Red Cross Double Cross

By Lawrence S. Eagleburger

October 30, 2001; Page A21

Dr. Bernadine Healy's resignation as president of the American Red Cross is a tragedy. This remarkable woman has, in less than two years, forced major reforms on a reluctant governing body and shown superb crisis management skills in the aftermath of the terrible events of Sept. 11.

But this is not all she should be remembered for. Healy, shortly after she took office, discovered that the American Red Cross had acquiesced for decades in the policy of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent to oppose accepting Magen David Adom as a legitimate emblem of the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross. She rightly saw this as, at best, turning a blind eye on a moral wrong; in an act of great moral courage, she set about to put things right. She spoke against the federation's anti-Israeli stance in Geneva, the home of the federation, and stirred up a hornet's nest of denials of wrongdoing, complaints against her lack of diplomatic finesse and charges that her methods just "weren't done" in Geneva.

When it became obvious that the federation (and most of its member states) were not going to change their ways, Healy settled in for a long and sometimes nasty battle. She made it clear to the federation and her own board that the American Red Cross was no longer prepared to accept in silence a policy that was inimical to our deepest held values and that put the lie to the federation's claims of universality.

As a part of Healy's preparations for a strategic approach to the fight to force the federation to forswear its discriminatory policy against Israel, she asked me to accept appointment as ambassador at large (a high sounding but unpaid and powerless position), and to advise her when she felt the need for advice. I accepted, went several times to Geneva on her behalf and saw at firsthand the conspiracy of silence and obfuscation deployed against the American Red Cross's efforts to at least get the issue thoroughly aired before members of the federation and the public.

I suggested to Healy that withholding dues to the federation was a useful way to force the federation to take the American Red Cross's demands seriously; Healy agreed, and the funds were withheld, with the approval of the board. At the time, I warned Healy that support for this aggressive policy would begin to diminish over time as the weak of heart, and those who really did not care much if the discrimination against Israel continued, listened to the blandishments of the federation's bureaucrats and politicians, who would argue that a hard-line American approach would never accomplish its objective, while compromise and goodwill could eventually accomplish much.

I recently sent Healy a memorandum that laid out the issues as I saw them:

"The refusal of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent to reverse its long-standing opposition to accepting Magen David Adom as a legitimate emblem of the Israeli Red Cross equivalent is, and has been from the inception of this exclusionary policy, immoral. As such it has no place in an organization which purports to be philanthropic in its purposes, and caring for the least of us in its practices.

"That the exclusion of Magen David Adom has continued for decades without strong objection from the American Red Cross has raised legitimate questions about our commitment to the fundamentals of the Red Cross movement, and to the principles that guide American foreign policy. It is for those reasons that I recommended that the American Red Cross withhold its dues from the Federation. We have no business supporting an immoral policy that looks and smells too much like the infamous policies of the 1930's and 1940's. . . .

"As certain as night follows day we can expect that bureaucrats from the Federation will do all they can to persuade leading Americans to force President Healy . . . to return to discredited policies.

"They must not succeed! At a time when the United States and the civilized world are at war with extremism, it would be an inexcusable mistake for a leading humanitarian organization like the American Red Cross to succumb to political pressure and drop its principled opposition to policies of exclusion and intolerance."

But "they" have succeeded. Last week Healy was forced out of office by a behind-closed-doors vote of the American Red Cross's Board of Governors -- not because of anything relating to the Sept. 11 tragedy but because she dared to try to right a wrong -- the wrong of denying a sovereign nation equality because of its ethnicity. The weak and easily persuaded had indeed succumbed to the blandishments of the sophisticated federation apologists who are so adept at making a wolf look like a sheep. Before long the American Red Cross, under its new and surely more "moderate" leadership, will return to paying its dues and "cooling it" on the issue of granting Magen David Adom the equality justice demands. Those of us who, like Healy, believe that the American Red Cross must represent the best of our nation have lost not just a battle but a war.

The writer is a former secretary of state.


© 2001 The Washington Post Company