Has Obama "Dissed" Dissidents?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009
In perhaps an overly harsh critique -- as balanced by the next post -- the Wall Street Journal's William McGurn compares President Barack Obama's attitude towards dissidents to that of former President Gerald Ford:

Obama Puts the Dis in Dissident

Here's a timely New Year's resolution the president might do well to deliver to his National Security Council: "When it comes to nasty regimes that brutalize their people, we will never again forget that the most powerful weapon in a president's arsenal is a White House photo-op."

The December headlines remind us that we have no shortage of these nasty regimes. In China, the government sentences Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison for writing a letter calling for legal and political reforms. In Iran, security forces fire on citizens marching in the streets. In Cuba, pro-government goons intimidate a group of wives, mothers and sisters of jailed dissidents—with President Raul Castro characterizing these bullies as "people willing to protect, at any price, the conquests of the revolution."

In all these cases, the cry goes up: Where is the president of the United States?

For a man whose whole appeal has been wrapped in powerful imagery, President Obama appears strikingly obtuse about the symbolism of his own actions: e.g., squeezing in a condemnation of Iran before a round of golf. With every statement not backed up by action, with every refusal to meet a leader such as the Dalai Lama, with every handshake for a Chavez, Mr. Obama is defining himself to foreign leaders who are sizing him up and have only one question in mind: How much can we get away with?

As Yogi Berra put it, it's déjà vu all over again. In his eagerness to downplay freedom in his foreign policy, Mr. Obama resembles no president so much as Gerald Ford. Barely a year into office, President Ford also made a symbolic choice for realism over rights.

The year was 1975. For its dinner in Washington, the AFL-CIO had invited Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Nobel Prize winner exiled from his Russian homeland a year earlier, after publication of the first volume of his "Gulag Archipelago."

Republican senators tried to arrange for a meeting with Ford. Acting on the advice of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Ford nixed it.

The pragmatists thought that having the president get together with Solzhenitsyn would sour efforts for détente in a forthcoming meeting with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. As usual the pragmatists were highly impractical. The refusal to meet Solzhenitsyn made Ford look weak. In many ways, the moment would forever define his foreign policy.

One of the leading critics of President Ford's decision was Ronald Reagan. In his own time as president, Reagan met with dissidents. He quoted Solzhenitsyn often. And when he so famously upset the establishment by referring to the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," Reagan no doubt recalled that night in 1975 at the AFL-CIO dinner—when Solzhenitsyn had referred to the Soviet Union as "the concentration of world evil."

Reagan set a tone that hit the Soviets in their most vulnerable spot: their lack of moral legitimacy. In retrospect, we can more easily see that Reagan's willingness to give voice to freedom-loving dissidents only increased his leverage as president as he dealt with the Soviets and their allies.

George W. Bush also made it a point to meet with dissidents and signal which side America was on. He met with a defector who spent 10 years in the North Korean gulag. He met with persecuted Chinese Christians, marked the 20th anniversary of a famous pro-democracy uprising in Burma by meeting with Burmese dissidents in Thailand, and awarded the Medal of Freedom to a jailed Cuban political prisoner. In 2007, he even spoke to a whole conference of dissidents in Prague organized by another alumnus of the Soviet prison system: Natan Sharansky.

Now it's not easy for a president to meet with dissidents. When you do, some won't think you are strong enough. And even Ronald Reagan was criticized in 1986 for not meeting with Yelena Bonner, wife of jailed Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.

More important are the internal pressures—some key trade deal, some delicate negotiation, some huge foreign policy concession your staff has been working on forever. Yet precisely because all the momentum is in the direction of accommodation, it's important for a president to remember the one argument to the contrary. By meeting with some brave soul whom others want silenced, he sends a signal that cuts through the fog, compels respect from his enemies, and will be remembered long after the concerns of the day are forgotten.

Barack Obama has spent his first year as president determined to prove to the world he is not George W. Bush. He has succeeded. Let's hope that in so doing he has not sent the message that he is the new Gerald Ford.