Bolton could be the first national security chief to prioritize religious freedom

Ken Blackwell is Senior Fellow for Human Rights and Constitutional Governance at Family Research Council. This article was co-written with former Rep. Frank Wolf. This article appeared in The Hill on April 2, 2018.

Among the Trump administration’s early successes, two stand out particularly, and incoming National Security Advisor John Bolton has the chance to take both to the next level.

First, the administration prioritized religious freedom in its recently released National Security Strategy, stating: “The United States also remains committed to supporting and advancing religious freedom — America’s first freedom.”

It adds: “[The United States] will advocate on behalf of religious freedom and threatened minorities. Religious minorities continue to be victims of violence. We will place a priority on protecting these groups and will continue working with regional partners to protect minority communities from attacks and to preserve their cultural heritage.”

Second, on religious freedom, the administration has backed its words with action. Especially notable are concrete steps taken to assist victims of genocide in the Middle East — including Christians and Yazidis.

The vice president’s October announcement that aid was coming gave the Christian and Yazidi communities hope. Now the money has begun to flow. After years of neglect, devastated communities are finally receiving the sort of support the United States has historically provided to those victimized by targeted extermination. USAID and the State Department have committed $55 million, and a chastened, more cooperative United Nations has pledged an additional $55 million to minority groups whose very survival has been in doubt since ISIS swept across Iraq’s Nineveh Plain in the summer of 2014.

However, those of us who have labored for years to promote international religious freedom as a top U.S. foreign policy priority, remain concerned whether America’s current policy toward ISIS genocide victims will ultimately succeed. We are worried because personnel is policy, and at the moment, there simply is not adequate personnel — at the State Department or the National Security Council.

While staffing at the State Department will take time with the departure of Secretary Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonBolton could be the first national security chief to prioritize religious freedom Half of voters approve of Trump's job performance: poll Trump’s zeal for administration firings denigrates public servants MORE, we encourage newly appointed NSA Bolton to make swift and bold changes when he takes the reins of the NSC in early April. In particular, Bolton should immediately appoint a Special Advisor to the President for International Religious Freedom at the National Security Council.

While the administration has made important strides in helping communities targeted for genocide, the lack of coordination between the State Department, USAID, the White House, and NSC on this front risks failure or debilitating inefficiencies to U.S. efforts in this area. A special advisor would bridge the gap between agencies by serving as interagency coordinator.

Last year two dozen senior human rights and foreign policy experts and religious leaders signed letters urging the White House to appoint such a coordinator. The group identified a qualified candidate who is an expert in this area, has worked closely with the government in crafting its new policy, and could perform the coordination function with distinction.

In fact, two decades ago, Congress acted in a bipartisan manner to create a position at the NSC in the same International Religious Freedom Act that established both the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom at the State Department and the creation of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), on which Bolton has served.

The commission and ambassadorship created by this legislation have been a credit to America’s foreign policy and its moral clarity. Indeed, the recent confirmation of Sam Brownback as Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom was a welcome and enormously important step for those persecuted for their faith, including the Christian and Yazidi victims of ISIS.

Still, the NSC position remains both crucial and unfilled — as it has for two decades.

As national security advisor, John Bolton should change that, and as a former USCIRF commissioner, he surely recognizes the importance of this action. In a presidency of firsts, the Trump administration could also be the first-ever to fill this position, setting an important precedent.

Those who survived the genocide at the hands of ISIS took heart at the news the U.S. would finally come to their aid in this administration. Those who continue to face religious persecution around the world are encouraged by the message of the national security strategy — that America takes seriously its commitment to religious freedom.

But a reminder: policy is only as good as the personnel tasked to make it happen. As John Bolton puts together his A-team, the right person at the NSC is needed to ensure that America makes good on its religious freedom promises and priorities.