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.
In fact, he pointed out, the only time religious freedom received mention on the campaign trail occurred during the vice presidential debate when Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman named the passage of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act as one of his successes.
Former ambassador-at-large Seiple remarked that the Bush administration's commitment to religious freedom and human rights will be more easily gauged once the positions of ambassador and assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor are filled.
Jeremy Gunn, who served as director of research for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, also established by the 1998 act, argued that the next ambassador-at-large should be someone who understands the dynamics within the State Department and is disengaged from partisan debate over church-state and other religious issues at home. "The ambassador needs to understand how religion is perceived outside the U.S.," he said. "... We are perceived as having an abrupt and naive approach to religion. Things are very complex abroad, and we are seen as simple ... Specifically, in the U.S., religion is a matter of personal choice. Elsewhere, religion is ... not a choice; it is a person's identity and can lead to many types of religious discrimination. The ambassador must be able to address this discrimination."
Additionally, Gunn said, the effect of the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor on the ambassador's position will depend on "whether that person respects religious freedom and works for it, or sees it as an obstacle." The letter IRPP sent to the Bush-Cheney transition team urged the administration to view the positions in tandem.
While President Bill Clinton has presided over the entrance of religious freedom issues onto the foreign policy scene through the structures established by the 1998 act, his administration is viewed in human rights circles as having missed opportunities to take substantive stances on the issues.
"The administration fought tooth and nail against the '98 act," argued Freedom House's Marshall. He contends that the administration in large part ignored policy recommendations made by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The administration has placed unpublicized sanctions on Sudan, Iran, and China under the International Religious Freedom Act. In a recent press conference, commission member Nina Shea called the sanctions, at least as they applied to Sudan and China, "wholly inadequate and thus ineffective."
Other provisions of the 1998 act have enabled the State Department to make notable progress in promoting religious freedom, according to Seiple. Of particular consequence has been the mandated annual State Department report on religious freedom, an effort that has secured the participation of more than 600 contributors from the U.S. foreign service. "When you involve that many people, you give them ownership. They become advocates for the issue," he said.
As ambassador-at-large, Seiple visited numerous nations, articulating why religious freedom is important to both the world and America. In addition, the office of international religious freedom engaged in ground-breaking networking efforts with domestic non-governmental organizations, particularly within the Muslim community. Seiple acknowledged Secretary of State Madeline Albright as supportive of human rights and religious freedom issues, calling her the "human rights secretary of state."
The challenge for the new administration will be to engage in more conflict-prevention efforts through the office of religious freedom, Seiple argued, an office he said has inadequate resources.
"(I)mproving religious freedom worldwide is a long-term process," Shea argued at the recent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom press conference, echoing chairman Elliott Abrams, "one that also requires an unprecedented level of commitment that will be a true test of the next administration." (Abrams is also a Beliefnet columnist.)
Stephen Rickard, director of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, noted the new administration could demonstrate its commitment to human rights and religious freedom by endorsing the Human Rights Investment Act, which would increase the human rights budget within the State Department. "Otherwise the government is like Pharaoh saying to Israel, `Make bricks without straw,'" he argued.
Powell asserted his determination to fight for overall State Department needs during his press conference this weekend. He said he would petition Congress on behalf of the department's employees "in the most powerful terms that I can muster."