Report

A Trump U.N. Pick Tries to Make Up for Anti-Muslim Tweets

Ken Isaacs once proposed building a wall in the Alps to keep out migrants. Trump wants him to lead the world’s principal migration agency.

Ken Isaacs, the U.S. candidate to head the International Organization for Migration, at a press briefing in Geneva on March 19. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)
Ken Isaacs, the U.S. candidate to head the International Organization for Migration, at a press briefing in Geneva on March 19. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

If there were ever a candidate for Twitter purgatory, it would have to be Ken Isaacs, who upended his White House-backed campaign to lead the U.N. migration agency with a series of tweets denigrating Islam.

For the past few weeks, Isaacs has been traveling to foreign capitals in Europe and Africa in the company of White House and State Department escorts, seeking forgiveness as he tries to rescue his bid by persuading foreign dignitaries, including Pope Francis, that he is not the sum of his tweets and that he can be trusted to lead the International Organization for Migration (IOM) without religious bias. In a sign of the importance of his candidacy, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, will host a reception on May 3 to introduce U.N. ambassadors to Isaacs in New York.

The State Department declined to make Isaacs available for an interview. But Isaacs agreed to respond to written questions.

“I have apologized publicly for social media comments that have caused hurt,” he writes. “I ask people to judge me on my professional record and the decades of work I have done to help people in need around the world.”

Despite persistent misgivings about the U.S. candidate’s temperament, Isaacs maintains the edge as the front-runner because key powers, particularly in Europe, are unwilling to challenge the Americans’ traditional hold on the job out of concern that it might provoke the United States to pull IOM funding or cost them Washington’s support for other national priorities, several diplomatic sources say.

The United States is the single largest donor to IOM, contributing more than 30 percent of the some $1 billion the organization receives in voluntary donations each year.

“We are not going to take the fight [to the United States] out of fear of pushing the U.S. away and [damaging] our bilateral relations,” one senior European diplomat says. That view, the diplomat says, is “fairly widely held” among European governments.

The nomination of such a controversial candidate will serve as a test of the United States’ ability to maintain its leadership position on the multilateral stage at a time when the White House has expressed disdain for international institutions from the International Criminal Court to the World Trade Organization. It will also determine whether the United States will be forced to pay a diplomatic cost for imposing sharp budget cuts on key agencies, including the U.N. Population Fund and the U.N. Relief and Works Agency.

More than a year ago, the White House budget office proposed steep cuts on U.N. humanitarian programs, including UNICEF. But when the White House put forward a candidate, Henrietta Fore, to lead the children’s agency, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres quickly appointed her. Likewise, the White House’s threat to hollow out U.S. funding for humanitarian programs had little impact on Guterres’s decision to appoint its chosen candidate, former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley, as executive director of the World Food Program (WFP).

In a sense, fear of such cuts has strengthened the U.S. argument for placing loyalists of President Donald Trump in key agencies on the grounds that they could do a better job of convincing the White House to keep paying the bill. And in the end, some of the most draconian calls for cuts have been rejected by the U.S. Congress, which favors a more robust foreign aid program.

“It can help to have old Republican hands acting as bridges between the U.N. and Washington in the current climate,” says Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Beasley’s and Fore’s tenure so far has “turned out better than expected,” he says. “Beasley actually got the U.S. to raise its contributions to WFP last year.”

But the race to lead the U.N. migration agency presents a tougher challenge. The IOM director-general will be chosen by the organization’s 169 member states, some of which are predominantly Muslim countries likely to be offended by an evangelical Christian who has made disparaging remarks about Muslims on social media.

Adding to the uncertainty over the outcome, delegates will vote in a secret ballot, raising the possibility that Isaacs could still fall short of the two-thirds majority he needs. Countries disinclined to openly challenge Isaacs in public may quietly register their protest at the ballot. “We won’t vote for him,” one European diplomat confides.

“It would be a watershed if the American-nominated candidate doesn’t fill this position,” says Keith Harper, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. “We should see that as extremely problematic. It would be a barometer of where we are in our diplomacy.”

Isaacs is facing challenges from a Portuguese candidate, António Vitorino, and a Latin American candidate from Costa Rica, Laura Thompson, who currently serves as the deputy director-general of IOM.

In a recent visit to Portugal, the Arab League’s secretary-general, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said he is sure that “the Arab nations will join in support of the Portuguese candidate.” But he stopped short of endorsing Vitorino.

In any event, the Islamic bloc in IOM is weaker than in other international institutions because several influential Muslim countries — including Indonesia, Iraq, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates — are not members of the migration agency and therefore cannot vote.

Portugal has struggled to rally European support for its candidate, according to diplomats. Other European countries with track records promoting migration, including Germany and Ireland, have also decided not to mount a challenge to the United States.

Other countries sounded out Germany about the prospect of committing to a European candidate, but it demurred on the grounds that challenging the Americans on migration could undercut its own priorities, including its long-standing effort to convince the United States to support Berlin’s bid for a permanent U.N. Security Council seat, according to two diplomatic sources.

IOM was established in 1951 to handle the resettlement of millions of Europeans displaced by World War II, with a mandate to promote “humane and orderly migration.” With the exception of a brief period in the 1960s, when a Dutch national ran the agency, an American has led IOM, and the United States has provided the largest contributions.

Isaacs is a veteran humanitarian worker who has overseen all international relief projects for Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian aid organization run by Franklin Graham, the son of the evangelist Billy Graham. He has managed virtually every major relief operation for the organization since the early 1990s, from the Rwandan genocide to the Ebola crisis in Liberia. He also served as the director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, leading the U.S. response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.

But he has often viewed humanitarianism as part of a broader mission of converting people to Christianity. He once characterized the African AIDS crisis as an unprecedented “evangelism opportunity.” Isaacs says the remarks were delivered as part of an effort that led to the distribution of antiviral drugs to HIV/AIDS patients around the world, “saving millions of lives. The call for Christians to come to action is one of my greatest accomplishments.”

The U.S. case for the leadership position at IOM took a hit in early December 2017 when the White House decided to pull out of international negotiations on the creation of a global pact on migration. About two months later, the Washington Post reported that Isaacs, a vice president of Samaritan’s Purse, had produced a series of tweets suggesting that Islam was an intrinsically violent religion and that Christians should be granted special treatment.

Last summer, after terrorists attacked London, CNN International tweeted an interview with a Catholic bishop who insisted that Islam did not condone such acts. “This isn’t in the name of God, this isn’t what the Muslim faith asks people to do,” the bishop said.

In response, Isaacs quote-tweeted CNN, writing, “Bishop, if you read the Quran you will know ‘this’ is exactly what the Muslim faith instructs the faithful to do.”

CNN, meanwhile, unearthed some other damaging tweets, including one suggesting building a wall in the Alps to keep migrants out.

Still, those revelations would have been enough to derail most candidates. But Isaacs, backed by a team of White House and State Department officials, has campaigned actively in Europe and Africa, two vote-rich regions, visiting Algeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Switzerland, where he met with scores of delegates at the U.N.’s Geneva headquarters.

Isaacs says his interactions with foreign delegates, including those from Muslim countries, have been “very positive” and that his remark about the Alps was simply meant as “sarcasm.”

He also says he bears no ill will against Muslims.

“As a person of faith, I have deep respect for people of all faiths, including followers of Islam,” he writes. “My faith will not conflict in anyway with leading IOM. I treat all people equally.”

The administration has also faced outside criticism for its choice. The Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism, and Emgage Action, a political advocacy group that champions the civil rights of Muslim Americans, urged former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to withdraw his nomination.

Isaacs is “literally one of the worst people you could put for this job of trying to address the unprecedented problem of refugees and migrants — a good chunk of them are Muslims,” says Wa’el Alzayat, a former State Department Middle East expert who heads Emgage.

“You need a neutral, compassionate advocate who is genuinely seeking to do what is right irrespective of religious or ethnic considerations, not somebody who comes in with such stated biases,” he says. “He has gone out of his way to denigrate them in public undisciplined ways. I mean, ‘Let’s build a wall in the Alps.’”

The State Department has produced a video depicting his on-the-ground relief efforts in South Sudan and Bangladesh, where he is operating a program to provide relief to Rohingya Muslims. “I will support governments to safeguard humane migration management without sacrificing security and national sovereignty,” he says with a musical track playing in the background.

And he has received support from aid workers who worked with him in Africa. His personal website opens with a quote from the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof saying, “He has been tireless in fighting for oppressed and desperate people of every faith and complexion.”

Mukesh Kapila, a former U.N. relief official who worked closely with Isaacs in Sudan and South Sudan, defends him. “He is not a person who is anti-Muslim or anti-anyone, except those who have committed crimes,” he says. “I have been an admirer of the humanitarian programs Samaritan Purse did in South Sudan and the Nuba mountains where no one else would tread.”

Others maintain that Isaacs’s remarks should make him unelectable.

Before the reports of his tweets emerged, Anne Richard, a former assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration, said she viewed Isaacs as a “legitimate” candidate who brought an impressive record of field work. “But in my view,” she adds now, “the tweets should disqualify him, and that hasn’t happened.”

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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