WASHINGTON - Less than a month after the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency stepped down amid accusations of cronyism and incompetence, the Bush administration is being assailed for nominating another political ally to head a key agency for responding to foreign disasters.
One leading international relief group is publicly opposing the appointment of Ellen Sauerbrey to the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, and others have expressed private concerns over her lack of experience in emergency response work.
Sauerbrey, a former member of the Republican National Committee who was Bush's Maryland state campaign chairwoman in 2000, is the U.S. representative to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
If confirmed by the Senate, which has not set a date for a hearing, Sauerbrey would head an agency with a $700-million annual budget that has responsibility for coordinating the U.S. government's response to refugee crises during natural disasters and wars.
The bureau coordinates with private and international organizations, such as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, to help set up refugee camps and to ensure sufficient food and other aid. It has helped confront refugee crises around the globe, including in war-torn Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in southern Asia after the December tsunami.
Although appointing political allies to government jobs is a tradition in Washington, the refugee bureau is a complex agency with a broad portfolio. Past administrations, Republican and Democratic, have generally turned to someone with technical expertise to head it.
Sauerbrey, 68, was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1978. She has been a conservative activist for decades but has no direct experience mobilizing responses to humanitarian emergencies.
"This is a job that deals with one of the great moral issues of our time," said Joel R. Charny of Refugees International in Washington, which opposes Sauerbrey's nomination. "This is not a position where you drop in a political hack."
He and critics from other relief organizations - who spoke on condition of anonymity because they work closely with the bureau or receive funding from it - have pointed to the controversy over former FEMA Director Michael D. Brown, who resigned Sept. 12 after his lack of disaster experience became an issue in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. His agency's disorganized response to a major catastrophe was widely disparaged.
Sauerbrey's nomination came Aug. 31, two days after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.
"I don't want to say this is Michael Brown redux," Charny said, "but what qualifications does she have to deal with the core issue of refugees? The answer is none."
Erin Healy, a White House spokeswoman, defended Sauerbrey's qualifications.
"An important focus of the position is not only dealing with the aftermath of conflict and displacement of persons, but the prevention of refugee situations," Healy said. "Ambassador Sauerbrey understands the importance of stability and democracy, and how they prevent the displacement of persons."
Healy said that Sauerbrey had addressed issues related to refugees in her current U.N. position, because most refugees worldwide are women and children, and that she had gained relevant diplomatic experience and contacts there as well.
"She will be able to build bridges and coalitions to achieve success," Healy said.
Sauerbrey did not respond to requests for comment.
A former schoolteacher and county census director, Sauerbrey served in the Maryland House of Delegates until 1994 and unsuccessfully ran for governor in 1994 and 1998. She then became a talk show host and TV commentator. In 2000, the Bush campaign tapped her to lead the GOP's presidential effort in Maryland.
After the election, Bush named Sauerbrey to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. In 2003, the president appointed her U.S. representative to the United Nations commission on the status of women, her current position.
Although even critics say she has done well as an advocate for women's rights to education and economic opportunities, Sauerbrey has generated controversy with her opposition to abortion.
This year, she pressed other countries to include language in a U.N. declaration that specifically would have excluded abortion as a component of equal rights for women.
The move drew widespread opposition, and the language was ultimately dropped.
In her new post, Sauerbrey would run a bureau that is central to offering "protection and life-sustaining relief for millions of refugees and victims of conflict around the globe," according to its website.
The bureau faces several major challenges, including protecting refugees from warfare in Sudan's Darfur region and helping resettle millions returning home in southern Sudan after a peace agreement there.
Andy Fisher, a spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will consider Sauerbrey's nomination, said hearings would probably be this month.
This is not the first Bush administration nominee to the bureau to spark controversy. In early 2001, the White House announced that it would nominate John M. Klink to head the bureau. Klink, a member of the Republican National Committee's Catholic Task Force, had represented the Vatican at a number of conferences on social issues.
Private relief groups criticized the nomination, and it was reported that then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had favored another candidate. The administration withdrew Klink's name and nominated Arthur E. "Gene" Dewey, who took office in January 2002 after winning Senate approval.
Dewey was a former U.N. deputy high commissioner for refugees. He also had been director of the U.S. Office of Emergency Humanitarian Assistance for the New Independent States and executive director of the Congressional Hunger Center.
Julia Taft - a Republican appointed by the Clinton administration, who preceded Dewey - had a similarly long resume in refugee issues.
Kathleen Newland, director of the independent Migration Policy Institute, said Dewey, Taft and earlier bureau heads had deep field experience before being named to the job.
"The refugee bureau has not been a spot for political appointments," Newland said. "This is not a position for on-the-job learning."
Relief organization representatives said they were particularly disappointed with Sauerbrey's nomination in light of the Brown controversy.
Charny, of Refugees International, said the promotion of democracy and stability were important goals, but not central to the bureau's mission.
The bureau "is in essence a first responder to refugee crises," Charny said. "The prevention of crisis is addressed by other agencies of the State Department."
Dewey, who said he was unaware of the controversy over Sauerbrey, said field experience and diplomatic skill were important assets in crises.
For example, when about 200,000 refugees from Darfur moved into Chad over a brief period in 2003 and 2004, Dewey said, he dispatched someone to Chad to come up with a plan to get the refugees shelter, food, sanitation and protection and sought a quick response for assistance from the U.N. High Commissioner.
"You need the literacy and capability to develop a get-well plan for an operation that isn't going well," Dewey said. "You need to get mileage and productivity out of the U.N. system in dealing with refugee crises, especially to get the financial burden-sharing that is desperately needed by the American taxpayer."
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