While Ukraine roils, VP is twisting arms for Christians in Mideast

While Ukraine roils, VP is twisting arms for Christians in Mideast November 6, 2019

It’s bad enough that President Donald Trump’s U.S. foreign policy motivations in the Ukraine are the same as for his 2020 re-election campaign.

mike pence foreign aid christian privilege mideast
Caricature of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. (Donkey Hotey, Flikr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The problem is that the president’s underhanded Ukraine politicking benefits his personal political goals at the expense of the nation’s collective national-security needs.

But, wait, it’s worse than we thought.

A disturbing news article published today in ProPublica, a U.S. nonprofit news media that investigates abuses of power, reveals that Vice President Mike Pence has been strong-arming grant-giving by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to privilege foreign Christian organizations over non-Christian ones in receiving American aid.

Last November, Hallum Ferguson, a top Trump appointee at USAID, warned colleagues in an email about increasing “pressure from the White House to reroute Middle East aid to religious minorities, particularly Christian groups,” ProPublica reported.

“Sometimes this decision will be made for us (see … Iraq! And, increasingly, Syria,” Ferguson told colleagues. “We need to stay ahead of this curve everywhere lest our interventions be dictated to us.”

As underlined by the curious activities of Rudy Giulliani, the president’s “personal lawyer” and “point man” in a “shadow foreign policy” regarding Ukraine to benefit Trump’s 2020 re-election, it’s all about domestic politics for the current president, not American geopolitical policy and security.

The genesis of the Ukraine fiasco that has led to a full-bore U.S. House impeachment inquiry against the president was Trump’s manifest fear of Democrat Joe Biden, the initial front-runner among his party’s 2020 presidential candidates. Seen as a moderate, Biden was viewed as the most likely Democrat in the field to win swing states that narrowly handed victory to Trump in 2016.

So, from all accounts, the Ukraine push to get Zelensky to dig up dirt on Joe Biden’s son, who served lucratively on the board of a Ukrainian company when Biden was vice president, was politically self-serving for Trump. The president reportedly held up hundreds of million dollars in U.S. military aid to the Ukraine to extort a Biden investigation out of Ukraine’s president.

The new reports about Pence’s preferential interference for Christians in USAID grants is more of the same: it’s political. The headline and subhead of the ProPublica article tersely summarizes the situation — “How Mike Pence’s Office Meddled in Foreign Aid to Reroute Money to Favored Christian Groups: Officials at USAID warned that favoring Christian groups in Iraq could be unconstitutional and inflame religious tensions. When one colleague lost her job, they said she had been ‘Penced.’”

The political part is that American evangelical Christians are not only a critical part of Trump’s “base” of supporters but among the most vociferous and politically active. To have any chance of winning in 2020, he needs to keep that cohort happy — and, as ProPublica reports, “increasing aid to Christians abroad is a core value of [Trump’s] supporters.”

It is manifestly also a core value of Pence, an ultra-conservative evangelical Protestant from Indiana.

The Wall Street Journal and BuzzFeed previously reported on the vice president’s focus on increasing foreign aid to Christians and his annoyance with USAID’s activities in Iraq, ProPublica noted.

“The Trump administration’s efforts to influence USAID funding sparked concern from career officials, who worried the agency risked violating constitutional prohibitions on favoring one religion over another,” the article explained. “They also were concerned that being perceived as favoring Christians could worsen Iraq’s sectarian divides.”

Pence’s meddling apparently violates USAID regulations, which state that awards “must be free from political interference or even the appearance of such interference and must be made on the basis of merit, not on the basis of the religious affiliation of a recipient organization, or lack thereof.”

ProPublica reports that, as Republican political appointees such as Gordon Sundland, the ambassador to the European Union and a top Trump donor, have stymied the work of nonpartisan career diplomats in Ukraine, they are also corrupting the work of USAID officers in the Mideast.

In addition, the administration seemed to enlist conservative American media in the subterfuge. Before USAID announced some recent aid grants, Fox News in detail criticized USAID’s activities in Iraq, contending that Pence had been ineffective in directing aid to Christian groups affected by military conflict in Syria and Iraq.

Apparently, Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s chief of state, was telling the truth at a new conference recently when he told reporters, “Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.”

Certainly, Mulvaney can say what he wants, of course, and the president and his minions have the freedom to do what they please, but that doesn’t make any of it ethical, or legal, or even advisable.

In the meantime, as with the Ukraine affair, nonpartisan career foreign-service officers in the Mideast are fearful of losing their jobs if they buck Pence’s dubious demands.

Once again, as the late gadfly Christopher Hitchens, kept reminding us, “religion poisons everything.”

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