Faith and Foreign Policy

Still No Obama Nominee for Religious Freedom Ambassador

This blog post originally appeared in the American Principles Project blog on September 3, 2009.

Despite Barak Obama's conspicuous references to religious freedom in his Cairo speech and during the U.S.-China strategic talks, the President has not yet announced a nominee for the post of Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom (IRF), a position established by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act.
Meanwhile, Obama's nominee for Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL), Mike Posner, may become de facto head of the religious freedom operation at State. IRF supporters hope that the IRF ambassador's nomination will emerge soon so that the issue will begin to get some sustained high level attention at Foggy Bottom.

Unfortunately, indifference to the IRF nomination is not new. After George W. Bush took office, it took only 6 months for his DRL assistant secretary to arrive at State, but 16 months for his IRF ambassador. In the interim Secretary of State Colin Powell seriously considered "double hatting" the DRL assistant secretary as IRF ambassador, which would have effectively killed the IRF initiative.

In the end, thanks to pressure from Rep Chris Smith and others, Powell did not do this. Instead he simply followed the precedent set by his predecessor, Madeleine Albright. When the IRF ambassador, John Hanford, finally arrived at State, he was placed under the DRL assistant secretary (despite the fact that an ambassador at large was, in the Department's nomenclature, senior to an assistant secretary). All this meant that the office and the function were effectively isolated at Foggy Bottom during the Bush years, with little impact on American foreign policy. At the time there was little attention to this problem by Congress, the administration, or the media.

Fortunately, that is beginning to change. Some of these issues are explored in a current "America Abroad" radio program on U.S. International Religious Freedom policy, which includes interviews by Ray Suarez of earlier IRF ambassadors and your scribe (available here). Moreover, the administration is said to be conducting a review of religion and foreign policy, and is paying attention to policy recommendations such as those published by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs and the Center on Faith and International Affairs. Another set of recommendations will come in October from the Chicago World Affairs Council.

Supporters of religious freedom should pay close attention to the Obama administration's nominee, where he or she is placed in the State Department, and whether the President's fine words on religious liberty have concrete policy consequences. International religious freedom is more than a humanitarian matter that can safely be placed in the diplomatic backwater at State. It is a subject that implicates the fundamental interests of the American people, including their interest in national security and the defeat of Islamist terrorism. As such it should receive a much higher priority than it has to date.

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