Crisis Management: Frank Church Conference Inspires Solutions to the Planet's Biggest Problems

"I don't think that Sen. Church ever would have dreamed about this."


Vice presidents, senators, United Nations ambassadors, secretaries of state, secretaries of defense, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and even a United States president have all stood before Boise audiences at the Frank Church Institute. The Boise State University-based institute has also hosted some of the planet's preeminent ambassadors from China, the United Kingdom and even the Kremlin.

Now in its third decade, the Frank Church Conference is expected to echo the world's headlines in its 2016 iteration—titled "Clash of Cultures"—as it examines ISIS and the turmoil that defines the Middle East.

No less than former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Leon Panetta will be participating in this year's event.

"Dr. Panetta, he's a pro. You'll always get a straight answer," said Frank Church Institute Executive Director Garry Wenske. "If you've paid attention to his remarks over the years, he's never been afraid to be critical of current or past administrations."

The historical significance of Panetta's appearance at the conference shouldn't be lost on anyone who recalls the mid-1970s Church Committee hearings, led by late-Idaho Sen. Frank Church, which drilled into the CIA's alleged misuse of law and power both at home and abroad.

It was a seminal moment for the nation and for Frank Forrester Church II, of Boise, who rose to become one of the most influential U.S. senators, serving from 1957 to 1981.

"I remember walking into Sen. Church's office in 1964 as if it were yesterday. I was to become an intern," said Wenske, who would continue his friendship with the senator for decades.

"Gosh he was smart, but thoughtful, caring and always thinking big thoughts," Wenske added. "Today's students? A good many of them don't really know who Frank Church was, other than 'The Frank,' and may not even connect the Frank Church Wilderness with the man."

Wenske said Church had no illusions and "was pretty realistic about most dead politicians not being remembered." Nonetheless, the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, created in 1980, and the Frank Church Institute, created in 1982, affirm the legacy of one of Idaho's most distinguished native sons.

"I don't think that Sen. Church ever would have dreamed about this," said Wenske. "Our next big step is that sometime in 2016, we'll be creating the Frank and Bethine Church Chair, and that in turn will create a Frank Church Institute professor."

Wenske has little time to wax poetic. He's usually in the eye of the hurricane, putting together what has become the highest-profile foreign relations events Idaho has to offer. In year's past, the conference has attracted scores of scholars, journalists and statesmen and women, including the late-President Gerald Ford, U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young and Vice Presidents Walter Mondale and Al Gore. Gore's 2006 appearance sold out 10,000 seats at Boise State's Taco Bell Arena.

"Quite frankly, when we secure one high-profile attendee, another attendee follows," said Wenske, who has the great fortune of having direct emails and phone numbers for some of the world's most distinguished thinkers.

For example, this year's conference will feature an appearance by Ambassador Thomas Pickering, who has served as a U.S. ambassador to no fewer than six nations, including Israel and Russia.

"Once you tell someone that Tom Pickering is coming to Boise, you get people's attention," said Wenske.

Of particular note at this year's event will be a panel discussion delving into the topic of ISIS. Among the guests is Dr. Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies.

"I'm fortunate in that I'm teaching in an area that's at the top of the global agenda," Hashemi told Boise Weekly. "People are seriously worried and needing to understand why the Middle East seems to be imploding and why we seem to be facing another 9/11 moment."

According to Hashemi, Americans had the false impression that the U.S. had won the war on terrorism following the 2011 assassination of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

"But we're back to square-one," said Hashemi, who added that the hunger for deeper analysis of the crisis is more critical in 2016 as Americans choose a new commander-in-chief.

"You'll notice that we weren't talking about international affairs too much—that is, until the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. Now, there's greater focus on foreign policy in political debates," said Hashemi, quickly adding there has also been a fair amount of ignorance in those debates.

"I'm often appalled at the simplicity of analysis that we hear in the presidential debates," he said, "and I have to say, more on the Republican side. That's a deep cause for concern. All the more reason to have conferences such as the Frank Church Institute."

Hashemi said he looks forward to engaging with audiences on the complexities of Islamic politics and how ISIS flourishes in a climate that offers only the option of corrupt tyrannical rule or rebellion.

"This is an organization that can be defeated and will be defeated over time," said Hashemi. "But we've got to have an intelligent debate on the best strategy to do just that. That's reason enough to come to the conference."