Shadow Government

Why Obama needs a religious freedom ambassador

When a large group -- of Republicans, Democrats, Senators, Representatives, Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, scholars, activists, realists, and idealists -- all voice agreement on something, it probably merits attention. Such is the case with the need to appoint an ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom. 

Almost one and a half years into its term, the Obama administration still has yet to even announce the nomination of an IRF Ambassador (as the position is known in the State Department lexicon). In recent months, a growing chorus of disparate voices -- including Members of Congress, a bipartisan and multi-faith group of religious leaders and human rights activists, an government commission, an independent study task force, and scholars such as my former colleague Tom Farr here in the pages of Foreign Policy -- have all urged the administration to move expeditiously in finally filling the position after 16 months of vacancy. Even if a nominee is announced soon, it could be many more months until the ambassador is sworn in, depending on the vicissitudes of the Senate confirmation schedule.  It may well be that President Obama reaches the halfway mark of his term without an IRF ambassador on board.

The issue of international religious freedom is important in its own right, and the appointment of an ambassador is required by law.  But the administration's neglect of the issue is all the more puzzling in light of then-candidate Obama's outreach to religious communities on the campaign trail, and his promising references to religious freedom in his Cairo speech almost a year ago.  Even more significant are the strategic imperatives for American foreign policy of promoting religious freedom, such as the indispensability of religious freedom to sustainable democratization; the salience of religious freedom in reducing religious violence; the correlation between religious freedom, economic growth, and happy citizens (as the Legatum Prosperity Index demonstrates); the role of religious freedom in peace and reconciliation efforts; and the fact that long-term success in counter-radicalization will depend on peaceful Muslim leaders having the religious freedom to advance a tolerant interpretation of their faith against extremism. 

The administration has certainly had the time to fill such positions. It has appointed and confirmed virtually every other ambassador-at-large position at the State Department including for women's issues, trafficking-in-persons, counterterrorism, war crimes, and the global AIDS coordinator -- not to mention the additional appointments of a vast array of special envoys and special representatives for a panoply of other issues including climate change, Holocaust issues, anti-Semitism, North Korean human rights, Muslim communities, international labor affairs, global partnerships, Eurasian energy, and literally a dozen others.  In perhaps the ultimate indicator of bureaucratic neglect of religious freedom, the IRF ambassador-at-large position does not even appear on the State Department's organization chart -- even though every other ambassador-at-large position can be found there. 

A few consistent points emerge from the multitude of calls for the Obama administration to finally appoint an IRF ambassador. As one who helped draft the 1998 law that created the position, as well as a former staff member of the IRF office at State, I would highlight these particular recommendations as essential:

  • The most important qualification for an IRF ambassador is foreign policy expertise. Though the Obama administration might be tempted to appoint a religious leader, the position should not be treated like a State Department liaison to religious groups. Religious expertise is essential, of course. But even more important is foreign policy experience, since the main mandate of the office is integrating promotion of religious freedom into American diplomacy. Moreover, the long vacancy in the position and the bureaucratic marginalization of the office mean that any new ambassador needs to immediately demonstrate effectiveness. It takes a steep learning curve to master the State Department bureaucracy, and the new ambassador should be able to hit the ground running rather than having to master the basics of foreign policy and the alphabet soup of Foggy Bottom.
  • The IRF ambassador should report directly to the Secretary of State - and have a strong relationship with Secretary Clinton. Contrary to the language of the IRF Act and the organization of the rest of the State Department, the IRF ambassador-at-large position currently reports to an Assistant Secretary (a problem that began under the Clinton administration and continued under the Bush administration). This may seem like bureaucratic arcana, but in fact it is a key detriment to the office's effectiveness. It prevents the ambassador from participating in the secretary's regular meetings with senior staff or from making independent policy recommendations.
  • Religious freedom programming should be included in the State Department's Human Rights and Democracy Fund (HRDF). One of the State Department's most effective tools for democracy and human rights promotion in recent years has been the HRDF, which supports innovative programs around the world in rule of law, political freedom, election training, and other key building blocks of liberty. Religious freedom has usually been neglected by this fund, other than an occasional grant and a past Congressional earmark. Long-term promotion of religious freedom, and the effectiveness of the IRF office, will be bolstered by including designated religious freedom programming in the HRDF.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

What Gates's program cuts tell us about Gates

Secretary Gates's speech in Kansas sounds as though budget axes will be falling all over the Department of Defense. In an homage to Dwight Eisenhower, Secretary Gates said "what I find so compelling and instructive was the simple fact that when it came to defense matters, under Eisenhower real choices were made, priorities set, and limits enforced." I'm in favor of cutting defense spending to help get America's fiscal house in order, and commend Secretary Gates for turning his attention to budgetary discipline.  

But both the Kansas speech, and the Naval Institute speech he delivered a week prior (in which he also questioned procurement programs), had an odd ring to them. You wouldn't know by listening to these speeches that Gates has had the ability these past three years to accomplish any of the work he deems essential. Neither he nor the administration has yet given us a strategy that defines what they believe the United States needs to do in the world, how our military activities fit into that broader framework, and what size and type of military we therefore need.  

President Eisenhower had a strategy for securing the international order at a price consistent with his overall objective of maintaining America's economic power. That strategy entailed racing to purchase intercontinental missiles armed with nuclear weapons to threaten complete destruction of the Soviet Union, pushing ahead protections for us against such missiles by enemies, substituting nuclear for conventional forces, preventing a Soviet conquest of Western Europe by using nuclear weapons on the territory of our allies, declining to fight peripheral wars -- even in support of our closest allies -- or assist liberation movements, engaging the CIA in overthrowing governments that trended communist and often replacing them with dictators.  

It was a cost-effective strategy with some terrible consequences. But it accepted the risks and effects of its choices. In the Basic National Security Strategy, priorities were established, alternative means of achieving our objectives analyzed, cabinet secretaries debated the trade-offs and created a whole of government approach. In the National Security Council meeting notes from the BNSP reviews, on several occasions the secretary of the treasury refuses to support the strategy as unaffordable, and the president sent DOD back to find other ways to achieve the necessary national objectives.

What is President Obama's strategy? We don't actually know, since the president's National Security Strategy has not yet been completed. What is Secretary Gates's defense strategy? He just released a Quadrennial Defense Review that does not support his ringing call for tough cuts or give a sense of priorities to guide them; in fact, it largely endorses the current defense program. His budget speeches at the Naval Institute and in Kansas bear little if any relation to the QDR.

Gates's Foreign Affairs article, published after the QDR was released, centers on "building partner capacity," by which he means training and equipping the militaries of other countries to fight threats we are worried about. Training foreign militaries is a useful tool, when those militaries support governments that share our interests. But numerous countries want, and even need, our help. How do we decide which ones will get the scarce resource of our effort? That requires a strategy.

It is simply not true, as Gates says, that "for the better part of two years I have focused on the Pentagon's major weapons programs -- to make sure we are buying the right things in the right quantities." For the better part of three years he has focused his effort almost exclusively on the wars we are fighting. Procurement reform was forced on him by the Congress. Gates has submitted three budgets that continued virtually every major program and gave no sense of the looming fiscal constraints he now clarions. He did not use his recent QDR to create the basis for a different approach.

Where he has spoken specifically to issues, his direction is often contradictory. So while taking care of service members and their families is a top priority, in his Kansas speech the cost of health care for service members was a major complaint. He complains about the incidentals -- Congress funding a second jet engine for the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) -- but does not consider the first-order question of whether manned aviation is a cost-effective means of bringing lethal force to bear for the kinds of wars our nation needs to win.

There has not in recent memory been a secretary of defense as much in command of the Department of Defense as Gates is now. But one would think from his Kansas speech that he had not been at the helm when the practices he criticizes occurred. For example he laments that that "the gap between me and an action officer may be as high as 30 layers," and yet he has the ability to change that at the stroke of a pen. He simply has not turned his attention to it.  

Secretary Gates is right to assert that "we need to evaluate the criteria upon which requirements are based and the wider real world context." I just wish he would do so.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images