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Of Family Law and Foreign Policy
Wendy McElroy, ifeminists.com
26 June 2003
Saga's case is compelling, but American foreign policy and military should
protect American safety, not resolve custody disputes or resolve legal matters.
Sarah Saga and her two Saudi-born children spent last week in the sanctuary
of the U.S Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. So far the White House has
not responded to swelling calls to "Free Sarah!" by a military rescue, if
necessary. There are good reasons for the official silence. One of them:
American foreign policy should not be flexed in what ultimately might be
revealed to be a child custody dispute.
The conflict arises from Saga's wish to return to America with her children,
aged three and five. The Saudis agree to her departure but insist that the
children are Saudi and must remain, presumably in the custody of their father.
Saudi Arabia is brutal to women and Western backlash is commendable. But
the emotional groundswell surrounding Saga is beginning to resemble hysteria
with influential editors, such as Joseph Farah of WorldNetDaily (WND), having
readers that he is not calling for an actual war with the Saudis over this
issue. People should pause to consider the implications of using US foreign
policy -- and possibly military -- to override the family law of another
nation. They should also look more closely at the facts, which seem foggy
to say the least.
First, some background.
For months, WND has led a campaign
to publicize the plight of American women reportedly held against their will
in Saudi Arabia. The crusade is headed by Pat Roush, author of "At Any Price:
How America Betrayed my Kidnapped Daughters for Saudi Oil." Roush claims
"there are hundreds, if not thousands of American women and children being
held inside Saudi Arabia - tortured, terrified, threatened and unable to
come home to America." They are unable to leave because such travel requires
the consent of a husband and/or father.
In a passionate editorial on Saga, the Wall Street Journal called
Saudi Arabia "the only country we know of where an American accused of no
crime is not free to leave." This is a strong argument and, if Americans
are being held without charges, the situation should be remedied.
Meanwhile, Prince Bandar -- the influential Saudi ambassador to the U.S.
-- publicly denies that American women have been de facto "kidnapped." Whatever
the truth, it is clear that the children of such women are not free to leave.
In Saga's case, this is not only because the children are Saudi-born but
also because the father has custody by law.
Saga's story is compelling. Kidnapped at a young age by a Saudi father who
ignored a US custody agreement, Saga claims to be have been regularly abused
by her father and, later, by her stepmother and husband. She maintains that
her two children would suffer similar abuse if left behind.
Unfortunately, there is no way to confirm Saga's own abuse or to assess the
likelihood of her children being abused. The account may well be colored
by her desire to go to America.
Even details that should be clear are not. For example, Saga signed a document
relinquishing custody of her children -- a signature that Roush claims was
coerced but which the US State Department says was not. Moreover, an unnamed
consulate official reportedly told the Associated Press that the Saga situation
"involves marital problems" -- a considerably less important charge than
Roush's accusation of Saudis kidnapping American citizens.
Other reported details sound distinctly odd. For example, WND claims Saga
and her children originally went hungry at the Consulate because "she had
no money...and wasn't offered food by staff." A consular officer is alleged
to have told Saga's estranged mother Debra Dorner "to wire funds so Sarah
and the children could eat." Roush further alleges, "The State Department
is doing everything it can to intimidate Sarah Saga inside the consulate."
Meanwhile, Saga has been told she can stay as long as she wishes.
Dornier and Roush have launched a high-profile campaign, including appearances
on Fox News' "Day Side" talk show aimed at rallying support from the public
and the media. A powerful ally, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) states that Saudi
child custody claims are "something we're going to have to fight over very
But many of the most important questions remain unaddressed, including: what
exactly is the status of children with one American parent in nations, like
Saudi Arabia, that do not recognize dual citizenship? Should America become
involved in a child custody dispute between mother and father when no US
court order or agreement has been violated? What proof exists that the father
is an unfit custodial parent? Is it in the best interests of the children
to be removed from almost everyone and everything they know? If the children
were American-born and a mother wished to take them abroad, what position
would the US government assume?
In the wake of 9/11, it is popular to attach social agendas to foreign policy,
including military intervention. For example, the conflict in Afghanistan
was sometimes painted as being more about burqas than it was about terrorism.
Saudi policy toward women should change and it is slowly doing so as the
result of international disapproval. That process should continue. But American
foreign policy and military should protect American safety, not resolve custody
disputes or resolve legal matters.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research
fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author
and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for
Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent
Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada. Reprinted with permission of ifeminists.com.
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