The official White House photo caption revealed the administration's wishful thinking.
"President George W. Bush meets with seven leaders of pro-democracy political parties and NGOs from Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe," the caption declared, "during their visit Thursday, Dec. 6, 2007, to the Oval Office."
Such a meeting did indeed take place. But "the last dictatorship in Europe"? With Vladimir Putin having mocked democracy in a sham election in Russia just five days earlier, the well-worn phrase sounded almost antique. The relatively inconsequential nation of Belarus may have appeared, not so long ago, as an outlier, ruled by a buffoonish former collective-farm chairman who failed to understand that freedom's tide soon would wash him away.
But on Bush's watch, that tide has receded. The president's "freedom agenda" has been taken more seriously by its enemies than by its authors. And those seven beleaguered leaders of Belarusan democracy, patiently making the rounds of Washington yet again, could be forgiven if they took some grim satisfaction that their long-belittled warnings were coming true.
"I remember European politicians not so long ago saying, 'Maybe it would be good for you to merge with Russia, Alexander, and you would get rid of your dictator,' " said Alexander Milinkevich, recipient of the 2006 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament. "Today no one is going to say that."
Milinkevich and his traveling companions have little in common but their devotion to democracy for their post-Soviet country of 10 million people and the courage to fight for it against long odds. A Communist, a Social Democrat, a Christian Democrat and so on, they will cheerfully be at each other's throats once democracy comes to Belarus.
For now, though, they are united in the unglamorous work of resistance -- finding printing presses that are soon shut down, printing newspapers that are soon confiscated, going to prison, getting out of prison, helping the families of those who remain in prison. And, every now and then, cycling through Washington, looking for moral support, trying not to be forgotten.
In that framework, it was admirable of Bush to spend an hour with them Thursday. "I know your problems, don't tell me about your problems," the president told the delegation, as one participant recounted afterward. "Tell me how I can help solve your problems."
Yet an administration that truly understood their situation would be doing much more. It would pay for news broadcasts over satellite television, not just shortwave radio. It would not cut back on democracy assistance in neighboring Russia, or Ukraine, or other post-Soviet states. Most of all it would face the reality of a gathering anti-freedom bloc.
Belarus's strongman, Alexander Lukashenko, was in Venezuela over the weekend, visiting Hugo Chávez. This week Russia's Putin will make his first foreign trip since consolidating one-party rule in his sham election, to see Lukashenko. The three leaders have virtually nothing in common -- except that they see democracy, and therefore the United States, as a threat.
The Bush administration consistently has expected Russia and China to cooperate in areas of mutual interest, as if the nature of their regimes were irrelevant. Surely Russia does not want a nuclear Iran, the administration would reason. Surely China does not want instability in Burma, its southern neighbor.
But even more than the refugees and AIDS spilling out of Burma, the survivors of Tiananmen Square may fear the success of a nonviolent democratic movement there, just as Putin shudders at democratization in Ukraine, Georgia or -- should the ice ever begin to break -- Belarus. And more than fearing mullahs with missiles, Russia may value the chance to thwart America and so diminish its pro-democracy clout.
This isn't to say that for Russia and China the anti-freedom agenda always trumps other priorities, any more than democracy always comes first for the United States. But while Bush has pushed the freedom agenda inconstantly -- violating human rights norms at home; encouraging and then abandoning democrats in places such as Egypt -- the authoritarians have heeded his rhetoric and opposed it doggedly, because for them survival is at stake.
" 'The last dictatorship' -- I think this may be optimistic," Milinkevich told me. "The path from totalitarianism to democracy turns out not to be so easy. And freedom, it turns out, is not given once and for forever."