President Bush came to Prague and mapped out a legacy, but offered no immediate policy. Standing before an audience consisting of former and current dissidents from around the Middle East and the world as well as sympathetic European heads of state and officials at the Democracy and Security Conference held within the halls of the Foreign Ministry of the Czech Republic, Mr. Bush said most of the right things and occasionally in the right way — words and ideas that will be long remembered — but offered no punch.
It was gutsy of Mr. Bush to stick to these same words and ideas that he put forward to the world as the guiding principles of his second inaugural address, principles that have been maligned and ridiculed as the democratic start-up in Iraq seemed to sow nothing but mayhem. Mr. Bush had been clear as he began his second term: young angry men, oppressed by tyrannical regimes, tend to drift towards the path of terrorism to express their anger, usually in the misguided direction of Western societies. What Bush would do is push that part of the world that is lagging behind in the age of liberty and human rights to catch up and extend to all their citizens the inherent dignity that is unalienable to all mankind. The idea seemed to make sense, and it was particularly sensible for the leader of a country founded on such principles, and at the frontlines of terrorism, to make the case.
Yet powerful forces, sometimes acting with the collusion of the president's own bureaucracies, conspired to thwart this vision and render its application a bloody mess. In allocating blame, one cannot but call out Mr. Bush on his own leadership: his forceful conviction — that democracy ensures stability — was not translated into forceful action. He hesitated and blinked, and the bad guys grew more audacious and confident.
I found a seat next to Russian dissident Gary Kasparov, who spent 20 years as the world's top ranking chess player before retiring from the game to dedicate his time to the Other Russia Alliance that seeks to fortify his country's democracy. I asked him, moments before Mr. Bush took the podium, whether he expected the president to address the belligerent threat made against the West by Russia's Vladimir Putin just days ahead of the conference. Mr. Kasparov responded, "If not now, then when?" In the event, Mr. Bush made an oblique comment about the slide backwards in the anti-democratic direction that the world has been witnessing in Russia. Mr. Kasparov's first reaction as the audience rose to give Bush its last applause: "I'm appalled. He said nothing." And in a way he's right; why is it that Mr. Putin speaks so clearly while Mr. Bush must respond subtly? Why do thugs yell with clarity, yet the righteous mumble away?
The eerie part was that the ex-KGB officer, Mr. Putin, was left unchallenged in a hall that overlooked a courtyard where the KGB had, in 1948, murdered the former foreign minister of our Czech hosts, as Stalin set out to break the small, liberal European nations within his imagined orbit, and an exhausted and complacent West looked on, only to have to deal with the Soviet threat over the ensuing decades.
It was good of Mr. Bush to mention Ayman Nour, the Egyptian dissident who challenged Hosni Mubarak's three-decade long authoritarian rule in the presidential election of September 2005, only to be subsequently tarnished on trumped up charges and hauled to prison. That is the nature of all dictatorships dealing with dissent — a course of punishment that two of the conveners of this conference, Vaclav Havel and Nathan Sharansky, experienced first-hand. But why is it that Mr. Mubarak, whose people's food security is tied to subsidized American grain, can get away with stonewalling and ignoring the president of the United States, the most powerful man in the world? Would an Egyptian president have been able to pull off a similar stunt if faced with the resolve of a Soviet Russia of the past, or a Mother Russia of the unfolding future?
We must realize that tyrants only respond to sticks and stones, and they certainly must not be left with the impression that they can push America around. The soft-touch diplomats around Mr. Bush counseled soft words as the fog of Iraq enveloped Washington, leaving Mr. Nour in jail and Mr. Mubarak in power; with Egypt remaining a net exporter of angry, young terrorists.
The staff accompanying Mr. Bush, ranging from the Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, were intently watching the faces of the seated dissidents listening to the speech, and their searching glances seemed to suggest the question, "Are they buying it?"
Well, Mr. Kasparov certainly didn't.
The president also didn't focus on the issue at the center of all this, Iraq and the democratic incubator there. The Independent senator from Connecticut, Joseph Lieberman, didn't dodge that bullet at an address he gave to the delegates the previous day. Mr. Lieberman made it clear that the forces thwarting democracy are in league with those who perpetrated the attacks on September 11, 2001, and that more attacks are on the way if America doesn't win in Iraq and bear down hard upon the enemies of liberty the world over.
The sacrifices of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians have lit a bonfire to alert all those who love and cherish life that the enemy is on the march and that this enemy is soul-crushingly cruel and manifestly ambitious. At the conference, many would come up to me, as a former Iraqi dissident, and ask, sheepishly and sympathetically, about how things are going in Iraq — more in the way of holding my hand than serious inquiry. Their tone seems to suggest that they've already given up on the prospects of eventual victory. They are so utterly mistaken, but it will take a long time to convince them otherwise.
Sadly, this sense of despair is all too prevalent among the believers in liberty, and hence the easy cynicism of those who detract the strategic value of liberty. Mr. Bush's vision will be remembered and put into force, but only when the world realizes that there's no other antidote to the poison of terrorism. That will only come in a decade's time to my thinking, after the images of a scorched Levant, a burning Persian Gulf, and a Europe in turmoil are seared unto our collective awareness. Then the world will find a relatively prosperous and democratic Iraq, and they will seek to replicate the model around Iraq.
One delegate from Lebanon who played a critical part in the Cedar Revolution two years ago put it best, "We are ready to sacrifice, all we want is your attention." The cohorts of the press, who play such a critical role in alerting us, are too inclined to be dismissive of such heroism, especially when the leaders of the world are not on hand for a sound-byte. Mr. Bush tried hard in Afghanistan and Iraq, but could not find the wherewithal to visit his resolve upon the remaining lairs — too many remain — of the enemy. We are left with words and photo-ops for now, and the tingling shivers of impending doom.
Mr. Kazimi can be reached at [email protected]