IT'S NEARLY too obvious to say so, but the senior American diplomat responsible for refugees and worldwide humanitarian emergencies should be well-versed or even expert in, well, refugees and worldwide humanitarian emergencies. Certainly, the last several officials were before they were picked, by the two most recent presidents, for the job of assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration. Yet in nominating Ellen R. Sauerbrey for the position, President Bush has instead opted for a Republican Party loyalist whose qualifications and knowledge of the field are tenuous at best. If she is confirmed by the Senate, think of her as the Michael D. Brown of the refugee world.
Mrs. Sauerbrey, 68, was a big wheel in the Maryland General Assembly who lost consecutive races for governor in 1994 and 1998, then went on to become a television host. She was Maryland state chair for Mr. Bush's 2000 campaign; her reward was to be named U.S. representative to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, where she was mainly interested in pressing an antiabortion agenda.
How any of that qualifies her to take charge of a key government agency that often finds itself in the thick of dire international calamities is a mystery. She has had no substantial involvement with any of the great refugee or humanitarian crises of recent years -- not in Sudan, nor in Southeast Asia after the tsunami, nor in Kosovo or Rwanda amid bloodshed. Her background in management is similarly modest -- her only claim to qualifications there involves having overseen the U.S. census in a handful of Maryland counties more than 30 years ago. Yet as the State Department's refugee chief, she would take responsibility for a budget of $700 million and a staff of 100.
Private groups that work with refugees and humanitarian disasters are dismayed by Mrs. Sauerbrey's nomination, though most, since they depend on U.S. government funding, don't say so publicly. Mrs. Sauerbrey lacks international expertise, logistical know-how and managerial savvy. She is, however, a loyalist of the president, and these days that seems to be sufficient.