Monitoring Bush: meeting dissidents

Last week I posted about a meeting between President Bush and Venezuelan opposition leader Maria Corina Machado which, I was pleased to note, infuriated the Chavez regime.

This week Bush met Kang Chol Hwan, a survivor of a decade in a North Korean prison camp. Bush had read Kang’s book “The Aquariums of Pyongyang,” an account of his experiences while incarcerated with his family.

If Kim Jong Il knew I met you,” Bush… asked, referring to the North Korean leader, “don’t you think he’d hate this?”

“The people in the concentration camps will applaud,” [Kang] responded, according to two people in the room.

Now I’m all in favor of Bush meeting opponents of undemocratic and repressive regimes. But The Washington Post article about the President’s session with Kang makes a very telling point:

So far, Bush has focused his attentions largely on activists from countries with which he is already openly hostile, while those from allies such as Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have not won Oval Office invitations.

Fortunately a test of Bush’s evenhandedness toward dissidents is coming up later this month, The Post reports. Mohammed Salih, chairman of the Democratic Erk Party of Uzbekistan, a leading opponent of the government, will be visiting Washington.

…The Bush administration has been torn over how forcefully to respond to the recent massacre of hundreds of protesters in the Uzbek city of Andijan, with the State Department pushing for a firm repudiation and the Pentagon resisting for fear of jeopardizing its base there.

Salih, who received a U.S. visa on Monday and will be in the United States from June 27 to June 30, hopes to meet with senior Bush administration officials and to describe the situation in Uzbekistan, where President Islam Karimov has banned genuine opposition parties and independent media and imprisoned thousands of government critics.

“We have calls out to everybody, and, right now, we don’t have a yes or no from anybody,” said Frank Howard, a media liaison for Erk. A high-level meeting, he added, “has not only symbolic importance, it has potential real importance.”

Will Bush find time to meet with Salih? Stay tuned.