must include an urgent appeal to close the gap between what he says and what he does.”
This group of listeners knew only too well how to separate fact from fantasy. Mudawi Ibrahim Adam is a Sudanese Muslim who has been detained for months on and off for the last 15 years; while in prison he staged hunger strikes to protest solitary confinement without charge or access to a lawyer. Zainab Al-Suwaij is a Muslim woman who took up arms against Saddam Hussein in 1991, and bears a bullet scar on her face from the experience. Mohamed Eljahmi is a brother of jailed Libyan dissident Fathi Eljahmi, who has been held in solitary confinement for more than two years. Amir Abbas Fakhravar, an Iranian dissident who was first imprisoned when he was 17, spent five years in prison, where he was tortured. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, is an Egyptian professor and human-rights activist who was arrested, jailed, and sentenced to seven-years imprisonment, for charges which were later dropped. Cheol-hwan Kang spent ten years in a horrific detention camp in North Korea — starting at age nine. Irina Krasovskaya is a Belorusian activist who lost her husband in 1999 and is still kept in the dark about his disappearance. Aliaksandr Milinkevich is the opposition leader in Belarus who has endured arrest while his supporters have been beaten. Eugeniusz Smolar was imprisoned in 1968 while protesting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Their collective wisdom should be taken seriously.
From dissident to their legal counsel, political to academic activist, the message was remarkably coherent:
Former chief of the British Secret Service Richard Dearlove: “the potency of the democratic message is demonstrated by the virulent resistance to it.”
Palestinian human-rights activist Bassam Eid: “the Arab world today is in trouble and is not helped by the fact that the international community applies a double-standard to it — refusing to insist that the society, including Palestinian society, must ready itself for democracy before handing millions to the security forces of autocracies.”
Mudawi Ibrahim Adam, Sudan: “democracy is a universal human value, not a Western construct; U.N. handling of the Sudanese government has legitimized it regardless of the fact this government is killing its own people. Western states are sending the wrong message — that democracy is primarily about elections, whereas it requires much more — good governance, a free press, the rule of law…”
Garry Kasparov, Russia: “Russia today is a police state masquerading as a democracy where elections are theater. The problem is that the G-8 treats Putin as an equal, but democrats in Russian need the free world to treat him as a pariah.” “Putin must be sent a message that he cannot act like a Alexander Lukashenko [President of Belarus] or Robert Mugabe [Zimbabwe] and be treated like a democrat. The ruling elite are listening.”
Christian Schmidt, German Parliamentary State Secretary, Minister of Defense: “the success of democratization depends on its constituents having security and seeing an added value.”
Junning Liu, Institute of China Studies, Beijing: “Elections must be free and open to count, which is not the case in China. In China a transition to democracy will not happen without external pressure.”
Richard Perle: “it is not necessary to work with and legitimize oppressive regimes in the name of the war against terrorism; it is not always better to talk to officials — it is sometimes better to talk to those who don’t wield power.”
Natan Sharansky: “Democracy is on the march, but dictatorships are also on the march. There must be mutual reinforcement between the leader of the free world and dissidents. The most dangerous thing for a dissident is to be ignored; only the solidarity of the world makes it possible for dissidents to continue their struggle. Today there are dissidents in many different contexts but the underlying battle is the same — freedom versus fear. We improve our influence by uniting as dissidents against totalitarians regimes.”
Iranian Amir Abbas Fakhravar: “Freedom is not free.”
Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Egypt: “As freedom fighters we ask you to stop supporting dictators in our countries; we ask Western democracies to stop supporting dictatorships and the darkness of theocrats in the name of stability and continuity.”
Powerful stuff. Almost powerful enough to plant a seed in the most hardened cynic. But there was an elephant in the room that dominated conversations in the coffee breaks and the halls — Iran, its genocidal ambitions, its mad dash towards acquiring nuclear weapons, and its familial relationships with terrorists prepared to use them while screaming the suicide bombers closing argument of choice: Allah Akbar.
The disconnect, therefore, was disconcerting. The president announced he is certain that freedom will win out: “Freedom can be resisted, and freedom can be delayed, but freedom cannot be denied.” The problem with this rallying cry is that whereas in years gone by six million Jews and another 56 million others on the Allied side of World War II died waiting, nuclear weapons threaten to destroy the fabric of civilization before freedom “succeeds.” This worry explained a serious unease in the conference halls. Very presidentially, Mr. Bush proclaimed: “free nations must do what it takes to prevail.” Which begged the very unpresidential question, so what the hell are we waiting for?
One possible answer drew a shared guffaw — the United Nations — the peace and security organization which can’t define terrorism and is busy running out the clock on the Iranian side. The best answer to those who urge America to cede its national security to an institution with no democratic pre-conditions for membership and a human rights agenda controlled by non-democracies, came from Iraqi parliamentarian, Mithal al-Alusi. He said bluntly, the enemy of democracy and freedom “doesn’t care if you are Muslim, Jewish or Christian…the only thing they believe in is “kill, kill, kill”; …it is very clear Iran wants to buy time, but why should we wait?”
Such a call to action comes from someone who is a living testament to honor, truth and human dignity. In September 2004 I had the privilege of sharing a stage with al-Alusi at a counterterrorism conference held in Herzliyah, Israel. His very presence was electrifying and we gave him the ovation he so richly deserved. Five months later he paid the ultimate price for the quest for freedom when his two sons were murdered in Baghdad because of their father’s courage.
President Bush ended his remarks in Prague on this note: “It is the truth that guides our nation to oppose radicals and extremists and terror and tyranny in the world today. And it is the reason I have such great confidence in the men and women in this room. I leave Prague with a certainty that the cause of freedom is not tired, and that its future is in the best of hands. With unbreakable faith in the power of liberty, you will inspire your people, you will lead your nations, and you will change the world.”
Mr. President, the truth is that one of the most evil regimes in the world as we know it is on the verge of acquiring the most powerful weapon in the world as we know it. And the future is in your hands. The clear message from Prague was that you have friends around the world, even if not in your administration. You have the power to protect our nation and freedom for all people everywhere. You lead your nation now. And without exercising that leadership, with no further pretense that the U.N. has the authority to deny the necessities of America’s national defense, the triumph of hate over hope will be laid at your door.