On Monday, the Obama administration seemed to present a united front on one of the many crises that threaten American interests in the world. This particular crisis is little remarked in the press, notwithstanding its connection to the others (Iran, Ukraine and Russia, Gaza, Syria, Iraq, and North Korea).
I refer to the precipitous global decline in religious freedom, characterized in some areas by a descent into vile, inhumane, and destabilizing religious persecution. In the West, the decay is characterized by a collective loss of memory — we can no longer recall why religious freedom is vitally important for individuals and societies, and why it must be protected in law and culture at all costs.
Later in the day Saperstein joined Secretary of State John Kerry, who presented the State Department’s Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, also mandated by IRFA. Citing a parade of horribles, Kerry said that the nomination of Saperstein and the issuance of the Annual Report demonstrated “the abiding commitment of the American people and the entire U.S. government to the advancement of religious freedom worldwide.”
Kerry emphasized that the department’s annual designation of the worst persecutors (the “Countries of Particular Concern,” such as China, Burma, Iran, and Iraq) is not just a list designed “to make us feel somehow that we’ve spoken the truth. I want our CPC designations to be grounded in plans, action that help to change the reality on the ground and actually help people” [emphasis added].
Moreover, there is something very American, and potentially very effective, in having a Jewish rabbi speaking out on the global persecution of Christians and Muslims, the two groups most in the crosshairs of religious violence. Saperstein will also bring sorely needed attention to the rising persecution of Jews (including in Western Europe), a perennial sign of civilizational crisis.
As for Secretary of State Kerry, his words were good ones, especially his rejection of “lists” as mere rhetorical devices, and his emphasis on planning and “action” in our international religious-freedom policy. The problem is that it is very difficult to believe this administration on the issue of international religious freedom — it has a six-year litany of splendid words, and a record of “plans and action” that has added up to zero, zilch, nada.
When President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton took over in January 2009, it took them only four months to get their ambassador at large for global women’s issues on the job. Yet it took them one and a half years even to nominate the first ambassador at large for religious freedom, and two and a half years to get her in place (the Senate balked and the administration yawned).
That ambassador departed after two years and an undistinguished record. When asked about U.S. actions to address persecution of Christians, she referred the questioner to the White House. (Saperstein will not do that.) Since her departure in October, the position has remained open for nine months as the threats to worldwide religious freedom reached crisis levels. There was, and is, no excuse for lassitude in the face of crisis.
When Obama issued his 2010 National Security Strategy, he detailed the contributions of “American values” to our national security. Those values included access to the Internet and privacy. They did not include religious freedom.
When Obama gave his first foreign-policy speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009, he identified religious freedom in the lands of Islam as an issue that needed work. So far so good. But when U.S. interagency working groups were formed to give policy legs to this major presidential address, i.e., to develop “plans and action,” every issue got its own working group . . . except religious freedom.
As John Kerry noted in introducing the Annual Report, 75 percent of the world’s people live in nations where religious freedom is virtually nonexistent. That alarming figure is considerably higher than it was when this administration took office. While the U.S. cannot be blamed for this appalling situation, it is yet another sign of our utter ineffectiveness in advancing religious freedom around the world.
Saperstein, as talented as he is, cannot succeed without the tools he needs: authority and resources. He must be seen — both by America’s diplomats and by foreign officials — as a senior official leading a high-priority policy. In short, he must (like the ambassador at large for global women’s issues) report directly to the secretary of state, rather than to a lower-ranking official many layers removed from the secretary, as is currently the case.
This isn’t rocket science. People understand that letting the ambassador’s position remain vacant for over half the administration’s tenure signals an anemic and ineffective religious-freedom policy, one that is hardly a priority. Elevating Saperstein and his office will send the right signal — to the persecutors, to their victims, and, not unimportant, to the U.S. diplomatic corps — that things are going to change.
Second, you can’t fight a problem involving 75 percent of the world’s population with no money to back you up. Conservatives may howl about this (see below before commencing), but changing the institutions and habits of Chinese, Egyptians, Nigerians, and others cannot be done on the cheap. It certainly cannot be accomplished by employing that tiresome diplomatic canard, “raising the issue” (which Foggy Bottom too often equates with “solving the problem”). This position has never had adequate financial resources to develop strategies that can work. That must change.
Finally, Saperstein must have the authority to plan (Kerry’s word). In government-speak, that means he must be able to develop a national-security strategy to advance religious freedom, especially in countries vital to our own security. And he needs the backing of Kerry and Obama to bring it off.
Properly designed and implemented, U.S. religious-freedom policy can help advance our national-security interests. It can help stabilize and consolidate democracy (think Egypt). It can help sustain economic growth (China) and enhance the economic equality of women (India). Perhaps most important of all, religious freedom can act to undermine religion-related terrorism. It cannot stop ISIS, but it can undermine the conditions that lead to ISIS, the Al Nusra Front, Boko Haram, Hezbollah, Wahhabism, extremist Hinduism, radical Buddhism, or any other violent religious movement. Effective religious-freedom diplomacy would be difficult, but it would be considerably cheaper in American blood and treasure than military force or drones.
The evidence for this argument is ample, but its elaboration is a subject for another time. Suffice it to say that this administration has many good reasons for promoting religious freedom abroad, both realist and humanitarian. As Frank Wolf (R., Va.) put it yesterday in the well of the House of Representatives:
Despite . . . the systematic extermination of Christians in Iraq, the silence in this town is deafening. Does Washington even care? . . . Time is running out. The Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq are being targeted for extinction. They need our help. Literally, during our time, we will see the end of Christianity in the place it began.
The stakes are high. The Senate should confirm David Saperstein immediately and, at the same time, Congress and the State Department must ensure that he is given the tools to succeed.
— Thomas F. Farr is the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center. He was the first director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.