White House Blunders on New Consular Affairs Chief

Joel Mowbray

8/9/2002 12:00:00 AM - Joel Mowbray
In an unusual display of political ineptitude, the White House has chosen to ignore pleas from conservatives and family groups and decided to pick a fight with the parents of kidnapped kids. That's right: the White House has announced its intention to replace the now-fired head of Consular Affairs, Mary Ryan—the pioneer of Visa Express—with a woman who raises the ire of American parents struggling to recover children abducted in foreign lands. Ambassador Maura Harty, the White House's pick to succeed Mary Ryan, had two stints running the Office of Children's Issues (OCI), the division within Consular Affairs in the State Department charged with reuniting parents with children illegally abducted to foreign lands. In her two tours at OCI, from 1994-1995 as its Managing Director and from August 1999-April 2001 as the Deputy Assistant Secretary, Harty's office had a record of "indifference bordering on hostility" toward the interests of American parents, according to Patricia Roush, whose two (now-adult) daughters Aisha and Alia have been held hostage in Saudi Arabia by their Saudi national father since 1986. Last week, the White House received booklets (sent by Roush) containing the stories of a number of parents, which detailed the shocking treatment they received at the hands of Harty and her minions when she ran OCI. One story is from Maureen Dabbagh, whose daughter Nadia was abducted to Syria in 1993. Despite having a custody order from Syria, warrants issued by Syria, as well as a U.S. custody order and warrants, Dabbagh has been unable to recover her daughter. During Harty's tenure at OCI, Dabbagh was slammed by State employees as "a would-be-do-gooder", and she was told the role of OCI was merely to "Lower Parent Expectations." And now the White House wants the woman responsible for that repugnant culture to head up all of Consular Affairs (CA), which also has the incredibly important task of deciding who gets into this country—and who doesn't. Heaven only knows why the White House has decided to engage in a downright suicidal PR fight against the most sympathetic of victims. If only it were just bad politics, though. Anointing Harty as chief of CA would be disastrous policy. A protégé and clone of Mary Ryan, Harty will almost certainly maintain the very policies for which her predecessor was fired. The White House—with a straight face—maintains that she will make badly needed changes at CA because—get this—she said she would do so during her interview with the vetters. The record says otherwise. Harty's remarkably rapid rise through the ranks of State—she went from a Deputy Assistant Security to Executive Secretary for Secretary of State Colin Powell to the current nomination in just 16 months—belies State's silly contention that she is an "agent of change" and someone who will "rock the boat". One needs only read the tragic stories of the parents of kidnapped children to know better. State’s Deputy Press Secretary Phil Reeker this week defended the indefensible record of OCI by citing the safe return of 170 children in 2001. The statistic might sound impressive on its own, but in the context of a total of 16,000 abductees—in other words, roughly one percent of the total—that’s hardly a sterling achievement. That the State Department is actually proud of this dubious accomplishment speaks to the insanely low expectations it holds for the top post at CA. As sad a commentary as this is on the state of State, it is not surprising that Powell’s department would submit Harty’s name to the White House. The true mystery is why the White House would play along. The only rational explanation is that the White House felt an obligation to Powell to give him some sort of consolation prize in light of the recent string of policy losses, and to allow him to placate the bureaucrats who were saddened by Mary Ryan’s much-deserved dismissal. Washington is all about picking your battles, and there is no good reason for the White House to pick this one. The White House is now in the position of battling the parents of abducted children—at a time when the domestic side of that issue is topping the news. State has long shown its propensity to thwart American interests, including those of parents desperately seeking the safe return of their children trapped in foreign lands. With the formal nomination of Harty, the White House seems willing to follow State’s lead.