''A READER living in Moscow," writes National Review's Jay Nordlinger, ''sent me a photo from a rally in Azerbaijan, which showed a youth holding up a poster of President Bush with the words, 'We Want Freedom.' The reader commented, 'It's good to remember whom people turn to when they're desperate -- and it ain't Kofi Annan.' "
Indeed. It is fashionable in some circles to invoke the United Nations as the touchstone of moral authority, but realists know better. They look to the United States, not the UN, as the great moral engine in world affairs. Like the Lebanese who waved a US flag during the demonstrations in Beirut earlier this year, like the ''Goddess of Liberty" in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the young Azerbaijani with his poster is a reminder that America and its message of freedom and individual dignity have an almost limitless capacity to inspire those who are denied them.
In his recent bestseller, ''The Case for Democracy," former Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky recalled how Ronald Reagan's ''evil empire" speech electrified prisoners deep inside the Soviet gulag:
''Tapping on walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagan's 'provocation' quickly spread through the prison. The dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth -- a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us."
A US president's words of solidarity can powerfully encourage those who battle against the lies and intimidation of despotism. When Bush invited Sharansky and his co-author, Ron Dermer, to discuss their book with him in the Oval Office last November, they urged him to leverage that power by speaking directly to the world's dissidents, making it clear that he is an ally in their struggle for freedom.
It was advice Bush took to heart, as his January inaugural address made clear. Addressing himself to ''all who live in tyranny and hopelessness," he promised: ''When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."
Bush has made a point of reaching out to prominent dissidents, such as Maria Corina Machado, a critic of Venezuela's increasingly authoritarian president, Hugo Chavez. In 2003, he met with a group of Cuban dissidents, among them Mario Chanes de Armas, an early ally of Fidel Castro who was imprisoned for 30 years after he denounced the revolution's turn to repression.
Last week Bush met privately with Kang Chol Hwan, who survived 10 years in one of North Korea's horrific slave labor camps. Bush had read ''The Aquariums of Pyongyang," Kang's searing memoir of his experience, and wanted to convey to the author -- and to Kim Jong Il's regime -- how seriously he regards North Korea's abuse of human rights. ''He kept on repeating how deeply sorry he was about the situation," Kang told The New York Times. ''To hear a president say these deep things made me feel that he cared."
Compared to the policies of his predecessors, Bush's promotion of democracy as a matter of national security, his blunt talk about dictatorships, and the honor he shows dissidents are revolutionary. Think of Gerald Ford in 1975, refusing to meet with the Soviet writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn for fear of irritating Moscow. Or Jimmy Carter in 1979, kissing Leonid Brezhnev on both cheeks and praising the shah of Iran as ''deeply concerned about human rights." Or the first President Bush in 1991, urging Ukrainians not to free themselves from the Soviet Union and allowing Saddam Hussein to savagely crush the Kurdish and Shi'ite uprisings that followed the Gulf War.
Meanwhile, the current President Bush just had his secretary of state deliver a tough message to the autocratic rulers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. ''It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy," Condoleezza Rice said in Cairo on Tuesday. She spoke of the recent imprisonment of three Saudi dissidents, whose only offense was to peacefully petition for a constitutional monarchy. ''That should not be a crime in any country," she said.
As for Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak's decision to hold an election -- it is ''encouraging," but real progress means ending the violence against democracy activists. Freedom for opposition groups to assemble. No intimidation of voters. ''Egypt's elections, including the parliamentary elections, must meet objective standards that define every free election," said Rice.
Every president speaks of freedom and democracy. Bush is the first to make their promotion the cornerstone of his foreign policy. His critics are legion. But from the slave camps of North Korea to that young man in Azerbaijan, so are those fervently hoping he succeeds.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.