DECEMBER 28, 2009, 10:21 P.M. ET By WILLIAM MCGURN
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?
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.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