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Second thoughts on the Saga story

By Wendy McElroy
web posted June 30, 2003

American-born Sarah Saga and her two Saudi-born children have spent two weeks 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. However, people should pause to consider the implications of using U.S. foreign policy -- and possibly military -- to override the family law of another nation.

First, some background.

For months, World Net Daily has led a campaign to publicize the plight of American women reportedly held against their will in Saudi Arabia. (Editor Joseph Farah recently had to reassure readers that he is not calling for an actual war with the Saudis over this issue.) 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 U.S. custody agreement, Saga claims to 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.

Saga, however, signed a document relinquishing custody of her children -- a signature that Roush claims was coerced but which the U.S. State Department says was not.

Additionally confusing, 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.

Dorner and Roush have launched a high-profile media 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 hard."

But despite the media’s overwhelming response to Saga's plight, many important questions remain unaddressed: What exactly is the status of children with one American citizen 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 U.S. 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 U.S. government assume?

In the wake of Sept. 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.

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