What the Senate should ask the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook

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.