Last weekend Bush announced the appointments of retired General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George Bush, to the position of secretary of state and Soviet specialist Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser. Rice served as director of Soviet and Eastern European affairs on the elder Bush's National Security Council.
"I am very optimistic, more because of Bush than anything else," remarked Rep. Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia and a primary author of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. Noting Bush's campaign theme of "compassionate conservatism," Wolf told Newsroom, "I believe he will take his concern and compassion where his responsibility leads him. That doesn't mean he will be sending in troops (everywhere), but it means human rights issues will always be on his agenda. I believe he will use his moral, and at times economic, persuasion to address these concerns."
Wolf, who will co-chair the Human Rights Caucus for the 107th Congress, said he was encouraged by the Powell and Rice appointments. "They are both good people -- honest, ethical, decent and moral with good records in government."
U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, similarly asserted that he was "confident that the Bush State Department will place a heavy emphasis on human rights around the world." Brownback also chairs the Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs.
Religious freedom and human rights will constitute "a significant part of the prism through which (the Bush administration) views foreign policy," insisted Juleanna Glover-Weiss, a spokesperson for the Bush-Cheney transition team.
While many observers agree it is too early to predict exactly how and to what extent an overseas human rights agenda will figure into Bush's vision, some express concern that Cabinet members Powell and Rice may not be inclined to prioritize issues like religious freedom and human rights.
"Powell is reluctant to emphasize U.S. commitments abroad," Marshall said. "The question is whether his caution to commit troops extends to include caution toward other forms of involvement. With religious freedom, involvement is a question of sanctions and diplomatic efforts."
Robert Seiple, former ambassador-at-large as provided for by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, contends that American foreign policy makers need to think beyond what he calls the superficial dichotomy of either sending in troops to mitigate unacceptable conditions abroad or doing nothing. "There are other things we can do like talking, strong-arming, offering logistical support, meeting needs and helping non-government organizations," he said.
Known for his ability to articulate freedom of conscience as a fundamental human right affecting all other aspects of human dignity, Seiple argued that the United States would be irresponsible and "foolhardy in the extreme to look at a foreign policy that doesn't take into account the moral imperatives we value as a people."
Wolf, who has surveyed human rights conditions around the world, agreed. "In the Bible in the book of Luke it says, `To whom much is given, much shall be required.' ... People look to America as the moral leader of the free world. God has honored our country because we've been faithful with the fundamental values (laid out in the nation's founding documents)." During the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Beijing's Tianemen Square, during which thousands of students were killed, people attacked by government forces were quoting the Declaration of Independence, he noted. "That's what we're known for. .... And so from a moral perspective, we can't not be involved" in international human rights concerns.
During a Saturday press conference, Powell seemed to stress a commitment to engagement over isolationism, arguing that America would continue to lead the free world "not by using our strength and our position of power to get back behind our walls, but by being engaged with the world."
Still, experts remain in a wait-and-see mode. Joseph Grieboski, president and founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy (IRPP) in Washington, D.C., noted that Bush never addressed human rights or religious freedom during the presidential campaign, making it difficult to forecast the measure of his commitment. The institute sent each candidate a questionnaire during the race detailing various religious freedom issues but received no response from the Bush campaign. The Gore camp sent back a general response, but answered none of the questions specifically, Grieboski said.