Former President George W. Bush with Ammar Abdulhamid, left, who fled Syria, and Bob Fu, an immigrant from China, at an event honoring people working for freedom.
The New York Times By PETER BAKER Published: May 15, 2012
WASHINGTON — In the three years since he left office, former President George W. Bush has largely stayed out of the political arena. He has spent his time mapping out his library, making speeches, hosting injured veterans for Texas bicycle rides and making clear how glad he is to be out of the nation’s capital.
But gingerly, the 43rd president is beginning to add his voice back into the national dialogue. A month ago, he spoke publicly in favor of one of his defining domestic legacies, the tax cuts that still divide the country. Two months from now, he plans to publish a book outlining strategies for economic growth. And on Tuesday, he made a rare return to Washington to promote freedom overseas.
At an event less than two blocks from the White House, Mr. Bush gathered former aides and human rights leaders to unveil the “Freedom Collection” sponsored by his public policy institute, an assemblage of interviews with dissidents who took on autocratic regimes. Along the way, Mr. Bush used the occasion to endorse Mitt Romney for president and to nudge both political parties to do more to support revolutionaries and build democratic institutions around the world.
“America does not get to choose if a freedom revolution should begin or end in the Middle East or elsewhere,” Mr. Bush said in his speech. “It only gets to choose what side it is on. The tactics of promoting freedom will vary, case by case. But America’s message should ring clear and strong: We stand for freedom and for the institutions and habits that make freedom work for everyone.”
He singled out Syria, where the government of President Bashar al-Assad has killed thousands to squelch opposition. “All of us here today join you in hoping and praying for the end of violence and the advance of freedom in Syria,” Mr. Bush told Ammar Abdulhamid, a prominent Syrian opposition figure invited to speak at the event.
Mr. Bush did not mention President Obama or Mr. Romney in his speech, but former aides said it was clear that his words were meant to urge both to pay more attention to an issue he considered a hallmark of his tenure.
“He is very concerned about what he likes to call isolationism,” said a former Bush administration official, who asked not to be identified presuming to speak for Mr. Bush. “If there is a nudge involved, it is completely bipartisan. Hardly anyone is doing enough to support dissidents and freedom advocates these days.”
The “freedom agenda” Mr. Bush advocated during his presidency proved more controversial than its stated goals. Because it became associated with the Iraq war, many critics saw it as a way of spreading an American-style system at gunpoint, something Mr. Bush always denied. Moreover, the demands of geopolitics often made its application seem inconsistent; the Bush administration applied relentless pressure on countries like Syria, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and Belarus, but approached more cautiously with nations it needed, like Russia, China and Saudi Arabia.
Now, out of office, Mr. Bush has more latitude to speak on the issue, and advisers said he hoped to make it central to his life’s work. He wants to make the George W. Bush Institute, which along with his future library is at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, a haven for dissidents to share stories, history, tactics and inspiration. Dozens of interviews are already featured on a Web site, www.freedomcollection.org.
Among those he brought together on Tuesday were Bob Fu, a Chinese-born pastor; Normando Hernández, a former political prisoner in Cuba; and Viktor A. Yushchenko, who helped lead the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate who after decades of house arrest and struggles was just elected to the Parliament in Myanmar, spoke via Skype.
While Mr. Bush was focused on politics overseas, he finally put his toe into politics at home. As he was leaving the event, a reporter asked him about the presidential race. “I’m for Mitt Romney,” he said before ducking away. Mr. Bush had declined to endorse until now.
Later in the day, Mr. Bush joined former President Bill Clinton for a fund-raiser at the Newseum to bring in money for a $76 million memorial to the heroes and victims of United Flight 93, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001, after passengers confronted hijackers.
But Mr. Bush did not plan to linger in the capital. As he spoke about his Freedom Collection, he said, “I actually found my freedom by leaving Washington.”
A version of this article appeared in print on May 16, 2012, on page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: Bush Dips a Toe Back Into Washington.