My Role in Weaponizing ‘Moral Equivalence’ and ‘Religious Freedom’
It’s confession time …
Without getting overly autobiographical, it is worth noting that my perspectives (whatever their value) on American public policy and global affairs reflect decades of first-hand, professional experience in both the Executive and Legislative branches of the US government. The former was at the Department of State as a commissioned US Foreign Service Officer, the latter at the US Senate as a policy adviser to the Republican leadership.
I’d like to believe that at all times my intentions were to serve the best interests of my country as viewed in light of the most venerable principles of the American nation, as well as the Christian, European, and human values that once undergirded that nation.
However, the consequences of my efforts, together with those of others, sometimes went horribly wrong. On at least two occasions, there was, to say the least, a disconnect between good intention and sound judgment, between what I had hoped and expected could be achieved – and what turned out to be the results.
For example, as the (first) Cold War was entering its terminal phase, I was one of the primary planners and organizers of the May 1985 international conference in Washington, DC, “Moral Equivalence: False Images of U.S. and Soviet Values,” sponsored by the State Department and the Shavano Institute for National Leadership. As described byImprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College, which later incorporated Shavano and published the remarks of some of the speakers, the conference brought together “forty-five participants from the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, Italy, Latin America, and Central Europe accepted the invitation to examine the issue of an alleged ‘moral equivalence’ between the two ‘superpowers.’ The attention this conference has received has been substantial. Articles have appeared in dozens of national publications such as Time, the Wall Street Journal, National Review, Policy Review, the Washington Post, the Washington Times, the New York Post, and the New York Times, as well as in over 500 other newspapers throughout the nation.”
Among the headline participants were UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Tom Wolfe, the late, great Joseph Sobran, Richard Pipes, Sidney Hook, and many others spanning the spectrum from paleoconservatism, to libertarianism, to social democracy. As conceived by myself and other planners, the conference had a single message: that the godless ideology of Marxism-Leninism with its record of mass murder, destruction, and degradation (exemplified then by the USSR and its satellites) was not morally comparable to normal, non-ideological societies and states (then represented – so I believed at the time – by the United States and our allies.)
The conference was a smashing success (definitely worth the $45,000 allocated by the Department, though in the end Shavano commendably declined to accept the public funds, as reported by Imprimis). The phrase “moral equivalence” – which had been launched by Kirkpatrick a year earlier – became a widespread meme, with the communist Evil Empire weighed in the balances and found wanting.
Unfortunately “moral equivalence” is a meme that now just won’t die, even though the context for it receded into history a few years following our conference. What has since become evident (and maybe already was to eyes more discerning than mine at the time) was that the US and our (let’s be honest) satellites are every bit as ideological as the old Soviet Union. In fact, in some ways ours is the same ruling ideology as communism but shifted from economic class conflict of Bourgeoisie/Proletariat to new Oppressor/Victim paradigms defined by sex, race, religion, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation, migration status, and so forth.
The result is an eerie and deepening moral role reversal between East and West, under which western elites rely upon bogus ideological imperatives like “democracy,” “human rights,” and “free markets” to justify a global empire and endless wars, much like the old Soviet nomenklatura depended on Marxist-Leninist “world revolution” both as a working methodology and as a justification for their prerogatives and privileges. In that regard, promotion of nihilist, post-Christian morality – especially in sexual matters – has become a major item in the West’s toolkit, promoted with a messianic fanaticism that would do Leon Trotsky proud.
To be fair, in retrospect it’s doubtful that many of the conference participants could have foreseen such a future or would have welcomed it. As Joseph Duggan, former adviser and speechwriter to Ambassador Kirkpatrick, notes:
‘Reagan and Kirkpatrick never advocated pre-emptive war. Nor did they believe it was America’s national vocation to pursue, as George W. Bush proclaimed in his second inaugural address, “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” They pursued a realistic strategy to win the Cold War and roll back Soviet Communism without having to unleash nuclear missiles in a Pyrrhic World War III.
‘Following the West’s victory in the Cold War, Kirkpatrick told a forum hosted by Midge Decter that it was time for the United States to become “a normal country, in a normal time.”
‘At the same time, Kirkpatrick wrote, “There is no mystical American ‘mission,’ or purpose to be ‘found’ independently of the U.S. Constitution. . . . There is no inherent or historical ‘imperative’ for the U.S. government to seek to achieve any other goal—however great—except as it is mandated by the Constitution or adopted by the people through elected officials.”’
Unfortunately, though, far from becoming “a normal country, in a normal time,” America took the path of (as characterized by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov) the “replication of the experience of Bolshevism and Trotskyism” – morphing ourselves into a new Evil Empire in place of the old one. In a devolution from anything resembling the best of American values, rejection of “moral equivalence” between post-communist Russia and the UShas become a mindless rhetorical prop amounting to ritualistic hate speech against Russia in particular and generally against anyone or anything targeted by the Washington nomenklatura and its fellow travelers and hangers-on. For example, our self-imposed mission of “democracy promotion” means that “Russia and America aren’t ‘morally equivalent,’” because “there is no comparison between Russian efforts to undermine elections and American efforts to strengthen them.” Or this gem from some snotty kid who wasn’t even alive when the 1985 conference took place, blazing away with all the unthinking fervor of a Maoist Red Guard or a member of the Hitlerjugend:
‘Drawing moral equivalences where they do not exist is a dangerous game that enables the world’s tyrants. … If we are not vigilant, we’ll wake up one day, having forgotten the vocabulary of American moral leadership, and worse, we’ll have ceded a unique global role that makes the promotion of human freedom the ultimate goal of foreign policy. Dismissing Russian interference because we do it too is bad, but blaming America for a downturn in relations provoked by a journalist-assassinating, dissident-assassinating, civilian-airline-downing, chemical-weapons-dictatorship-supporting regime, is downright unconscionable.’
Now for a second confession …
Your Working Boy also was one of the primary Senate staffers responsible for the drafting and enactment of theInternational Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1999 (P.L. 105-292). For these efforts I was mentioned by the bill’s chief sponsor on the Senate floor as “one of the most distinguished analysts of foreign policy on Capitol Hill” and someone who “contributed vitally, both to the substance of the bill and to the process of negotiation which led to its passage” – as I now regret.
To borrow a phrase from Peter Van Buren, we meant well. IRFA was a response to a growing awareness in the 1990s even in some quarters of polite, secular company that persecution of Christians was rampant in some countries, and that indeed more Christians died for their faith in the 20th century alone than in all the 19 centuries preceding it – chiefly at the hands of communist regimes (mainly earlier in the century) and Muslim militants (now). Especially for some on the Republican side of the aisle, taking up the cause of Christian persecution also made political sense. For example, liberal-Democrat-turned-liberal-Republican Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter (who eventually returned to the Democratic Party), facing a possible conservative primary challenger in 1998, seized upon the issue.
In my defense, I naively tried to craft legislation that would specifically address the plight of Christians. Why not? Awareness of Christian persecution was the reason the whole issue had come up in the first place. The US had earlier enshrined in statutory language religion-specific concern for evangelical Christians and Pentecostals. Helping Muslims as Muslims was explicitin US policies in Bosnia and Kosovo. But instead of a focus on Christians, what emerged in the form of IRFA was a promotion of generic “religious freedom,” including an annual report from the State Department on the practices of every country in the world and establishment of an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, currently former Kansas Senator and Governor Sam Brownback. IRFA also established an advisory bipartisan Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which among other things recommends which bad actors should be designated “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs) by the president and subject to possible sanctions.
Predictably, “religious freedom” became little more than another subjective standard under which countries the Washington apparat wants to hammer can be cited (accurately or not), along with “sponsorship of terrorism” (Syria and Iran yes, Saudi Arabia no) and the former “Narcotics Certification Process” that penalized countries not fully cooperating with US counternarcotics efforts (but ended in 2002, having become too divorced from reality even for the Washington Swamp). Thus, pluralistic countries like Syria and Russia with a high degree of religious freedom are, for obvious geopolitical reasons, designated CPCs along with the likes of Saudi Arabia (which for some time after IRFA’s enactment the State Department managed to protect from the CPC label) and North Korea – which allow the practice of, respectively, only one religion and none. (To be fair, in the Syria section of its April 2019 report. USCIRF does express concern about the fate of Christians and others in areas controlled by “Other Islamist and Non-Islamist Opposition Groups,” without however mentioning that such groups are armed by the US and our allies.)
USCIRF and the State Department are concerned about religious freedom in Western Europe – no, not so much about Christians prosecuted for offending certified Victims – but for disfavor shown to cults like Scientology and violating Muslim women’s “freedom” to wear headscarves (leaving aside whether or not these women and girls are being forced to wear the hijab in the first place). It is significant that the 2019 report devotes its entire cover to the plight of Muslim Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province, where there is reason to believe the usual US agencies are already stirring up jihadists against Beijing to undermine the Belt and Road Initiative.
Finally, on another geopolitical front, Ambassador Brownback has now seen fit to weigh in personally on behalf of theschismatic pseudo-Church in Ukraine fostered by recently defeated Ukrainian Petro Poroshenko, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and the State Department. Upon receiving notification of Brownback’s involvement from the redoubtable George Michalopulos of Monomakhos, I immediately emailed several State Department officials and representatives of religious freedom NGOS – some of whom I have known for many years – as follows:
‘Up to now, based on my personal respect for him, I had been content to give Ambassador Sam Brownback the benefit of the doubt when it came to the unconscionable meddling of the Department of State in the internal canonical order of the Orthodox Church, preferring to assign blame on the US side to Secretary Pompeo, Special Rep for Ukraine Volker, Ambassador Yovanovitch, and Ambassador Pyatt, as well as to EUR generally.
‘However, Ambassador Brownback’s current mission to the Balkans, and specifically to Greece and Mt. Athos, with the clear aim of jawboning the Church of Greece into recognizing the false autocephaly of the so-called “Orthodox Church of Ukraine” is intolerable! His job is promoting religious freedom, not interfering in internal Orthodox Church governance, fomenting civil strife, and promoting the neo-papal pretentions of the Patriarch of Constantinople to further a geopolitical agenda. Doing so under the guise of “religious freedom” makes a mockery of his portfolio.
‘I have no illusions that others in our government who have seen fit to intrude into matters about which they know little or nothing will back off. Truly, they know not what they do. But I expected better from Ambassador Brownback.
‘Respectfully: Mr. Ambassador, please get back into your lane!
Don’t expect the foregoing to have much impact. Some mistakes, once made, are not easily remedied.