John Miller wasn’t sure he wanted to accept another assignment in Washington, D.C.
But about a year ago, the former Seattle City Council member and three-term Republican congressman from North Seattle read the stories, relayed to him by State Department officials and human-rights workers.
And there were so many: kidnapped young boys forced to become jockeys in camel races, girls sold into sex slavery in Cambodian resorts, children shipped far from home and forced to work in industries from carpet weaving to candy manufacturing.
The State Department estimates that 800,000 to 900,000 people are trafficked across international borders worldwide, perhaps 20,000 of them ending up in the United States.
“I had no idea of the dimensions of this problem. This has emerged as the primary human-rights issue in the 21st century,” said Miller in his office a few blocks from the White House.
In January 2003, Miller took the helm of the State Department’s 20-person Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, which follows trends, implements policy and coordinates anti-trafficking programs.
Miller has since found himself involved in a foreign policy some describe as a religious crusade.
Unlike efforts to stop drug and gun smuggling, the international movement to end human trafficking is composed of many faith-based groups, such as Arlington, Va.-based International Justice Mission (IJM).
“We are very encouraged by Mr. Miller’s aggressive leadership … (which has) produced tangible results for people on the ground,” said Sharon Cohn, director of anti-trafficking operations at IJM.
In 1998, former Republican Congresswoman Linda Smith of Washington founded another group, Shared Hope International, to help young prostitutes in India.
Shared Hope receives financial assistance from the Northwest Christian Community Foundation.
“I think the religious groups see themselves as the descendants of 19th-century church abolitionists,” Miller said.
He said aides to President Bush described Bush’s Christian faith as a key factor behind his interest in the issue.
Miller, who is Jewish, considers the fight to end human trafficking akin to Moses leading the slaves from Egypt.
“To truly serve God, you must be free,” he said. “In this job, I feel like a preacher or a rabbi at times. But it is the job.”
Just like every other foreign-policy decision, however, realpolitik often butts heads with moral righteousness.
Last June, Miller announced the State Department had placed 15 countries in its lowest ranking for compliance with anti-trafficking efforts.
The ranking meant Bush could impose sanctions on those countries, which included NATO allies Greece and Turkey as well as the Dominican Republic and Belize.
Three months later, the State Department announced that all but five nations had made improvements, and raised their status.
Only Burma, Cuba, Liberia, North Korea and Sudan failed to comply with minimum standards.
None of the five countries is considered strategically vital to the United States, and the State Department does not have an embassy in North Korea or full diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Bush waived sanctions and continued aid to Liberia and Sudan.
Miller said every nation that moved from the lowest ranking had done something to address the sex slavery or forced labor.
The Dominican Republic, for example, put up billboards on beaches asking people to protect “our most precious treasure: our children.”
The goal is to reward action, no matter how small, Miller said.
Most observers support the strategy.
“We’d rather dangle the carrot to see long-term change in these countries, but sometimes you have to use the stick, too,” said Joe Mettimano of World Vision, a Federal Way-based Christian relief organization that received a $500,000 grant from Miller’s office in December to combat sex tourism overseas.
Tomorrow, Miller will talk about his work at a $100-a-plate dinner benefiting the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based public-policy think tank that promotes regional and international cooperation. Miller is a former chairman of the institute’s board.
Next week, he leaves for a fact-finding trip to Cambodia, Singapore and Malaysia.
All of which is a far cry from his experience in the corridors of Congress and the City Council chamber.
“I have never been in a job that has been as emotionally draining,” he said. “And in some ways emotionally satisfying.”