No one seems to know precisely who is behind the "Miss Me Yet?" billboard—the cheeky one featuring a grinning George W. Bush that looks out over I-35 near Wyoming, Minn. But Syrian dissident Ahed Al-Hendi sympathizes with the thought.
In 2006, Mr. Hendi was browsing pro-democracy Web sites in a Damascus Internet café when plainclothes cops carrying automatic guns swooped in, cuffed him, and threw him into the trunk of a car. He spent over a month in prison, some of it alone in a 5-by-3 windowless basement cell where he listened to his friend being tortured in the one next door. Those screams, he says, were cold comfort—at least he knew his friend hadn't been killed.
Mr. Hendi was one of the lucky ones: He's now living in Maryland as a political refugee where he works for an organization called Cyberdissidents.org. And this past Monday, he joined other international dissidents at a conference sponsored by the Bush Institute at Southern Methodist University to discuss the way digital tools can be used to resist repressive regimes.
He also got to meet the 43rd president. In a private breakfast hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Bush, Mr. Hendi's message to the former president was simple: "We miss you." There have been "a lot of changes" under the current administration, he added, and not for the better.
Adrian Hong, who was imprisoned in China in 2006 for his work helping North Koreans escape the country (a modern underground railroad), echoed that idea. "When I was released [after 10 days] I was told it was because of very strong messaging from the White House and the culture you set," he told Mr. Bush.
The former president, now sporting a deep tan, didn't mention President Obama once on or off the record. The most he would say was, "I'm really concerned about an isolationist mentality . . . I don't think it lives up to the values of our country." The dissidents weren't so diplomatic. (Z: this is the dignity we're missing now; imagine Obama staying quiet when the other side slams his then-finished administration, Obama turning the other cheek? He can't even do it now when he really should)
Mr. Hendi elaborated on the policy changes he thinks Mr. Obama has made toward his home country. "In Syria, when a single dissident was arrested during the administration of George W. Bush, at the very least the White House spokesman would condemn it. Under the Obama administration: nothing."
Nor is Mr. Hendi a fan of this administration's efforts to engage the regime, most recently by deciding to send an ambassador to Damascus for the first time since 2005. "This gives confidence to the regime," he says. "They are not capable of a dialogue; they don't believe in it. They believe in force." (Z: WHEN will American intel understand the Arab mind? How many times have even I mentioned this here at geeeeeZ? Pride and force..period)
Mr. Hong put things this way: "When you look at the championing of dissidents . . . and even the rhetoric, it's dropped off sharply." Under Mr. Bush, he says, there were many high-profile meetings with North Korean dissidents. "They went out of their way to show this was a priority."
Then there is Marcel Granier, the president of RCTV, Venezuela's oldest and most popular television station. He employs several thousand people—or at least he did until Hugo Chávez cancelled the network's license in 2007. Now, he's struggling to maintain an independent channel on cable: Mr. Chávez ordered the cable networks not to carry his station in January. Government supporters have attacked his home with tear gas twice, yet he remains in the country, tirelessly advocating for media freedom.
Like many of the democrats at the conference, Mr. Granier was excited by Mr. Obama's historic election, and inspired by the way he energized American voters. But a year and a half later, he's disturbed by the administration's silence as his country slips rapidly towards dictatorship. "In Afghanistan," he quips, "at least they know that America will be involved for the next 18 months."
This sense of abandonment has been fueled by real policy shifts. Just this week word came that the administration cut funds to promote democracy in Egypt by half. Programs in countries like Jordan and Iran have also faced cuts. Then there are the symbolic gestures: letting the Dalai Lama out the back door, paltry statements of support for Iranian demonstrators, smiling and shaking hands with Mr. Chávez, and so on. (Z: funny, they've cut funds toward promoting democracy here, too :-)
Daniel Baer, a representative from the State Department who participated in the conference, dismissed the notion that the White House has distanced itself from human-rights promotion as a baseless "meme" when I raised the issue. But in fact all of this is of a piece of Mr. Obama's overarching strategy to make it abundantly clear that he is not his predecessor.
Mr. Bush is almost certainly aware that the freedom agenda, the centerpiece of his presidency, has become indelibly linked to the war in Iraq and to regime change by force. Too bad. The peaceful promotion of human rights and democracy—in part by supporting the individuals risking their lives for liberty—are consonant with America's most basic values. Standing up for them should not be a partisan issue.
Yet for now Mr. Bush is simply not the right poster boy: He can't successfully rebrand and depoliticize the freedom agenda. So perhaps he hopes that by sitting back he can let Americans who remain wary of publicly embracing this cause become comfortable with it again. For the sake of the courageous democrats in countries like Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela, Colombia, China and Russia, let's hope so.
Ms. Weiss is an assistant editorial features editor at the Journal.