Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world. — The Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:8 (37a)
Let me be first nice Jewish boy to say it: “G-d bless Sam Brownback.”
One of the Senate’s oldest traditions is the nomination “hold.” For judicial appointments, holds are the exclusive prerogrative of home-state senators. For ambassadors, senate custom allows any senator to place a hold on any nomination, which cannot go forward until the senator lifts it. Holds can be placed and maintained in secret, although the Senate has a poor record for keeping secrets recently. Holds need not be explained. Some result from little more than personal vendettas. Some are used to extract concessions from agencies.
Senators from both parties place holds, and there’s nothing rare or unique about them. In the 1990’s, several Republican senators put holds on Richard Holbrooke’s nomination as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. In 2004, John Kyl — reportedly egged on by John Bolton — put a hold on the nominee to be ambassador to the IAEA. In 2006, Democrat Dick Durban of Illinois put one on the President’s nominee for Ambassador to Australia. In 2007, John Kerry put one on the nominee for Ambassador to Tanzania, who was a native of Wisconsin. Earlier this month, Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey put one on the nominee to be Ambassador to Armenia.
You will recall that in this post, I wrote about Kathleen Stephens, the State Department’s nominee to be the next U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea. Though well qualified for the job and (so I am told) a nice person when you meet her, Ms. Stephens is also a long-time crony of Christopher Hill, the man who would excuse North Korea from answering for its human rights atrocities, its support for terrorism, its abductions of the citizens of other nations, its counterfeiting of U.S. currency and money laundering, its nuclear proliferation, or its refusal to disclose all of its nuclear weapons programs before being relieved of key U.S. sanctions. Hill has long been Ms. Stephens’s protege, and there is every reason to believe that her views closely match Hill’s; in fact, Stephens’s key policy initiative in her current job was to push for a full peace treaty with North Korea. There is less reason for confidence that Stephens’s views would align with those of a new, more conservative government in Seoul.
Provided Ms. Stephens’s views do not conflict with her duty to obey the law, it is her right as a citizen to hold them, no matter how wrong or discredited I may believe them to be. Of course, not everyone has a right to represent the United States as an ambassador. An ambassador represents the interests and values of an entire nation, and that requires an extraordinary degree of trust.
Senator Sam Brownback has spoken with Ms. Stephens twice to let her explain her views. He doesn’t have that trust, and so he’s holding the nomination. He’s under enormous pressure from the Administration and the State Department. In spite of that, he went to the Senate floor yesterday to explain his views openly:
You could read more about this here and here in the Chosun Ilbo, but the media have mostly phoned this one in and failed to explain Sen. Brownback’s thinking. That’s why I’d like to try to explain what they haven’t.
Back in 2003, Sam Brownback sponsored something called the North Korean Freedom Act. The State Department’s appeasement crowd, which was not then as dominant as it is today, reached out to friends in the Senate and blocked it in the Foreign Relations Committee, back when Senator Richard Lugar was Chairman.
The following year, a watered down version appeared as the North Korean Human Right Act. That April, hundreds of people, most affiliated with LiNK or the North Korean Freedom Coalition, descended on Capitol Hill to lobby for the NKHRA. We didn’t have appointments, mind you. Hundreds of us just descended on offices in teams of a dozen each and registered our support for the Act’s passage (and often, that consisted of explaining our views to 19 year-old staffers who couldn’t find Korea on a map).
At the time, I was fresh out of the Army, and I was summarily elected leader of an ad-hoc team that was thrown together of other teamless individuals. Of those hundreds of amateur lobbyists, we may have been the only ones to actually meet a senator. Out of sheer blind luck, we entered Sen. Lugar’s office just as he was walking out of it with an Army general and an Army colonel. Personally, Lugar was congenial and generous of his time. I gave my very best two-minute closing argument. Lugar feigned interest convincingly and listened politely. And probably for completely unrelated reasons, the North Korean Human Rights Act made it out of Lugar’s Committee that year. In October of 2004, the the North Korean Human Rights Act passed both houses by voice votes. The President signed it just before Election Day 2004 in a modest ceremony. And much like the feeling of wetting one’s self in dark suit, many of us had a warm feeling inside, but no one really noticed. And so everyone — especially the State Department’s East Asia Bureau, of which Kathleen Stephens has been Deputy Assistant Secretary since 2005 — forgot about the North Korean Human Rights Act.
Except for Sam Brownback … and, I should note, some principled people in the House.
You may not remember that the Act required the State Department to make human rights a “key” part of its negotiations with North Korea, or that it required expanding radio broadcasts to 12 hours a day, or that it required U.S. consular facilities overseas to “facilitate the submission of applications” by North Korean refugees for political asylum.
You can be forgiven for forgetting, because none of those things has actually happened. I told you why back in November 2005. My reliable source told me that Nicholas Burns, the unofficial high priest of the appeasement wing, sabotaged the funding and implementation of the Act. And as a result, our consulates in China are turning away North Korean refugees at the gates, Radio Free Asia spent much of last year in a hiring freeze, less than 50 North Korean refugees have gotten into the United States, we have a part-time Special Envoy who wears a shock collar, and human rights are a functional non-issue in our talks with the North Koreans.
As a matter of policy, you may well disagree with all of my views on those things, and if so, I encourage you to express that view to your member of Congress, as I have done to mine and yours. If you don’t like the law, there are ways of changing it, but the list of acceptable methods does not include allowing members of the Executive Branch to defy it.
I understand that the issuance of regulations, the formulation of policies, and the creation of budgets takes time, but it doesn’t take nearly four years. There is no rational explanation for State’s behavior except that it considers itself self-governing and above the law. That attitude has made State some enemies in Congress this week over the much-delayed Syria revelations, but this deserves to be just as big a scandal.
You will see, incidentally, some Google Earth images of Camp 22 in that speech, and if you think those photographs look familiar, you’re right. At the very least, full disclosure requires me to mention at least that much and let you infer the rest on your own. Not that anyone who got this far confused me with a disinterested or unbiased observer. If you’re disinterested, then you did not click that last link.
Kathleen Stephens may be perfectly qualified technically and linguistically, but an absence of respect for the law is a disqualification for any public servant in a democracy. And as with every single
politician human being alive, there are issues on which Senator Brownback and I would probably disagree, but on this issue, he deserves more than the commendation of the few people who will read this — he deserves to be remembered by history. Here is a man who made a difference, and here, by itself, is a reason to remember that one man, driven by conscience alone, defied his President and his friend to save the lives of people who will never see, know, or vote for him.