Though Obama may hope to pivot to Asia, the Middle East keeps asserting itself. President Obama is widely expected to announce Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry (D-MA) to replace Hillary Clinton as the country's top diplomat, maybe as soon as today. But perhaps Obama should take into account the region most in flux in the world and nominate an American uniquely situated to deal with the perpetual Mideast crises: now is a good time to consider another possible candidate for the job, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN).
Though an unlikely pick and short on experience, Ellison’s background as the first Muslim member of Congress would offer a shake-up for the State Department as the Obama administration attempts to navigate an increasingly difficult set of challenges in the Middle East. The next Secretary of State will need to deal with the ongoing Syrian civil war, a transitioning Egypt beset by continuing political chaos and even violence, the ever-present Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and delicate diplomacy involving world powers and the U.N. against Iran and its nuclear ambitions.
On one of the biggest Middle East problems, Iran's nuclear program, Ellison has pursued a policy closely in line with Obama's: pressure against the regime but with robust diplomacy that could end the standoff without a military confrontation. In December 2011, Ellison stated that while he supported targeted sanctions against Iran, he was voting against the Iran Threat Reduction Act because it would restrict diplomacy with Iran. “Specifically, Section 601 [of the act] prohibits all communication between U.S. and Iranian officials unless the President notifies Congress fifteen days in advance. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen pointed out the problem with such a measure. ‘Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, we had links to the Soviet Union,’ he wrote. ‘We are not talking to Iran, so we don’t understand each other. If something happens, it’s virtually assured that we won’t get it right.’”
Ellison has proven himself an engaging and effective diplomat, helping further the interests of the U.S. and its allies in the region. In 2010, he cosponsored a resolution calling on Hamas to release captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and in August 2011, during the month of Ramadan, Ellison, along with prominent Muslim American leaders, signed a letter to Hamas leader Khaled Mashal calling for Shalit’s release. The letter concluded: “On the occasion of Ramadan, we urge you to recall that the Holy Qur’an teaches us that ‘Whoever pardons and makes reconciliation will receive his reward from Allah.” We urge you to act upon these words by releasing Shalit immediately.” Cultivating these sorts of interfaith alliances to find diplomatic solutions to tensions in the Middle East while maintaining his principles has been one of Ellison’s strengths—a boon to an administration looking to cautiously engage the growing tide of Islamism in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Ellison has also taken no-nonsense stances on issues that plague the region, quick to denounce anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. After an interfaith group, including the State Department’s Special Envoy on Anti-Semitism Hannah Rosenthal, visited the Dachau and Auschwitz concentration camps, Ellison invited the group to discuss their trip in a briefing on confronting the dangers of religious demonization. “There is no justification for bigotry of any kind. And we must not forget that anti-Semitism is not just a problem of the past,” said Ellison during his introductory remarks.
He's been equally outspoken in pushing back against Islamophobia. When the Republican Party platform for 2012 proclaimed that the U.S. is under assault from Islamic Shariah law, Ellison characterized it as “an expression of bigotry.” He told Mother Jones, “There has never been any legislation offered to establish Shariah law—not at the federal level, not at the state level. There's not been a municipal ordinance opposing this, there's not been anything."
Now, more than ever, U.S. diplomacy is required to help restart the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process and navigate the uncertain political futures in Egypt and Syria—not to mention lingering Arab Spring unrest from Bahrain to Saudia Arabia to Jordan. A Muslim Secretary of State with an exemplary background in inter-religious dialogue and a staunch opponent of religious intolerance could be a game-changer.