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Smyrna/Clayton Sun-Times
  • Vacant religion ambassador post speaks volumes

  • The position has been vacant since Suzan Johnson Cook resigned in October, and religious persecution isn’t taking a holiday.
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  • Even a nation as cynical as ours shouldn’t be too shocked to learn that a financial contribution of the correct amount can earn you an ambassadorship to some cushy country — Norway, for instance.We would like to believe otherwise. I’ve listened to my share of politicians and their donors through the years insisting that the money that changes hands during campaign season is a mere token of support, not a payment attached to any sort of expectation. But they overestimate my gullibility, let alone that of many Americans.We know what it means to slip the maître d' a little extra for a nice table. Why should politics be different? Besides, what harm could it do to put an ambassadorship to a peaceful and mostly quiet ally up for sale?Well … listen to the snippets NPR recently broadcast of the confirmation hearing last January of George Tsunis, nominated as ambassador to Norway, and it may convince you this isn’t any way to treat a trusted ally. “Disaster” is a word that readily comes to mind. “Outrage” is another.Tsunis apparently hadn’t even bothered to Google Norway. He thought it had a president (it has a king and a prime minister), and incorrectly said one of its ruling political parties was a "fringe element" that "spewed hatred."But Tsunis had, according to the Washington Post, “bundled or contributed more than $1.3 million for President Obama in 2012.”Which raises the question, how much would it cost to become the ambassador at-large for international religious freedom? I’m wondering because the position has been vacant since Suzan Johnson Cook resigned in October, and religious persecution isn’t taking a holiday.The Pew Research Center recently concluded “more than 5.3 billion people (76 percent of the world’s population) live in countries with a high or very high level of restrictions on religion, up from 74 percent in 2011 and 68 percent as of mid-2007.Terrorists trying to capture Iraq aren’t going to help that equation any. Neither, apparently, is either side in Syria’s civil war.As the founders of this nation understood, rights of conscience are essential to liberty. Religious persecution is a sure recipe for violence and lasting animosities and, ironically, runs counter to the doctrines of many religions.Religious freedom also is good for business. A recent study conducted jointly by Georgetown and Brigham Young universities found that religious persecution is bad for investments and disrupts large sectors of a nation’s economy. Insisting on this freedom should be a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy.Even so, it may not be correct to ask what a new ambassador could do. Ambassadors at-large don’t actually accomplish much. A far better question is to ask what the lack of an ambassador already is doing.For the answer, listen to what Robert Seiple, the first-ever religious freedom ambassador, appointed by President Bill Clinton, said recently to Fox News:“It sends a bad signal to the world. First of all … it says to everybody in the State Department this is not something we have to take seriously,” he said. “Everybody has got too much work to do anyway, so if the secretary of state or the president is not moving to fill this position in an expeditious manner, then folks draw from that that this is not very high up on the priority list.”Seiple also reminded us of what we ought to know already, which is that “there are people in the world who are willing to die for their faith,” and others “willing to kill” for it.“And we neglect this issue in the geopolitical calculus at our considerable peril.”I was only kidding about someone buying his or her way into the ambassadorship for religious freedom. It’s far too important for that.President Obama, suffering in the polls as he dithers on Iraq and other big issues, could score an easy win by appointing someone capable to this position.But then, as his appointment to Norway painfully demonstrated, that may be harder than it looks.
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