Commentary Magazine


Topic: Thomas Farr

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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Priorities

Obama appointed an envoy to the Organization of Islamic Conference. Plainly, ingratiating the administration with the Muslim World is a priority. What is not a priority is the cause of religious freedom and human rights, more generally. Thomas Farr writes:

The United States’ 12-year-old policy of advancing religious freedom abroad has received a fair amount of attention in recent months. Two reports — one by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the other by the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships — have recommended that President Barack Obama emphasize religious freedom in his foreign policy. Two nonpartisan letters — one from a group of scholars, policy thinkers, and activists, the other from members of Congress — have echoed those recommendations. Yet there is no sign the administration is paying attention. Indeed, nearly 15 months in, Obama has not even nominated a candidate for the position of ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

As with human rights more broadly, there are both practical and philosophical reasons for promoting religious freedom. “First, the United States was founded on the premise that an attack on religious liberty is an attack on human dignity and an affront to justice. To be true to its history, the United States must stand for religious freedom at home and overseas. Second, countries with religious freedom are likely to be more politically stable.” Obama and his secretary of state have appointed diplomats on everything from AIDS to climate change, but not for religious freedom. Is it an aversion to recognizing that religion has a public dimension and is not simply “a private activity with few if any public-policy implications”? Or is it indicative of a foreign-policy approach that eschews promotion of American values, shrinks from challenging despots, and regards human rights as a hindrance to obtaining better relations with hostile regimes? Sadly, it seems the latter is more likely.

Obama appointed an envoy to the Organization of Islamic Conference. Plainly, ingratiating the administration with the Muslim World is a priority. What is not a priority is the cause of religious freedom and human rights, more generally. Thomas Farr writes:

The United States’ 12-year-old policy of advancing religious freedom abroad has received a fair amount of attention in recent months. Two reports — one by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the other by the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships — have recommended that President Barack Obama emphasize religious freedom in his foreign policy. Two nonpartisan letters — one from a group of scholars, policy thinkers, and activists, the other from members of Congress — have echoed those recommendations. Yet there is no sign the administration is paying attention. Indeed, nearly 15 months in, Obama has not even nominated a candidate for the position of ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

As with human rights more broadly, there are both practical and philosophical reasons for promoting religious freedom. “First, the United States was founded on the premise that an attack on religious liberty is an attack on human dignity and an affront to justice. To be true to its history, the United States must stand for religious freedom at home and overseas. Second, countries with religious freedom are likely to be more politically stable.” Obama and his secretary of state have appointed diplomats on everything from AIDS to climate change, but not for religious freedom. Is it an aversion to recognizing that religion has a public dimension and is not simply “a private activity with few if any public-policy implications”? Or is it indicative of a foreign-policy approach that eschews promotion of American values, shrinks from challenging despots, and regards human rights as a hindrance to obtaining better relations with hostile regimes? Sadly, it seems the latter is more likely.

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