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Interview with Sam Brownback

Sam Brownback was born in Kansas on September 12, 1956. He studied Agricultural Economics at Kansas State University, where he was elected student body president, and went on to earn a law degree from the University of Kansas.

He was chosen as the youngest Secretary of Agriculture in Kansas state history in 1986. He also served for one year as a White House Fellow in the Office of the US Trade Representative.

Brownback was elected to the US Congress in 1994, representing the Second District of Kansas. He was elected to a full six-year term in 1998 and was re-elected to a second six-year term in November 2004.

Brownback is the chairman of the Helsinki Commission. He also chairs the Values Action Team, co-chairs the Senate Cancer Coalition, and is a member of both the Army and Air Force Caucuses.

This interview was conducted following the Asia Society Luncheon program with Senator Sam Brownback on May 8, 2006.

You have taken an active interest in the situation in Darfur, Sudan, North Korea and in the Middle East, to name only a few. Can you briefly outline what you think are the most pressing foreign policy issues confronting the United States at this time?

It's probably the lead ones now: Iran. If you're just looking at straight foreign policy issues, I think, with Iran being the lead sponsor of terrorism around the world and with US foreign policy just being formulated at this point in time. It's tied in intimately with the global war on terrorism, which has been, for us to date, a sequential war. It's been Afghanistan, then Iraq and now you're seeing really the focus step up on Iran. That's probably, if you're looking at the most pressing issues, I think that's it for us today.

In 1999 you worked hard to pass the Silk Road Strategy Act.

Yeah, we've got a follow-on. We're introducing Silk Road II.

But could you explain why you thought at the time that the US ought to be more actively engaged with countries in Central Asia?

Yeah, it looked like to me at that point in time you had a region of the world that was determining a path. And of all the places in the world it was most active in determining what it was going to do. Is it going to go back into the Russian sphere? Is it going to fall into an Islamic sphere? Is it going to go on an East/West axis? You had a historic neighborhood where a lot of people had played, for lack of a better term, over a lot of years. I felt like if the United States would invest some time and effort it would be far more likely that this region would interact on an East/West basis, rather than falling back into a Russian sphere or into an Islamic sphere. And I think that's proven to be true.

Now, it's still a region that could go either way and totters regularly back and forth. That's why I think it needs to be a further investment of time and resources by the US and why we're putting forward this second Silk Road Act.

And what does Silk Road II entail? Is it primarily trade related?

Yeah, it's mostly trade and integration, building on oil and gas -- not just oil and gas but building on the oil and gas economic basis of the region, which is a great asset to build on but it shouldn't be the only asset. So we're trying to get further interaction, further cooperation in additional fields and further integration of the economies in that region, going East-West.

Plus just in the petrol wars that we're in now, the West needs and should have multiple pipelines coming out of that region and not just all controlled by the Russians, which is going to be a key near-term battle that we have. It's in place to see in Baku, Tblisi, Jehan. I think the first oil is to come out of that pipeline in the first part of June. And that's not controlled by the Russians yet.

You have been a great advocate of democratic reform in Iran. If the present impasse continues, do you think the United States should take a more interventionist stance to prevent Iran from acquiring any nuclear capability?

I don't believe we should take a military action. I don't think we should take a military intervention. I do think we should take a much more aggressive civil society building approach, working with groups both inside and outside of Iran for democracy and human rights advocacy work. I think those groups are there. They're in place. It's a relatively open society. I mean, you can get a message in and you can get a message out. And I think we need to work a lot more with them to build the infrastructure for democratic reform.

The problem with that approach is that somebody described it one time as feeding Saddam Hussein buttered popcorn and waiting for him to die of fatty buildup in his veins. I mean, it's kind of like, well, how long is this going to take? And does it even work at the end of the day? And these are dynamics you just don't know about. You don't know when they'll change or when things will happen. It's not the sort of controlled, "Okay, this happens and then two weeks later this occurs." But I still think, of the cards we have in front of us, this is one of the more viable ones that we can do and it's a no regrets policy. These are things we do around the world anyway.

But you did support the military intervention in Iraq?

Yes, I did.

Do you think that Iran poses more or less of a threat now than Iraq did at that time?

Oh, I think Iran poses more of a threat to the United States.

But you do not support military intervention in this case?

I don't see the option.

Only because the US military is over-extended?

No, because the public is over-burdened. We're a democracy and if you went to the American public now and said, "Okay, we think we need to act on Iran militarily," I think the public would just say no. We're war weary. Yes, Afghanistan has worked pretty much. Iraq, you know, we're still seeing if that's going to work. And we're not ready to do that, not willing to do that. So, I mean, you know what? At the end of day, I work for the people and the people have to be willing to come along. They were willing to come along on Iraq. At the time we believed they had terrorists operating on their soil in Iraq. They did. We believed they had weapons of mass destruction, which we have not found. We thought at that time that they were going to be willing to mix those two and a place like New York City would not be safe. And the public believed that. And I believed that. And that was what all the intelligence told us. But you could put the same case forward now on Iran and we're enough out of 9/11 that I think people would just say, "Hey, I gotta have more proof than what you're giving me right now."

Could you explain how, if at all, your work as chairman of the Values Action Team relates to your advocacy on various foreign policy issues, from the Helsinki Commission to the North Korea Human Rights Act?

Yeah, well, there's a lot of relationship, particularly on neglected diseases like AIDS. The AIDS funding that the President put forward a couple of years ago, much of it was carried by and strongly supported by groups that are in the Values Action Team. These are faith-based advocacy groups primarily. They strongly support North Korean human rights. They've been very strong in their support of Sudan and Darfur. The VAT groups been very active on sex trafficking, and religious freedom globally. Over the last six, seven years they've grown a great deal in their foreign policy interests and activities and successes.

And their principal interests are AIDS and sex trafficking?

But also North Korea, where you've got a huge human rights issue and Sudan, where you have an enormous persecution and genocide taking place. All of it centers around that these groups generally believe, as I do, that each soul is precious and sacred. It's unique, it's a child of the living God. And as such, they deserve to be protected and fought for. We're in the most powerful nation in the history of mankind so it's incumbent upon us to do everything we can to anybody that's in a persecuted, genocidal position anywhere in the world. There are limits to what you can do but to what you can do, you need to do.

Do you feel that America has fallen short of this responsibility?

In some areas, yes. I don't think we've done near enough on neglected diseases. Malaria is one for sure that we have not done sufficient work on. I don't think we've integrated ourselves enough into Africa and the level of poverty and suffering that's taking place there. I would commend strongly this administration's effort in Sudan. They've done more than any government around the world on Sudan and bringing peace to the South first and now hopefully to Darfur in these tentative agreements. And I would give them an 'A' on human rights in North Korea. They've raised an issue there that nobody else has been willing to do and have pushed it aggressively.

I strongly believe that as we engage the poor and the suffering around the world we will be stronger and we will save our own souls in the process. And it's just very important for us to do this.

Many commentators have suggested that there is a connection between Christian eschatology and the Republican Right's posture vis-à-vis the Israel/Palestine conflict. Do you believe there is such a link, and if so, what are its origins?

Yeah, I don't think that. I don't think that's there. I mean, if people are looking at it as a foreign policy driver - I don't think that's a part of it. You do have, in this country, a large Christian population and a large population of very active Christians whose faith powers them, who have read the Bible for years. And then there's a natural affinity that develops when you've read of these places for years and years and it forms such a key part of who you are as a person. But, you know, people have spun theories for years on this and I think you've really got to get it down to just a much more practical foreign policy: Israel is a democracy in a region that hasn't generally known democracy. The Judeo-Christian ethic is much of what the West is built upon and Israel carries that. And the Jewish people have been persecuted for thousands of years. Probably the biggest in history was the Holocaust in World War II and so the need to have a Jewish state where the Jews would not be persecuted is very important.

Given the strength of the Judeo-Christian link, and that, as you say, it is this ethic that grounds much of the West, what do you think accounts for the fact that the Holocaust was in fact perpetrated by Christians?

I think that's a terribly regretful thing on the part of Christians and I personally have publicly apologized, I've given a speech of apology in the Knesset around three years ago. Because the historical relationship between Christians and Jews for most of the two thousand years of Christianity has not been good and it's been mostly persecution by Christians of Jews - not all the time, not every place, but mostly it's been that. I think that's just a terribly regretful thing. I don't see it anywhere in the Scriptures that I read, that Christians are to persecute Jews. I think it's been quite damaging. I think it's been a bad witness. And that's much of what I said in that speech, that I regret and I apologize for it and I hope that that apology in some minor way can be a useful tool in building these relationships to the place that they should be.

The central Christian thesis is to love. Love God, all your heart, mind, soul and flesh and love your neighbor as yourself - that's the central thesis. It doesn't say anything about hating people anywhere in there, other than that that's not a good thing. And you're even to pray for your enemy. There have been many of us as Christians who have failed to practice the faith as it's called upon and that has been damaging to the faith and I regret that.

Do you see that as very widespread in America or less so here than in the rest of the Christian West - in Europe, for example?

Oh, I think if you will look for them in the United States you can find some beautiful people of faith. It's more easy to find them in Africa than here, has been my experience - just because the level of suffering builds a purity of faith, actually. I've been to Africa once a year the last four years and seen just a level of profound suffering that you just go, "How do you live through this?" I mean the people that have been trafficked and family members killed in the genocide and villages raided and girls taken as child prostitutes and boys as child soldiers. And you just kind of name every one of them and they're there.

But out of it you see these beautiful, shining people of faith and Jesus is all they've got and he's enough. I remember last year I was in Eastern Congo, DRC, at a clinic for women who were being sewed up for fistulas. They were having babies and it was a hard pregnancy and it was ripping open their insides or they were gang-raped in the war that was taking place and they were ripped open. Extensive surgery to do this. Recovery is three weeks. They happened to get to the one place in Eastern Congo you can actually get this surgery and they were laying two in a bed, a single bed, recovering. And the women that had recovered enough that were still around were just singing, just singing a storm up. And as I was going, "What are they singing?" And one of the ladies turned to me and said, "Well, I'm so happy. My prayers have been answered, an angel has been sent." And then they started another song. They were just ripping out a song and it was beautiful and they were happy and joyous. And I said, "What are they singing?" They were singing, "I'm so happy when I'm with Jesus." And it's just these beautiful testaments of people that have nothing, enormous suffering, and you just go, "All right, now that's the pure faith. That's the way it's supposed to be."

You have been quoted as having said on a radio program that, "There's probably a higher level of Christians being persecuted during the last ten, twenty years than…throughout human history." Do you stand by this claim, and if so, what is the nature of the persecution that Christians have been confronting? Is it the Christians in Africa that you had in mind?

A lot of them are there, yeah. You've seen Christians pretty systematically driven out of the Middle East. You know, they've got proportions of Christians in Egypt, certainly in Lebanon, Syria - anywhere, really, throughout the Middle East - that the percentage of the Christian population has dramatically fallen and most of them have left because they did not feel safe or their family members were killed.

Africa, you've seen an enormous number of Christians killed in a number of countries and conflicts in that region. North Korea, if you're a Christian and you get sent to the gulag, you get the harshest treatment.

So I think that's a fair statement. I don't have numerical data to be able to say, "Here's what it is now and here's what it was a hundred, two hundred, five hundred years ago." But if you just add the total number of the population up now versus then, I really think that number will stand scrutiny.

So, for instance, even in comparison to Jews or Muslims…?

Well, you know, the Jewish population is relatively small - it's twelve, fourteen million globally. The Muslim population, the level of persecution and people being killed, I don't know what its number is. I don't think it's anywhere near the level. Undoubtedly, and this takes place, the Muslims are being persecuted in Darfur right now but it's primarily at the hands of another Muslim population there. And you've got Hindus that are persecuted and all sorts of smaller religious groups, too, that are taking place. But I really think your big number total, your biggest number total would be Christians today.

Given that some American political analysts have commented on the prejudice against Catholics in the US (confirmed perhaps by the fact that there has only ever been one Catholic president, namely JFK), do you not view your recent conversion to Catholicism through Opus Dei as politically risky?

It might be but I don't make those sort of decisions based on politics. I felt a deep calling to do it. I studied for four years considering it and I really decided it was the right thing to do. And if the political consequences are negative, so be it. To me, I think politics are important but your soul lasts forever. So, you know, you make those decisions on what you think is right or wrong and then you just go forward.

You are a likely candidate for president in the Republican Party's primaries in 2008. Who do you see as your principal constituents?

You know my family and I, we've not made a decision, but as I've made the early travels, there are several blocs that seem likely to be there. People of strong faith are a group that I will hopefully appeal to. People interested in a foreign policy basis are people that I appeal to. A lot of narrower immigrant populations are people that I appeal to, whether it's the Korean community or Iranian-American community, I've worked on a number of these issues and these are fairly large immigrant populations that are in the United States. Indian-Americans, I've worked with carefully. But primarily the bloc will be more faith-based, values-based voters and conservatives.

What role would would you like to see the United States playing globally in the next 25 years?

As the compassionate leader. I'd really like to see us be out there - the one that leads the elimination of malaria, which affects sixty per cent of your kids in sub-Sahara Africa. We know what to do. It's not expensive. We could save enormous numbers of lives, not to speak of the quality of life and productivity. A lot of these other neglected diseases I'd like to see us lead on.

When people of any community are being persecuted by a stronger, dominant community I'd like to see the United States be the leader in that. Not that you would be a global policeman at all, but that you would be there pressing the global community on Darfur, for example. Look, this is happening. We know it's happening. We can't stand idly by while this is happening. Because I really fundamentally believe that it's goodness that determines greatness. If the United States is good in our heart we will be great as a society. If we lose the goodness and start looking just after our own self-interest we will lose the greatness.

Do you think it's self interest that has prevented the United States from acting earlier to fight these neglected diseases and so on?

No, I think it's a lack of focus. This place has got, I don't know, there will be a thousand people giving a speech in this town today on a thousand different topics. And it's not that the people aren't willing to do something but a lot of times it's just, "Oh, I didn't know about that. I didn't know that many kids had malaria in the world. I didn't even know we still had malaria in the world." And it's just through…

So it's ignorance then?

It's ignorance but it's not a willful or it's not a malicious ignorance, like "Look, I kind of think I know about this but I don't want to look." It's more of just, "You know what? I got a thousand things going on. And it just isn't up at the top of the list." But if you make it a personal issue with them, if they see somebody that's struggling with malaria and they see children, they go, "Well, that's terrible. That shouldn't be." And one of the bills we're proposing is that we would fund neglected diseases research by allowing companies that do that to extend patents on lifestyle drugs.

This is a big issue because we have no research money going into neglected diseases because there's no market there. Great, let's take lifestyle drugs, which there's a big market for, and we'll give you a two year patent extension on this if you get us a cure for malaria, river blindness, hookworm, one of these. Just two years on Viagra is worth a lot of money and with that, we're going to solve malaria. What a great use of this marketplace! And we've got Joe Lieberman as the co-sponsor on the bill. I think we're going to be able to move something like that forward, use our market, use our lifestyle to solve some of these terrible diseases. I think there will be a lot of people that say, "Sure, absolutely." And so I'm real hopeful that can work.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of The Asia Society.