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Why Obama needs a religious freedom ambassador

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.