Shadow Government

What the Senate should ask the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook

President Obama has at long last announced his nominee to be ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom. After an almost unpardonable delay of one and a half years, the news that the White House has tapped the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook for the position is welcome but curious. As many others have observed, conspicuously absent from her background as a minister and motivational speaker is any experience in foreign policy or human rights advocacy -- qualifications which would normally be considered prerequisites for such a senior State Department position.

Nevertheless, once she is in office, Rev. Johnson Cook will be evaluated not on her resume but on her performance. Her past accomplishments show that she will likely bring an entrepreneurial spirit and considerable energy and devotion to the job, as well as an existential understanding of how religious belief functions in the lives of individuals and communities. All of which are attributes that will serve her well. And as my former State Department colleague Tom Farr has noted, once in office she will have the support of religious freedom advocates who are relieved to finally have a champion for the cause, both within the State Department bureaucracy and around the world.

Before Rev. Johnson Cook can be sworn in, the world's greatest deliberative body will first have its say.  In the Senate confirmation process, it would be prudent for members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to ask some specific questions. Note that raising these questions need not be seen as acts of antagonism towards Rev. Johnson Cook, but as appropriate measures of legislative oversight, particularly in probing whether the executive branch is faithfully implementing the International Religious Freedom Act that Congress passed unanimously in 1998. Moreover, Senators raising such questions can also help strengthen Rev. Johnson Cook's position at the State Department and her role as America's chief religious freedom diplomat, by requiring the administration to provide satisfactory answers. Herewith some suggested questions the Senate might ask:

1. Will your position be listed on the State Department's organizational chart, and will you attend Secretary Clinton's morning senior staff meetings?

In an inauspicious sign of its (lack of) priority at the State Department, the IRF ambassador position does not even exist on the State Department's organization chart -- unlike every other ambassador-at-large. Participation in the secretary's morning staff meetings is essential for functioning effectively as a senior official in the department.

2. Will you have an official role in helping administer the Human Rights and Democracy Fund?  How will you advocate for religious freedom programming in that fund?

The Human Rights and Democracy Fund (HRDF) is one of the Bureau of Democracy, Rights, and Labor's most effective initiatives, yet religious freedom has generally not been a priority in it and has sometimes been ignored altogether.

3. How will you integrate promotion of religious freedom into counter-radicalization strategy?

Central to the defeat of violent jihadist ideology will be the empowerment of Muslim leaders advancing a peaceful and tolerant interpretation of their faith. Protecting the religious freedom of these leaders is indispensable to the task, and the IRF Ambassador can play an important role in the Administration's long-term counterterrorism efforts.

4. Will you promote religious freedom -- as per your legal mandate -- and resist efforts to reduce it to "freedom of worship?"

There are efforts afoot in some quarters to desiccate religious freedom into mere "freedom of worship" -- the latter being confined to private worship practices, while disregarding the dimensions of religious freedom which include the rights of believers to speak and act publicly from their faith convictions.

If confirmed by the Senate, Rev. Johnson Cook should not be left alone in her efforts. Religious freedom promotion must start at the top, with President Barack Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton. Unfortunately, other than some promising words in his Cairo speech last year, Obama has shown little interest in defending religious freedom either in word or in deed.  The most recent example being his National Security Strategy, which over 60 pages contains not a single mention of -- let alone a policy statement on -- religious freedom (a token reference to "freedom ... to worship" is the exception that proves the rule). 

The signs are not all bad. As Fred Hiatt points out in his excellent Washington Post op-ed today, amidst a growing freedom deficit around the world, Secretary Clinton is showing some signs of renewed commitment to democracy and human rights promotion. Yet as Carl Gershman shows on the same page, the Obama Administration's policies are still anemic, as painfully illustrated by the plight of China's Uighur Muslim minority. More must be done. As Rev. Johnson Cook prepares to assume her new role as ambassador, hopefully she will urge President Obama to follow President George W. Bush's example in hosting regular White House meetings with religious and political dissidents. Just in the case of China alone, President Bush met with Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, Catholic Cardinal Zen, Protestant leader Bob Fu, and others -- including, of course, multiple meetings with the Dalai Lama. Yes, these meetings annoyed the authorities in Beijing, but they did not hinder the Bush administration from having a constructive relationship with China in other areas. More important, such gestures provide an incomparable boost to the efforts of freedom activists around the world, and also to the efforts of officials within the State Department bureaucracy charged with promoting democracy, human rights, and religious freedom.

Shadow Government

Tom Ricks gets the McChrystal affair mostly right ... but not entirely

I have a lot of time for my FP blogging colleague, Tom Ricks, even when we disagree.  But I keep reflecting on two of his General McChrystal related observations and I can't square them with what I know (or think I know) about history and civil-military relations. So, at the risk of starting a petty intramural squabble, here are some counterpoints.

In his otherwise sensible New York Times Op-Ed, Ricks made the following claim:

If President Obama had not fired General McChrystal, it would have been like President Truman keeping on Douglas MacArthur after his insubordination during the Korean War."

Now I supported McChrystal resigning -- calling it "clearly a firing offense" -- and I wholeheartedly agree that the disrespectful command climate that the Rolling Stone interview revealed was corrosive of healthy civil-military relations. But it was meaningfully less corrosive than the MacArthur incident on several dimensions and it is both unfair and unwise to equate the two. MacArthur vigorously opposed Truman's Korea policies of restraint, sought to lift them, and was colluding with friendly reporters and political allies back in Washington to thwart them. And he made no bones about this disagreement, as his post-firing Congressional lobbying makes clear.  McChrystal and President Obama both claimed that there was no policy dispute at issue, neither in the Rolling Stone interview nor in the larger civil-military dustup. McChrystal's disrespectful comments were directed at members of Obama's team who, in McChrystal's views, were not doing enough to implement Obama's policies. This is a distinction that may not matter in terms of McChrystal keeping his job, but should influence what we learn from the incident (and may justify giving McChrystal a dispensation to retire at 4-star pay.

My second quibble may be a tick more substantial.  In a recent blog post, Ricks argues that Republican Senators who pressed the issue during General Petraeus' confirmation hearing were right that Obama's military timeline made no military sense but wrong to try to pin Petraeus down on whether the military had ever recommended it. As Ricks argues (absolutely correctly): "just because the military is strongly against an approach doesn't mean the approach is wrong." Moreover, Ricks argues the timeline might even make sense in a larger context.  In Ricks' words:

So, while the Afghan deadline makes no sense militarily, it might make sense politically, both for domestic political reasons and in prodding the Afghan government. If you believe, as I do, that the Afghan government is our biggest problem in the war (followed closely by the Pakistani government), then what happens to the Taliban is a secondary issue, and the primary question has to be: How do we get a government in Afghanistan that is not counterproductive and can field reasonably good security forces?"

I think Ricks may be right in theory but is himself missing three important aspects of the larger context that indicate he may be wrong in this case:

  • Establishing the provenance of the timeline is useful not merely for the historical record but also as an antidote to a potentially dangerous gambit that some of Obama's political advisors may have been attempting. According to Jonathan Alter's account of the Fall 2009 Afghan Strategy Review, the White House sought to pin the military down on the timeline so as to give the White House political cover to abandon the Afghanistan surge; they wanted to be able to pin the blame for any failure on the military and the timeline played a key role to this end.  This kind of gamesmanship is bad strategy and makes for bad civil-military relations. Identifying who proposed what and why is helpful.
  • The timeline indeed is foolish in a narrow military sense, as Ricks himself recognizes. But it is also counter-productive for the larger strategic aim to which Ricks in his post seeks to direct the critics' focus: getting helpful governments in Kabul (and Islamabad). The arbitrary timeline and the strategic confusion it has generated has created the exact opposite incentives. Instead of creating a sense of urgency, it has created a sense of despair and incentivized our local partners to hedge and seek separate deals.
  • The timeline is an exceedingly expensive and unnecessary way of buying acquiescence (it has not bought support) from Obama's left flank.  Public support for the war in Afghanistan is wobbly, but nowhere near as weak as was support for the war in Iraq when President Bush pushed for a similar surge. President Obama's influence over his Afghanistan policy opponents was and is much greater than Bush's influence was over either supporters or opponents at the time of the surge. Bush had come close to exhausting his reservoir of political capital in mobilizing support for the war. Obama has barely started to tap his reservoir in the war's cause. And so on.

In short, the timeline made no military sense, no strategic sense, and little political sense -- except in partisan terms of enabling Obama to shift any blame from a potential failure from himself to the military. Clarifying who insisted on the timeline and who is merely accepting it is a useful function in an otherwise less-than-dramatic congressional hearing.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images