With a fresh assessment of the war in Afghanistan looming, issues of religiously inspired insurgency and terrorism continue to dominate the U.S. policy agenda. Issues of religion in the global public sphere continue to roil international affairs, in particular the way authoritarian governments, such as Saudi Arabia, are the breeding ground for religiously inspired violence.
However, the Obama administration continues its ambivalence on these issues.
The president’s June 2009 Cairo Speech, a call for a new beginning with the Muslim world, championed religious liberty for all. Obama linked religious freedom with other critical liberties: speech, conscience, assembly, private property and the press.
However, for all its many merits, the speech was just a speech. There was no inter-agency plan prior to Cairo to implement the values commitments of the speech and no day-after roll-out of new programing.
Indeed, the State Department, like other agencies, seemed surprised by the speech and scrambled to assemble an implement-Cairo task force. To this day, and despite its savvy media operation, there is little for the Obama administration to trumpet as tangible success following Cairo.
In contrast, the National Security Strategy of the United States (NSS), published in May, outlines the key strategic priorities for this administration. NSS are congressionally mandated documents establishing the strategic landscape, and they result (by law) in the Secretary of Defense’s National Defense Strategy and the Joint Chiefs’ National Military Strategy. These documents then become increasingly are made operational at the command and regional level in posture statements and commanders’ statements of intent.
All these documents are just for the Defense Department alone. This says nothing about the way the intelligence community, Treasury, the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department or other agencies with a piece of the national security pie respond to and operationalize the assumptions found in the NSS.
From the outset, the NSS states four U.S. enduring interests: the security of its citizens and allies, a strong economy in an open global economic system, respect for universal values at home and abroad, and an international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges.
If, as many assert, the Cairo speech was the aspirational moment of the Obama presidency — his commitment to work toward a world as characterized by the new beginning — how does this comport with the National Security Strategy? Since Cairo was largely about relations with a religiously defined group of citizens, and because it championed religious liberty as a fundamental liberty for all, what does Obama’s security policy say about religion and religious freedom?
The NSS says little positive about religion, and is blind to the nexus of U.S. interests and global religious liberty. The NSS asserts that the world is polarized by race, region and religion and that the route to peace is through replacing division with a galvanizing sense of shared interests
This negative language should not be surprising; just last month the president told the United Nations that ancient hatreds and religious divides are now ascendant.
The NSS does argue that it is in America’s interest to support universal values worldwide. These values are poorly defined in the NSS, but generally seem to mean human and electoral rights. But the values portion of the NSS says very little about the foundational experiences and ideas in the American past that undergird and inform those values, nor does it lay out a defense for the centrality of freedoms of religion, conscience and belief to all the other values in the document.
In short, Cairo’s aspirations are today a receding echo, but the NSS will endure. The writers of the NSS refuse to consider how promoting human liberty and religious freedom is central to our identity and should be fully incorporated in U.S. strategic policy.
Religious freedom is the ultimate challenge to all forms of authoritarianism and tyranny. As President Obama declared at Cairo, those societies that protect and nourish these liberties are the most likely to be peaceful, stable, prosperous and representative.
Is religious liberty consonant with America’s enduring interests laid out in the NSS? Yes, the United States and its allies are not threatened by any religious liberty-loving government or group. But we are threatened in various ways by those who deny religious and other liberties: China, Iran, North Korea and others. Religious freedom supports a strong economy and an open global economy based on individual freedom, the rule of law, trust and moral behavior. Indeed, the financial meltdown of the last 18 months is based in the erosion of the rule of law and trust in the marketplace.
And religious liberty supports an international order characterized by peace, security and opportunity; it is tyrannical governments and/or authoritarian religious monopolies that threaten and feel threatened by such an international consensus.
It is not too late for the Obama administration to alter course, to put the Cairo vision into operation by marrying it to national security objectives.
The first step is to publicly champion human liberty in a whole-of-government fashion: at present there is simply no linkage between the governance and anti-corruption efforts of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the religious freedom mandate of the State Department, the National Endowment for Democracy, and other similar offices across the inter-agency spectrum.
Second, the U.S. government need not be heavy-handed, but should firmly call on all states to uphold their commitments under binding international law, such as the promise to protect religious freedom enshrined in the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, which nearly every country has signed. It is difficult to do so, however, with key posts unfilled in the administration — most notably the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
Third, the government can call upon the rich religious capital of the American citizenry and serve as an intercivilizational bridge on issues of religiously inspired difference and conflict in a way impossible for our European allies.