This week let us give credit where credit is not normally due: to Nancy Pelosi and the Nobel Prize Committee. On Friday, in the face of Chinese bullying, the committee will proceed with its ceremony honoring this year’s peace prize recipient—the imprisoned democrat Liu Xiaobo. And Speaker Pelosi wants to be there.

Good for her. Mrs. Pelosi’s presence would highlight one of the most ignored soft-power opportunities for President Obama: face-to-face meetings with dissidents or their relatives and surrogates.

Among the cocktail circuit, George W. Bush was, to mix metaphors, the cowboy in the china shop. He was the hard-power guy, invading Iraq and Afghanistan. The caricatures, alas, blinded the press from another side Mr. Bush deemed just as crucial for his freedom agenda: personal meetings with religious and civil activists.

These meetings ranged from quiet get-togethers in the White House residence to high-profile appearances such as the conference of dissidents held in Prague and organized by former Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky. Many in the realist camp dismiss such meetings and events as feel-good exercises. That is a remarkably narrow understanding of realism.

Why? Because amid the necessary compromises of any foreign policy, such meetings remind the world that America is not neutral in the battle between freedom and tyranny. That’s also why oppressors loathe them: Even when unaccompanied by harsh rhetoric, a simple meeting between an American president and a dissident exposes before the world the moral gap between those rotting away in jail cells for their work for freedom and those who have put them there.

Such encounters put tinpots on notice: You do not decide whom the president of the United States meets, or when he meets them. That’s a lesson the Obama administration could have used back in February, when it gave the world the image of the Dalai Lama exiting out past White House garbage bins.

As someone privy to these kinds of discussions during my own time at the White House, I’ll admit that it’s not easy for a president to meet with a dissident. All the institutional forces are against it: the ambassadors who will be called onto the carpet by the foreign ministries; the diplomats negotiating some important treaty or agreement; the staffers who simply don’t see why presidential time should be spent on some foreigner they’ve never heard of.

In my time, for example, I proposed that President Bush meet privately with Joseph Cardinal Zen, perhaps the most respected public figure in Hong Kong. Immediately the objections and roadblocks came tumbling out. In the end, it happened because President Bush insisted.

At least in the short term, maybe that meeting did make it more difficult to do some things with China. Presidential timidity, however, carries its own costs, which dissidents know from bitter experience.

Nguyen Dan Que, a physician who spent many years in jail in Vietnam for his work for democracy, puts it this way: “When dictators see a U.S. government compromise its voice on universal values, the message they take is that they need not fear when they abuse the human rights or suppress the democratic freedoms of their people to keep themselves in power.”

In the long run, a pro-dissident White House will have empowering effects, especially in places where American options are most limited. As Mr. Sharansky has written, “Meeting the leader of the free world transforms the dissident in the eyes of his people from a lonely Don Quixote to the person who can expose the truth about their suffering to the outside world and influence the world to take action to address it.”

Put it this way: When you are sitting behind that desk in the Oval Office, whom do you want to encourage: the Sharanskys, the Ques and the Lius—or their jailers?

With regard to Mr. Liu, an administration spokesman reminds me that President Obama “was one of the only world leaders to issue a statement when the award was announced congratulating Liu and calling for his release.” He notes in particular a town hall with students in China, in addition to speeches and drop-bys with other activists. In a hopeful tease, he says “We’re not going to preview what [President Obama] does on the day of [Mr. Liu’s] award.”

These are all to the good. Still, Mr. Obama seems more comfortable with big speeches directed at broad “cultures”—e.g., the “people of the world” (Berlin), the “Muslim world” (Cairo), and so on. In such grand addresses, the courage of individuals can be lost.

On Friday, Mr. Liu will not be able to collect his Nobel Prize because China won’t let him out of jail. What a splendid opportunity it gives President Obama to speak up for his fellow laureate.

And maybe encourage all true friends of the United States by inviting a few Chinese democrats home for tea.
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