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In the world of public policy there are those who talk and those who do. When you find a talker with a track record to go with it, someone in a position to propose making things happen but then who makes them happen, you pay attention. When those happenings are in Washington, Baghdad, Monrovia, and Darfur—each a war zone all its own—you want to go along for the ride, take notes from the front, and send word back to friends, family, and the generally weary: Hey, the world is careening through another disaster of its own making, but someone just stopped this runaway train for a possibly brief but shining moment!
Ken Isaacs is one of the runaway train stoppers, someone whose job is to make good things happen in the very worst, most hopeless places. For decades he has supervised aid work in the wake of humanitarian disasters—the colossal 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, West Africa’s 2014 Ebola outbreak, Europe’s 2015 migration crisis, and more—coordinating with officials, across language barriers, often in places where phones are down, lights are off, and survivors are traumatized.
The 65-year-old vice president of Samaritan’s Purse, the North Carolina–based aid agency headed by Franklin Graham, frequents front lines but rarely makes headlines. That is, until President Trump tapped him as the candidate to become the next director general of the International Organization for Migration.
IOM, a UN-affiliated agency with a $1 billion budget funded largely by the United States, has a crucial mission as forced migration perpetuates the largest global refugee crisis since World War II. Isaacs, with 35 years’ experience crafting relief programs to stem migration flows, including a stint as director of foreign disaster assistance at USAID, is a solid pick by President Donald Trump, who has come under widespread criticism for comments demeaning life in some of the countries Isaacs knows best.
Ken Isaacs, with 35 years’ experience crafting relief programs to stem migration flows, is a solid pick.
But State Department foes and The Washington Post are going after the aid executive ahead of a June 29 vote by the IOM’s 169 member nations. The Post on Feb. 3 cited scattered Twitter and Facebook posts to claim Isaacs “made disparaging remarks about Muslims and denied climate change.” In a Feb. 11 opinion piece the paper’s editorial board went further, calling Isaacs’ nomination “an embarrassment” and his comments “ignorant, prejudiced and incendiary.”
Cherry-picking social media for dirt is lazy, if popular, journalism. It’s an easy way to malign a 35-year career, and perhaps create a bar to Christian aid groups, some of the largest in the world, at key international forums.
I first ran into Isaacs at the end of the Bosnian War, when Operation Christmas Child, a Samaritan’s Purse program, was handing out thousands of gift-packed shoeboxes. Local church leaders weren’t happy to be shouldering the costs of warehousing and transporting them. I reported their comments, and Isaacs took me to task on technicalities but promised to continue talking.
As the Samaritan’s Purse footprint grew, I would reach Isaacs on a plane over Sudan and on the ground in Haiti. As the end of the Cold War gave way to the rise of Islamic terrorism, relief work in Muslim-dominated war zones became the norm. Isaacs coordinated extensive aid efforts serving Muslim-only populations in Afghanistan, Darfur, Iraq, and elsewhere.
In 2016 the Iraqi Ministry of Health invited Samaritan’s Purse to set up a field hospital outside Mosul in Iraq. Isaacs negotiated the arrangement—the first of its kind by an outside aid group—with Baghdad officials and the World Health Organization, all in 30 days’ time. Since December 2016 the facility has treated thousands of Iraqi war wounded—nearly all Muslims. In September 2017 it was turned over to Iraqi health officials to run.
Besides Muslim-led governments asking Isaacs for help, UNHCR in 2015 asked Samaritan’s Purse to take over some operations in its crowded Greece camps. There Isaacs saw up close the challenges for dealing with large migrant populations and the real threats of Islamic jihadists among them. Those threats remain, making the need for clear-headed compassion more important than ever. Isaacs, well acquainted with the difference between real and fake bullets, in the meantime isn’t likely to be dissuaded by domestic potshots.