Champion Of Freedom?

Bush and the Year In Democracy
In 2005, President Bush set before the nation the goal of “ending  
tyranny in our world.” In 2006, he is scheduled to attend the first  
meeting of Group of Eight leaders in Russia, which spent this year  
positioning itself as a leader of the world’s pro-tyranny camp.

At best, Bush’s attendance in St. Petersburg in July will demonstrate  
the complexities of claiming freedom-promotion as the central goal of  
foreign policy. At worst, it will be seen as proof that Bush’s  
commitment to liberty is highly situational.

Freedom House, a nonprofit organization that tracks trends in liberty  
more closely than anyone else, insists that 2005 actually was a  
pretty good year. There are 89 free countries, 58 partly free and 45  
not free, by its tally. Trends were positive in 27 countries,  
negative in only nine: “The global picture thus suggests that the  
past year was one of the most successful for freedom since Freedom  
House began measuring world freedom in 1972,” the organization  

Maybe so. There were obvious bright spots: elections in Liberia and  
Iraq, the inauguration of a democratically chosen president in  
Ukraine, stirrings of political change in Egypt and the Palestinian  

But even those bright spots had shadows. The gainers in Arab  
elections were Islamist parties that may or may not be committed to  
the democratic process. The elected government in Ukraine faced  
internal and external pressures. Liberia’s president will need help  
from wealthier countries that she may not receive.

And there seemed to be plenty of dark spots without silver linings.  
Bush undermined his own credibility as a champion of freedom with his  
refusal to abjure torture, his purchasing of positive news in Iraq  
and his secret detention policies.

High oil prices meanwhile lubricated the foreign policies of  
autocrats from Venezuela to Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia to Azerbaijan.  
In Africa, Uganda’s ruler, once seen as a hope of the continent,  
threw his likely electoral opponent in jail; just this past weekend,  
Egypt’s craven leader did the same. Nigeria’s elected president was  
reported to be flirting with tearing up his constitution to grab a  
third term.

In South America, another elected president, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez,  
consolidated one-party rule and moved to export his brand of populist  
autocracy to neighboring nations.

The Nelson Mandela of Asia, Burma’s Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu  
Kyi, finished the year as she began it, under house arrest and cut  
off from the world by her country’s military dictators. North Koreans  
remained imprisoned inside a totalitarian nightmare, and their  
immediate neighbors (South Korea, China, Russia) didn’t seem to care  
much. The contradictions between China’s economic growth and its lack  
of rule of law grew more acute — but China’s new-generation leaders,  
who many had hoped would promote political reform and freedom of  
expression, squelched them instead.

Russia, a major oil exporter, found its energy revenue sufficient to  
prop up friendly dictators and even to buy a German ex-chancellor.  
President Vladimir Putin at year’s end was poised to stifle the last  
outpost of uncontrolled civil society, with a law regulating  
nongovernmental organizations. The president and his ruling clique of  
former KGB agents already had brought television, provincial  
government, business and parliament under their control.

And Putin was not only a non-democrat at home; he was an active anti-
democrat in the world. He threatened to raise gas prices for  
Ukraine’s democrats and lower them for Belarus’s dictator. He  
embraced Uzbekistan’s strongman for bloodily suppressing a Tiananmen-
like demonstration. He orchestrated phony elections in war-ravaged  
Chechnya. He saw democracy as a threat, at home and abroad.

So how does he come to be hosting the Group of Eight — what used to  
be known as the club of leading industrialized democracies? Bill  
Clinton, who pressed to expand what was then the G-7 to include Boris  
Yeltsin’s Russia, said he offered membership so that Yeltsin “would  
agree to NATO expansion and the NATO-Russian partnership.” And when  
finance ministers objected that Russia’s shrunken economy didn’t rate  
inclusion, Clinton argued that “being in it would symbolize Russia’s  
importance to the future and strengthen Yeltsin at home.”

Whatever the merits of those arguments at the time, the tactics  
didn’t work. The prospect of membership in Western “clubs” isn’t  
inducing much cooperation, and democracy was not given a chance to  
gel. Russia remains “important to the future,” of course, but its  
economy is smaller than those of non-G-8 democracies India and  
Brazil, and certainly smaller than China’s.

St. Petersburg is lovely in July, and a U.S. president has to  
maintain a relationship with Russia’s leader, come what may. Still,  
maybe Bush ought to think about spending his summer holiday with a  
host who shares his freedom agenda. There ought to be plenty of  
options in the Group of 89.