Commentary Magazine


Topic: Assistant Secretary

Obama’s Priorities

Obama’s dismal record on human rights and democracy promotion is increasingly evident to those on the Right and the Left. It extends from major policy decisions (indifference and hostility to the Green Movement) to appointments, or lack thereof. For example, 15 months into his term, he has yet to name an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom despite the pleas of advocacy groups. We know that anti-Semitic incidents doubled last year and Christian advocacy groups have likewise tracked “a surge in incidents of violence against Christians.” Obama did however appoint an envoy to the Organization of Islamic Conference. But the post of the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom goes unfilled.

Writing last month, Thomas Farr explained:

Almost 14 months into the Obama presidency, the ambassador at large for international religious freedom — a position mandated by the International Religious Freedom Act — has not been named, even though other positions of less weight and importance to our national interests have long been filled.

The leading candidate for the religious freedom job is said to be a highly intelligent and charismatic pastor, an author and a thoroughly good person who has the friendship of Secretary Hillary Clinton. Those are important attributes. Indeed, having the trust of the Secretary is vital. But more is needed. To be successful, this ambassador at large needs foreign policy experience. Without it, it will be extremely difficult to succeed within Foggy Bottom’s notoriously thorny bureaucracy, let alone deal with foreign officials who believe (as many do) that U.S. international religious freedom policy is a vehicle of cultural imperialism.

Worse, it appears that the new ambassador will be demoted before she is even nominated. Like her predecessors under Presidents Clinton and Bush, she will not be treated as an ambassador at large at all, but will report to a lower ranking official – the assistant secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Her placement alone will signal to American diplomats and foreign governments that they need not take U.S. religious freedom policy seriously.

And then there is the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which oversees the National Holocaust Museum. General David Petraeus spoke at the National Day of Remembrance sponsored by the museum. (His moving speech is worth reading in full here.) But Obama has yet to fill open slots on the Council, an informed observer tells me. Again, the disinterest in the organization is hard to miss.

Presidents make policy both by affirmative action as well as by signaling what is of little or no importance. When it comes to religious freedom and the Jewish community in particular, Obama’s actions and lack thereof are unmistakable, running from indifferent to hostile. So much for his campaign effort to make headway in the “faith based community.” One would have to show some dedication to the community he holds dear in order to do that.

UPDATE: A Council spokesman tells me there have been ten openings for four months.

Obama’s dismal record on human rights and democracy promotion is increasingly evident to those on the Right and the Left. It extends from major policy decisions (indifference and hostility to the Green Movement) to appointments, or lack thereof. For example, 15 months into his term, he has yet to name an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom despite the pleas of advocacy groups. We know that anti-Semitic incidents doubled last year and Christian advocacy groups have likewise tracked “a surge in incidents of violence against Christians.” Obama did however appoint an envoy to the Organization of Islamic Conference. But the post of the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom goes unfilled.

Writing last month, Thomas Farr explained:

Almost 14 months into the Obama presidency, the ambassador at large for international religious freedom — a position mandated by the International Religious Freedom Act — has not been named, even though other positions of less weight and importance to our national interests have long been filled.

The leading candidate for the religious freedom job is said to be a highly intelligent and charismatic pastor, an author and a thoroughly good person who has the friendship of Secretary Hillary Clinton. Those are important attributes. Indeed, having the trust of the Secretary is vital. But more is needed. To be successful, this ambassador at large needs foreign policy experience. Without it, it will be extremely difficult to succeed within Foggy Bottom’s notoriously thorny bureaucracy, let alone deal with foreign officials who believe (as many do) that U.S. international religious freedom policy is a vehicle of cultural imperialism.

Worse, it appears that the new ambassador will be demoted before she is even nominated. Like her predecessors under Presidents Clinton and Bush, she will not be treated as an ambassador at large at all, but will report to a lower ranking official – the assistant secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Her placement alone will signal to American diplomats and foreign governments that they need not take U.S. religious freedom policy seriously.

And then there is the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which oversees the National Holocaust Museum. General David Petraeus spoke at the National Day of Remembrance sponsored by the museum. (His moving speech is worth reading in full here.) But Obama has yet to fill open slots on the Council, an informed observer tells me. Again, the disinterest in the organization is hard to miss.

Presidents make policy both by affirmative action as well as by signaling what is of little or no importance. When it comes to religious freedom and the Jewish community in particular, Obama’s actions and lack thereof are unmistakable, running from indifferent to hostile. So much for his campaign effort to make headway in the “faith based community.” One would have to show some dedication to the community he holds dear in order to do that.

UPDATE: A Council spokesman tells me there have been ten openings for four months.

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You Don’t Have to Be a Harvard Think Tank

In a significant paper at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Jeffrey White and Loring White discuss the results of war games on the Iranian nuclear program conducted by three think tanks — at Harvard, Tel Aviv University, and the Brookings Institute — all of which ended in defeats for the U.S. and Israel. The common results were:

  • The United States did not obtain meaningful cooperation from other countries.
  • Sanctions did not seem to work.
  • The United States was unwilling to use military force or support Israeli military action even after other measures failed.
  • U.S.-Israeli relations deteriorated dramatically.
  • Iran continued toward a nuclear weapons capability.

The paper concludes that the U.S. needs to “play” much differently in the coming months if it wants to avoid those results, and time “is running out.”

The signals sent by the State Department since the expiration of Obama’s “deadline” have only reinforced the sense that the administration has no Plan B. On January 12, the department spokesman emphasized that recourse to the “pressure track” would be “a very long process,” starting with discussions of “ideas that any of the [P-5+1] partners have on how we can get Iran to live up its international obligations.” The “discussions” have largely been phone calls, since the administration cannot get the Chinese to send their political director to a meeting.

On Friday, Assistant Secretary P.J. Crowley announced that Under Secretary William Burns had a 90-minute conference call with his P-5+1 “counterparts” that discussed “both the pressure track and the negotiation track; discussed next steps in the process, both in terms of negotiation, took stock of the recent comments by Iran, but also continue to evaluate potential actions on the pressure track as well.” His statement produced this colloquy:

QUESTION: When you said counterparts, did that include the Chinese political director, or was it, in fact, the sous chef at the Embassy? (Laughter) …

QUESTION: Did they — I’m sorry if I missed it, but did they actually agree on any additional sanctions or language regarding –

MR. CROWLEY: That wasn’t the intent of the call. … It’s hard to characterize it other than they had a detailed discussion of where we are in the process and shared ideas on both tracks.

Discussions were supposed to have occurred long before this. On April 22, 2009, Hillary Clinton assured the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the administration was laying the groundwork for crippling sanctions if engagement failed:

BERMAN: … I can’t get away from the fact that Iran’s efforts to acquire a nuclear weapons capability keep going ahead, and — and that this engagement can’t be so-open-ended that we essentially pass the threshold that we’re seeking to avoid by virtue of the engagement. … Are we pursuing the — the default position, the — the leverage that I think will make the engagement more likely as we deal with key members of the international community and the Security Council?

CLINTON: … As the president said in his inaugural address, we’ll hold out our hand. They have to unclench their fist. But we are also laying the groundwork for the kind of very tough — I think you said crippling — sanctions that might be necessary in the event that our offers are either rejected or the process is inconclusive or unsuccessful.

Nine months past Clinton’s assurance, two months past the “deadline,” it is apparent that no groundwork has been laid. The discussions are just beginning; it will be a “very long process”; the administration is unenthusiastic about pending legislation authorizing “crippling” sanctions.

You don’t have to be part of a Harvard think tank to see where this is headed.

In a significant paper at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Jeffrey White and Loring White discuss the results of war games on the Iranian nuclear program conducted by three think tanks — at Harvard, Tel Aviv University, and the Brookings Institute — all of which ended in defeats for the U.S. and Israel. The common results were:

  • The United States did not obtain meaningful cooperation from other countries.
  • Sanctions did not seem to work.
  • The United States was unwilling to use military force or support Israeli military action even after other measures failed.
  • U.S.-Israeli relations deteriorated dramatically.
  • Iran continued toward a nuclear weapons capability.

The paper concludes that the U.S. needs to “play” much differently in the coming months if it wants to avoid those results, and time “is running out.”

The signals sent by the State Department since the expiration of Obama’s “deadline” have only reinforced the sense that the administration has no Plan B. On January 12, the department spokesman emphasized that recourse to the “pressure track” would be “a very long process,” starting with discussions of “ideas that any of the [P-5+1] partners have on how we can get Iran to live up its international obligations.” The “discussions” have largely been phone calls, since the administration cannot get the Chinese to send their political director to a meeting.

On Friday, Assistant Secretary P.J. Crowley announced that Under Secretary William Burns had a 90-minute conference call with his P-5+1 “counterparts” that discussed “both the pressure track and the negotiation track; discussed next steps in the process, both in terms of negotiation, took stock of the recent comments by Iran, but also continue to evaluate potential actions on the pressure track as well.” His statement produced this colloquy:

QUESTION: When you said counterparts, did that include the Chinese political director, or was it, in fact, the sous chef at the Embassy? (Laughter) …

QUESTION: Did they — I’m sorry if I missed it, but did they actually agree on any additional sanctions or language regarding –

MR. CROWLEY: That wasn’t the intent of the call. … It’s hard to characterize it other than they had a detailed discussion of where we are in the process and shared ideas on both tracks.

Discussions were supposed to have occurred long before this. On April 22, 2009, Hillary Clinton assured the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the administration was laying the groundwork for crippling sanctions if engagement failed:

BERMAN: … I can’t get away from the fact that Iran’s efforts to acquire a nuclear weapons capability keep going ahead, and — and that this engagement can’t be so-open-ended that we essentially pass the threshold that we’re seeking to avoid by virtue of the engagement. … Are we pursuing the — the default position, the — the leverage that I think will make the engagement more likely as we deal with key members of the international community and the Security Council?

CLINTON: … As the president said in his inaugural address, we’ll hold out our hand. They have to unclench their fist. But we are also laying the groundwork for the kind of very tough — I think you said crippling — sanctions that might be necessary in the event that our offers are either rejected or the process is inconclusive or unsuccessful.

Nine months past Clinton’s assurance, two months past the “deadline,” it is apparent that no groundwork has been laid. The discussions are just beginning; it will be a “very long process”; the administration is unenthusiastic about pending legislation authorizing “crippling” sanctions.

You don’t have to be part of a Harvard think tank to see where this is headed.

Read Less