A Discussion with Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
With: Elliott Abrams
February 10, 2010
Background: As part of the Foreign Policy Practitioners Interview Series, Dr. Thomas Farr interviewed Elliott Abrams, former member and chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and current senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations Washington Office. In this interview, Abrams speaks about how his professional and religious experience led to his involvement with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Additionally, he comments on how the importance of religious freedom has played out in U.S. politics from the Reagan administration through the Obama administration.
Let's talk primarily about your role as one of the first commissioners on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which was created in 1998.But first I’d like to hear a bit about how your prior experience, both professional and religious, might have informed your thinking about religious freedom. Let me just mention a few of the things that you’ve done in your life, which has certainly been a rich one. In the seventies, you worked for Senators Henry ("Scoop") Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In the eighties, you held three assistant secretaryships under the Reagan administration, the most relevant of which for our purposes was assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs (currently known as the bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor). In the nineties, you went to the Hudson Institute and later became President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which is where I met you and in which capacity you came on board as one of the first Commissioners. Looking back, give us a sense of how these kinds of jobs and intellectual pursuits, as well as your religious views, might have formed you.
Those are hard questions. The most relevant position was, as you said, the human rights bureau position at State, though prior to that, for a year I was assistant secretary for international organizations—meaning primarily the UN. Those four and a half years showed me that the underlying notion behind the creation of the Commission on International Religious Freedom was correct. Namely, that the State Department, or U.S. foreign policy in general, had a tendency to downplay religious freedom. The matters to which we paid more attention were certainly deserving of attention—free press, free speech, free assembly, trade unions—but we never seemed to get to religious freedom.
One could speculate as to why, but I don’t think the conclusion is really that arguable. The creation of the Commission was, in part, Congress’s reaction to the dawning realization of this problem and the insistence that religion should get a larger role. And so one of the things I came to this Commission with was the notion that Congress was right in using a bureaucratic instrumentality that is to say creating the Commission to force the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch to play a little more attention. The geographical area about which I knew most about then was Latin America where this was—
Because you served as assistant secretary for—
Latin America in the second Reagan term—was less directly relevant because religious freedom has been much less of a problem in Latin America than almost any other area in the world. I guess the other great benefit of having been at State was the bureaucratic one. That is having a sense of who the State Department was dealing with and what the problem would be in having our voice heard. I might say parenthetically, the question of how to establish a Commission turned out to be, for me, a very fascinating one.
On the personal side, I’m a somewhat observant Jew who had been active in Jewish community life. And that was another great influence on my participation in the system. Not so much because we were coping with anti-Semitism at that time, but, more generally, because of the sense that there was such a thing as religious prejudice and that one had to look very carefully whatever the headline said, whatever official spokesmen, and of course, whatever the governments said—at the condition of, for example, Copts or Baha’i, or other small minorities that could be in danger.
So in this sense, is it the experience of being a religious minority in America? Is that the connection you’re making rather than the broader anti-Semitism?
No. I would say it’s not so much being a religious minority in America as being a religious minority elsewhere in the world. The American experience for Jews has actually been a very happy one. The experience in Europe, in some places in Latin America, certainly in Middle East, has been far more mixed and, on some occasions, extremely unhappy. And I’m not even referring to the Holocaust but, for example, the treatment of Jews in Arab countries, which was not genocidal but which was poor. So I think there was a general concern about the question of religious minorities.
It strikes me that there are at least two reasonable inferences from what you've said. One is humanitarian. Minorities are subject to discrimination and sometimes persecution and it simply isn’t right that this be the case. Therefore, the United States should do what it can to right those wrongs. And then there is a more pragmatic way of looking at it, i.e., that these incidents are harbingers of deeper problems, particularly in countries—you mention the Arab world—where we have fundamental interests. It goes beyond the humanitarian to more concrete U.S. interests.
Is that a legitimate claim?
It is legitimate. I think that’s fair. That is the humanitarian part, I think all Americans would agree with just as we agree that we should try to help with racial prejudice, for example, or prejudice against women. But the experience at the State Department had suggested to me and even the experience working with Senator Jackson on Soviet Jewry had suggested that the State Department often viewed religion as unimportant or annoying as a feature in international life. The mistake there was not moral but practical. There were many theories of this; one theory was that people in the State Department were generally less religious than average Americans. That is possible. I don’t know that anybody’s ever done a study of it so I don’t know whether we know it, but I think it is fair to say that the culture of the place did not foster displays of religiosity. It was thought to be something that you kept out of the workplace. Not the real work of the State Department. You can miss a lot about the political life of a country if you miss that point. If you think of the last five or ten years in Turkey, you cannot successfully analyze the change in Turkey, the rise of the AK party and so forth, without understanding the question of religion, religiosity and, in particular, the AK party's view of Islam. So there was a pragmatic question.
Do you think we missed opportunities in Turkey as a result of this shortsightedness?
I would ask that question about Turkey and India. The way I like to put it is: we looked at India for decades and what did we see? Gandhi and Nehru. And it looks as though we thought that everyone in India went to the London School of Economics, if they didn’t go to Oxford. We were shocked when the BJP party, a Hindu nationalist party, arose. And the question, then, we have to ask about India is whether that’s the real India; a Hindu nation of hundreds of millions of people whose true identity is not enlightenment and neutrality in international politics.
With that analogy in mind, I would say the same thing about Turkey. We understood Turkey as the country of Ataturk—all secular. And I think we can see [the importance of religion] from these waves of Islamist parties, which were then repressed, for example the Motherland party, the Welfare party, and finally the AK party takes power. Whatever one’s criticisms of the way one of those parties used power, you can’t really look back at that history without saying that underlying it, there were millions of Turks who did not think of themselves as Kemalists, but rather as Muslims.
Why did we not see that in either of those two countries? Why did we not understand the power of religion?
I think part of the answer is the prevailing view among American foreign policy elites, whatever their private lives, that it is a kind of separation of church and state issue. That just as we do not allow religion to interfere with public life in America we cannot allow it to interfere with our foreign policy.
And you may recall that in the early days of the Commission, this issue often arose. People would say, “you cannot have a commission on religion and foreign policy. You cannot make these statements about the treatment of religion in other countries because of the separation of church and state." Well, as a lawyer, I would say that’s a ludicrous misunderstanding of the Constitutional provision but many intelligent, well-meaning people thought it.
My sense is that many still do.
Are there policy mentors that may have gotten some of this right, either because of their religious beliefs or just because of a deeper wisdom about the world that you can think of?
Well, I should just state for the record, because fair is fair, how I got on the Commission. Although he was not a mentor, it was Newt Gingrich. When the Commission was initially appointed, the speaker of the house got to make several appointments and I was one of them. I don’t know that I’d met him prior to the day he appointed me.
But that’s a hard question. The person that comes to mind, of course, is Senator Jackson because of the Soviet Jewry movement. But that was more a matter, on the part of the Soviet Jews, of ethnicity than religion. And I would say the same thing with respect to Jackson that it was not so much that as a religious man, he was concerned about their ability to practice their religion, but rather it was a piece of the Cold War.
I would add that there was back then a fellow in prison in the Soviet Union named Anatoly Sharansky. He did not have an intellectual influence on me because I never met or read anything by him other than the statement he made in court when he was convicted. Since then, however, Sharansky has become a friend. He has written about the question of identity, religious, ethnic, national. And he has reported on the disputes that arose in the Soviet Union between those who were human rights activists, and those who were fighting for what you might call a narrower cause—like the right to practice Orthodox Christianity or to learn Hebrew and move to Israel. And there was a split among them; there was tension among them. And many of the people thought these other identities were going to undermine and weaken the fight for human rights or the universal fight for human rights.
What Sharansky argues, in a more recent book, is that that’s exactly wrong. That, in fact, it’s very hard to fight for universal values if you don’t actually have a base on which to stand, which would be your own identity.
And just to take it a little bit further, there are academic arguments for universality, Kantian and other non-religious arguments, that people outside the academy find not very convincing. There are also arguments from within religious traditions—Judaism, Christianity certainly, and possibly in Islam—that can have universal applicability because of the monotheistic nature of the deity. And so regarding Sharansky’s point: Religion as an identity can be a source of universal understandings of human dignity, but often it is not seen that way. This is a subtlety that was perhaps overlooked in the State Department at the time.
In her 2006 book, former secretary Madeline Albright wrote about this problem, and said some things similar to what you've said about the American diplomat. (The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on God, America, and World Affairs). She writes, in my day, “religion was above and beyond reason; it evoked the deepest passions and historically, it was the cause of much bloodshed. Diplomats in my era were taught not to invite trouble, and no subject seemed more inherently treacherous than religion.” Her book argues that this orientation was, and is, a fundamental mistake.
Obviously I think she’s right. Especially if you believe that religion is extremely divisive, you would wish to pay very close attention to it. And you would perhaps have a better understanding of what was going to happen in the Balkans after the collapse of Yugoslavia. We did not predict, I think, the savagery that broke out, but perhaps we would have.
Let’s talk now about the establishment of the Commission. You said that Speaker Gingrich appointed you. After George W. Bush took office we began to go through process that we’re going through with the Obama administration right now. Who’s going to be the nominee for ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom?
Back then a number of names were floated. One was Senator Coats. Early on we heard his name but then, he was talked about as secretary of defense so that went away. But I also heard your name and I’m wondering whether that position was something that you ever gave serious consideration to or were interested in.
I don’t remember thinking of myself as a serious candidate.
Okay. Well, this is not common knowledge, but you may recall it when I tell it to you, that it took President Bush a full year to get his ambassador in place, John Hanford. And there were a variety of reasons for it. But from my perch in the State Department—...
Now that you mention John Hanford, I take it back because now that—
Triggering your memory?
It triggers the memory. Yes I did. I remember being told that John Hanford was interested and that because of Senator Elizabeth Dole—.
The question really became whether she was going to push seriously for it and if she didn’t, I would be a serious candidate but if she did, he was going to get it, which is what happened. So I would correct that answer. Yes, I was interested.
When Bush won the election, the job I was most likely to get, having been chair of the commission, was ambassador-at-large for religious freedom. Then Hanford got it. What happened was I was still Chairman of the Commission, and we had met with Clinton and with Sandy Berger and with Madeline Albright, and so we thought we’ll tell the Bush people you had to meet with us too. As the Chairman of the Commission, I eventually met with Powell and Rice in April. I was the spokesman because I was the Chairman. Later that day I had a call from Rich Armitage and Steve Hadley, each offering me a job. I eventually took the offer from Condi Rice at the NSC, Senior Director for Democracy, Human Rights, and International Operations. So actually, being Chairman of the Commission did lead me to getting a job in the Bush administration in a more direct path.
As for Hanford, the sequence was that his name was mentioned very early but there was opposition within the Republican ranks. Hanford was not confirmed by the Senate until December 2001 and took his position at State in May 2002.
This is not surprising in the sense that it took so long to get an assistant secretary for human rights and more importantly, it was not surprising given the demolition of human rights structure in NSC. When I was there, there was Eric Schwartz, the senior director, who was kept on for a couple months. I started around Memorial Day, 2001. The structure remained. They hired Mike Kozak as senior director.
I should add that John Hanford had some good qualifications for the job, having been one of the major drafters of the International Religious Freedom Act and having worked on the issue for a number of years.
Back to 1999, still in the Clinton administration, the first Commissioners are meeting. There were four Republicans and five Democrats, because you had a Democrat President. The way the law is set up, the Presidential party has five. Among others you had John Bolton and Nina Shea, Republican appointees, and Democratic commissioners such as David Saperstein, who became the first Chair, Archbishop McCarrick, Leila Al-Marayati, and Firuz Kazemzadeh, who is Baha’i.
Tell us about your early meetings.
Well, two things. One: where did we meet? We met at David Saperstein’s offices at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He had a conference room and we would go over there several times, I remember meetings over there—numerous times—until we finally established an office. We would try to figure this out.
Before I get to the substance of it, you know Congress passes a bill that that says there will be a Commission on International Religious Freedom. Here are the people, here’s the budget. The Speaker, the President make their appointments. From a bureaucratic point of view, from an administrative point of view there’s nothing there. There’s no commission. There’s only a bill. So, for example, how do you rent office space? You can go over and say, “I need to get this office space,” show the guy the bill Congress has passed. He says, “Well yeah. Who’s going to pay for the offices here?” Or you want to get the cards printed up. What do you mean you want to get cards printed up? Who says you’re a member of this commission? Who ever heard of this commission? You want to travel, you want to hire a staff! You want to hire a staff director, a research director and they say, “what’s the salary?” “I don’t know what the salary is.” Who knows what the salary scale is? And how do you get them paid? So the actual question of—
You didn’t get right into high policy matters.
No. This is ex nihilo. You have nothing and the next day Congress says, “Let there be a commission.” So that took months and months. And we were fortunate to find along the way some people who had done this before who had been present when Congress said “let there be light” in other cases and ultimately, we did it, you know. And we took office on North Capitol Street and hired a staff.
I believe your first executive director was Steve McFarland.
And Jeremy Gunn, who had some experience on commissions and is a lawyer.
The key was the woman was the office director really who had to get it done because in the end, the hard part is not figuring out what to do about Egypt; the hard part is figuring out how do you get an office or a desk or a phone. That’s really a part that would have made George Washington shudder.
Now on the substance of it, we had all these questions to ask ourselves. What is the culture? For example, is the function to do these are not necessarily incompatible are we to do independent research? So the State Department says one thing about Muslims in Denmark and we say another? Is it to criticize, to do reports on U.S. policy that says “attention is not being paid to X and it ought to be?” Is it to prepare testimony? Is it to deal with the press? To whom should we direct our attention in the government: NSC, State—which bureau? Is it the human rights bureau, is that really our person? How do we relate to the ambassador-at-large? That actually became the question. What is the role of the ambassador?
Who by law was ex-officio and non-voting.
Yes. And there was a question of how dependent or independent were we and what influence should the ambassador have. Likewise, the assistant secretary for human rights. So all these question were on the table. Then there was the question of priorities. Another technical question but very much related to priorities: where might we travel? That would to some degree like the question of what would be the subject of first hearings show what we thought were the critical questions? Was it Islam? Was it China? Was it a group like the Baha’i? Big questions, little questions, geographical questions. All of these were new questions for us because we were a new commission.
How did David Saperstein become the first chair? Was it simply a vote?
The thing I remember most about the early days was, you would not be surprised, that we did a lot of conference calls. People were all over the country. Firuz [Kazemzedeh], for example, lives in California. Leila [al Marayati] lives in California. So we did a lot of our work by conference call. Those of us who lived in Washington would show up at David’s office. There was a very bad telephone hookup. My memory is initially, it was just a phone, we pushed the speakerphone button and David who has a loud voice anyway had the view that this thing was not working too well and that therefore, you had to speak loudly or the people in California wouldn’t hear you. So most of the meetings became screaming sessions. That's one of my strongest memories of the experience.
How did David become chair?
Well, I don’t know. You weren’t going to make it a very partisan Republican. My memory is it was hard to make it one of us, i.e., a Republican, which would generate too much suspicion from the Democrats. It really ought to be someone near Washington. I think that was an element of it. It had to be a Democrat. It should be, we thought, a Washingtonian. It ought to be someone who had a fair amount of time on his hands. We wouldn’t, for example, take, say, a lawyer who could do this for an hour a week. So David seemed to be the most logical candidate and I don’t recall that as being a difficult decision.
Right. In fact, my recollection is there was very little, if any, interparty tension in the first Commission, even though there were some strong-willed commissioners.
I think that’s right. That’s my recollection as well.
Some of that may have been the start up feeling, as in "we’re in this together."
Oh there’s no question there was an era of good feeling. And by the end of one year or two years there had been some falling out. I, for example, was, more or less, not speaking to Leila. But the beginning, yeah, there was definitely a good deal of esprit de corps.
I want to talk about your trip to the Middle East, which may have some relationship to your falling out with Leila. But before we do that, Ambassador Bob Seiple said to me, in the interview we did with him recently, that he recalls an early meeting with the Commission. At some point someone posed the foundational question “do we light a candle or curse the darkness?” And he recalls a great silence after which you said something like, “Well, I guess we curse the darkness.”
I don’t recall this exchange but I’m willing to accept credit because I think it’s the right answer. Congress created this—not the executive branch—to pressure, to say you’re not doing this right and you are not paying attention to the following terrible circumstances. The best example might be Saudi Arabia. Administration after administration of both parties always gave them a pass on their despicable treatment of religious freedom. Or rather, as the annual State Department report accurately says, it is a country without religious freedom. So that I think was and is the job of the Commission.
I recall email conversations with you after you left the Commission, on the subject of Saudi Arabia. In the early years, neither the Clinton administration nor the Bush administration put Saudi Arabia on the list of Countries of Particular Concern. It wasn’t until 2004 or so that it finally got on the list.
Do you recall, was it just change in the zeitgeist? Was it the al-Qaeda phenomenon?
I do not recall. There’ve got to be memos on this that will ultimately be declassified. Logically it is not possible that State Department reports say each year that “there is no religious freedom in Saudi Arabia” But they are not on the [CPC] list. And that’s how the report began. So how is it possible that you’re not on the list, how could that be? Now, there was a converse push which was to change the language rather than put Saudi Arabia on the list. In fact, I even remember arguing with John Hanford. He wanted to change the language. And we felt it is iconic language. Sure, you could say the thing in a different way. But you shouldn’t. Because everyone would look for the words as important symbols of willingness to tell the truth about Saudi Arabia even if we didn’t do much about it. But I don’t remember how we got them on the list.
Well there were other conspicuous absences. North Korea, of all places, was left off. The argument then was not that it didn’t deserve to be there but that we don’t have enough concrete evidence.
Yes, that’s right.
Tell us about your trip to Saudi Arabia. Who was chair of the Commission at the time?
David was still chair during our trip to Saudi Arabia. When went to see Prince Salman in Riyadh, David spoke for us, at least initially, because he was Chairman.
Who else was on the trip?
It varied by place. For example, I did Saudi Arabia and Egypt but not Israel. Archbishop [of New Jersey, Theodore] McCarrick only went to Saudi Arabia.
So there were three countries on the trip?
Yes. Laila and Firuz went to all three. What was interesting in Saudi Arabia was less the conversations with Saudi officials than with Americans. What was more interesting, we met for example with the minister for religion or the minister of justice—the Al Sheikh family has those two ministries, the founders of Wahhabism. I said to the minister who was an Imam, “You say religion is the most important thing in the whole world. Nothing’s more important than religion, worshipping God. How can you not let people worship God?” He said, “everybody is free to worship.” I said, “No, come on. You know a little bit about Roman Catholicism. It is not possible to be a good Catholic, worshipping in your room. There are sacraments. The practice of that religion requires a priest. You know that. So why don’t you let them do it?” There are a million Filipinos, who are Catholics, in Saudi Arabia.
The answer from the minister was, “We didn’t change the rules, you know. And those Filipinos came here knowing the rules. If they felt so strongly about not having the sacraments, they shouldn’t have come here.” He said "By the way, I’m not saying that Muslim countries shouldn’t have religious freedom. But this is not any Muslim country. This is Arabia. This is the home of the prophet. This is Mecca and Medina. Here, there cannot be any religion practiced other than Islam.” And I said, “Well, wait a minute. There are churches in Bahrain, the Emirates, Qatar. Everyone on the peninsula has churches except you. So you’re saying that all those countries should close the churches?” “Yes.” It’s an interesting answer.
In a way, the most interesting part of the trip was at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh. We did a meeting with the staff and at that meeting the Charge (I think the ambassador was out of town), he said, “you know there’s no churches, there’s no public practice of religion, but private practice of religion is fine. Here in the Embassy, we have a Mormon group, a Protestant group, a Catholic group.” We did this for 45 minutes and then we broke up and several people on the staff lingered and said to us, these are lies. We can’t practice our religion in private. This is like Nazi Germany or communist Russia. The way we have to do these things is you call someone and say, “My Aunt Sally is visiting Sunday. Want to come over for lunch?” You cannot say over the phones, all of which are tapped, that there will be a religious service Sunday at 10 o’clock. If you have cars gathered at someone’s house, they’ll break it up. So the picture we were getting from the Embassy, officially, was false. I remember vividly what they told us.
So you can pray privately so long as there’s nothing more to it than that, but you can’t gather with more than a few people?
Yes, you could be arrested. I remember the Filipino ambassador came over and I asked him a question about how bad it was. I remember very well the following exchange though I can’t quote the exact language. I said, “This is just terrible. Don’t you complain to the Saudis? Don’t you protest and demand changes?” The ambassador paused and he looked at me and said, “I represent the Philippines. You represent the United States of America. Does your ambassador protest?” A memorable exchange.
It must have been an extraordinary spectacle at Riyadh airport when your delegation arrived—a Catholic archbishop, an unveiled professional American Muslim woman, a Baha’i, a Jewish rabbi, and yourself.
Yes, it was extraordinary. We saw Prince Salman, then and still now governor of Riyadh, a pretty impressive guy, who dealt with us impressively. It got to be about five o’clock, the meeting was four to five, and he asked if we’d been to the museum. The museum in question was the Saud family museum with all the stuff about the founder, his father, Ibn Saud, with photos of him with T.E. Lawrence and Roosevelt. We said “no.” And he said, “Well, you should go.” And David said, “Well, we can’t.” And he said, “Why?” And David said, “It closes at five.” And I remember thinking, David, David, David, this is not Chicago or New York. The Prince laughed and laughed. He thought it was a very funny joke that David had just made. So indeed we went over there and it was open and oddly enough, it stayed open until we left. Anyway, Archbishop McCarrick was not permitted to wear or did not feel comfortable wearing his collar.
We went to a restaurant for dinner, in a “mixed seating allowed” area. Later, they wanted to fly us to Jeddah to see a son of the then King, who is now in eclipse since the King’s death, nicknamed Azuz, who was known as an oaf and a fool and a loudmouth. We said we can’t fly up there because we have to go to Cairo. While taking a minibus from the palace in Jeddah to the airport, Leila was not covering and she was sitting in a seat next to a window. At a red light the guy driving the car next to us saw her—and his mouth hung open. Having been dry for three days, when we got on the plane we asked if there are any drinks on the plane. This was half a joke because it’s a Saudi royal plane. But as soon as they retracted the wheels, they were happy to serve us the finest whiskeys and wines, as they served to the Saudi royalty, who lie to their own people about their habits.
Tell us about your other meetings. And what was the issue with Leila Al-Marayati, a pediatrician from California and the first Muslim member of the Commission?
And her husband was head of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee. In Egypt, we met with the Coptic Pope and we met officials of the Egyptian government. On Saturday morning I did not participate in our meetings because it was the Jewish Sabbath. One of the things that happened before we left—Firuz asked to go to the prison where there were a bunch of Baha’i incarcerated for being Baha’i, in my opinion, and Firuz described it to me, a very dramatic moment. People may not have known that he was Baha’i; they just knew he was some kind of American official who was coming to talk to them. Once the guards moved back and out of the room, Firuz put his hand on the table and he wears a ring, which a Baha’i would recognize as meaning you are Baha’i and he saw the amazing looks of the faces of the prisoners, to know that an American official was Baha’i. It is a moment one would wish to experience with him.
I don’t remember a lot of meetings with officials. I do remember a meeting with Copts. There, being a Jew was helpful in this sense: Jews have had to get along, historically, in a lot of places where they were a minority and had to deal with officialdom. There were, for hundreds of years, “Court Jews” who were, in a sense, part of the official apparatus—and yet not. That was the context in which it seemed to me this Pope and the bishops operating below him were operating. They were leery of saying to an American official, “It’s terrible here.” In a sense we had to draw our own conclusions from things they said and didn’t say. You may see Christian women working in the airport, visibly displaying crosses. But when you talk about university admissions, government bureaucracy, much less admission to the army and security forces, or permission to build or repair a church, you weren’t going to hear any critical comment about President Mubarak from the Pope. All you could get was by asking, “When did you decide the church needed repair? How long have you been asking for permission?” The answer was often something like twenty years. So you could draw your own conclusions.
Leila was very annoyed at me for not attending some meeting that morning and she was also very annoyed at me for not going to Israel. I was very annoyed at her, in part, because we made a rule early on, one of the first things we did when we met as a Commission, that our conversations were off the record. And on several occasions—this is my take, she has hers—over the years, she would write op-eds in which she would state, “the following conflict took place. So and so said this to so and so,” which at the time, and now, seems to be completely indefensible.
Was there a dispute over a report of the Commission as well?
That may be true too. Yes. The trip report is probably a likely suspect. I don’t remember much controversy about Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It was a normal editing process. This was not the case with respect to Israel.
Let’s end with a brief look to the present and the future. We’re eleven months into the Obama Administration. Very soon after Secretary of State Clinton came into office, she named the ambasador-at large for global women's issues, who works directly under the secretary like most ambassadors-at-large. But there is still no nominee, let alone a confirmed ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. We do have some interesting words from the President on religious freedom in his Cairo speech. Is there anything in this administration that leads you to believe they will treat this issue seriously?
Prior to the Obama administration no one ever contemplated not filling the post of senior director for Democracy and Human Rights. Yet no such post exists in the Obama NSC. The directorate of democracy, human rights and international organizations has been taken apart and different pieces have been put under other senior directors. I think that there is an ideological problem here. First, the promotion of democracy and human rights is associated, in their minds, with Bush. And there is a not-so-surprising tendency to say whatever Bush was for, we’re against. Every administration has a certain amount of that. This is inevitable to a certain extent. There is a sense that, therefore, we’re going to do things differently. But that’s a mistake because even if you believe that democracy promotion the way Bush did it was a mistake, do it another way or shift back to human rights protections rather than democracy promotion. But this administration hasn’t done that. I can’t quite figure out why they haven’t.
Meanwhile, they’ve done some other bad things like cozying up to Syria without making human rights demands. President Obama has not yet met with the Dalai Lama. After the administration decided that it would change American policy in an effort to engage Iran to end the nuclear problem, there was a strong whiff of disappointment or unhappiness with the June demonstrations after the stolen election there because they are making it impossible to engage. So I think that they haven’t figured this out yet. So I disagree with their approach; there is a serious policy disagreement.
What I object to more is the failure of human rights supporters to rise and criticize. I attribute this partly to party loyalty because most human rights NGOs are left of center and Democrats; and partly, and perhaps this is unfair, at least in the early months, to people’s desires to get jobs and not antagonize those who might give them jobs.
And I attribute it to a philosophical approach to world politics that I don’t share. This administration believes in engagement and criticizes the Bush administration for being unilateralist. There is an argument to be made there. No question. I would disagree with it but it is an argument. The problem I think is that the administration hasn’t realized that engagement is almost necessarily with governments. I wrote a piece about this in the Weekly Standard this week. Engagement is with the guy across the table, i.e. a foreign minister—not a blogger, not a political prisoner or dissident or human rights activist. They are mistaking the person who sits across from them for the country, instead of the people of that country. And it’s dangerous for non-human rights reasons in the sense that if you mistake Ahmed Aboul Gheit for Egypt, you’re going to wake up one morning and find a revolution there and wish you had paid more attention. I think it’s very important to get a sense of what is actually going on in these places. We talked about Turkey and India before. We cannot put religion aside completely. In China, where religion plays a role, you can say well it’s essentially a city versus countryside question or a rich versus poor question. But what’s really going on underneath in the real China or the real Egypt? I think the Obama administration has often forgotten this. And that means they are by definition forgetting or marginalizing human rights and among the pieces of that pie, religion.
Thank you very much.