WASHINGTON-Two years after President Obama took office, the position of ambassador for international religious freedom remains vacant, sparking concerns about the government's preparedness to deal with religious elements related to the turmoil in Tunisia and other international conflicts.
Tom Farr, who served as director of the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom in the Bush administration, condemned the Obama administration's "utter indifference" to religious freedom and said the two-year vacancy in the religious freedom office was a "scandal." The unfilled position has already hampered the government's efforts to address growing persecution of Christians and Islamic extremism in the Middle East, as just one example, Farr said.
Specifically in Tunisia, Council on Foreign Relations analyst Steven Cook warned last week that if an interim government fails, "leadership from Islamists could be attractive."
"I think it's a perfect example of something where you want an experienced diplomat to be at the helm when these things arise," Farr told me. "One thing I can assure you we're not doing is talking to Tunisia about issues like this-like Sharia law. This is the kind of thing we should be doing long before. . . . When there are religious actors that are about to emerge into power, we're like deer in the headlights."
The president's nominee to be ambassador for international religious freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook, failed to make it out of committee at the end of the last Congress, so the president will either have to renominate her or nominate someone new.
Religious freedom advocates were critical of Cook's lack of experience in the religious freedom field. She has served as a pastor in New York City, chaplain to the city's police department, and knows Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Cook's confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee gained little attention, and only one senator asked her a question. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. put a hold on her nomination at the committee level, saying he was concerned with her answers to questions his office posed and the "truncated" hearing. Her nomination expired at the end of the Congress, and Farr said he wasn't aware of any attempt by the administration to resolve DeMint's concerns and win confirmation-"it was general indifference." If the president does nominate Cook again, DeMint has promised she'll face more scrutiny.
"We would need to have a full hearing where she would answer some serious questions about how she would handle the position," said Wesley Denton, spokesman for DeMint.
The president didn't nominate Cook until June 2010, though he had already nominated special envoys to Muslim communities, to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and to "monitor and combat anti-Semitism."
The ambassador position is so important in the U.S. government because religious freedom is a "controversial" topic that most officials will avoid, Farr explained.
"You need someone in there battling for it," he continued. 'There is an office of religious freedom with some very fine people in it. They're doing the best they can and are making some steps, but it is just striking how every other special interest issue you can think of, and I don't mean that in a negative way, have special envoys, special representatives. Yet America's first freedom has no leader."