2006 Emerging Leaders

Christina Sanford

Served as chief of the legal office at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq and provided critical support for Iraq’s democratically elected government.

Too often, the recipients of scholarships that promote public service enter the private sector as soon as they have met the minimum service requirements. A recipient of the prestigious Root-Tilden-Scholarship at the New York University School of Law, Christina Sanford has gone far beyond simply meeting her scholarship’s basic obligations. In fact, she has amassed a list of accomplishments in four years that would be worthy of an entire career, and she’s only 31.

An attorney at the State Department, Christina Sanford volunteered to go to Baghdad in 2004 to act as the chief of the U.S. Embassy Baghdad Legal office. Although a position of this level of responsibility would normally be filled by an officer far her senior, Christina was a key contributor to the standup of the transitional Iraqi government and, later, Iraq’s first democratic government. Her courage, legal acumen and negotiating skills were vital to the process of nursing a new, sovereign government into compliance with both Iraq’s temporary constitution and host of international laws.

Following the historic Iraqi elections in January 2005, the Iraqi authorities had to agree on a transition formula that would reflect a step-by-step replacement of the interim government under Prime Minister Allawi with the new transitional government. The issues were complicated, politically volatile, and the “legislative” guidelines were, at best, vague. Essentially, no one knew exactly how to make this transition happen. Yet, if it were not done right, much of the achievement of the elections would be undermined.

Fortunately, Sanford was there and brought to these negotiations not only an unsurpassed mastery of the relevant laws and documents, but also the negotiating skills of someone with many more years of experience. She worked closely with the Deputy Prime Minister and Iraqi Chief Justice to craft a compromise process that made sense legally, and was acceptable to all politically.

While she could have stayed in the background, Sanford took the lead on the negotiations with the top Iraqi officials and did not leave until a compromise was met. The Iraqi Chief Justice, in particular, holds extraordinary respect for the accomplishments she has made.

Sanford’s leadership and courage in this instance is indicative of all of her work as a public servant. She was in charge of a legal office with several American attorneys and Iraqis, as well as the liaison to the Coalition military lawyers. She became a leader in the ‘rule of law’ apparatus, involving dozens of people from multiple agencies in Baghdad. Others depended on her to triangulate the various positions and personalities involved in the negotiations and arrive at a path forward that would meet America’s needs while supporting legal and regulatory requirements. She negotiated with the Iraqi government for property and other facilitations for a new embassy project in Baghdad, an achievement valuable to both governments.

A significant amount of the work she did took place in the “Red Zone,” and during her tenure, the Embassy compound was struck with mortar and rocket fire many times, including three direct hits on her building. Sanford did not hesitate to do her job despite the risks.

Christina Sanford’s career with the federal government actually began on September 10, 2001. On that day, she never could have imagined what lay ahead for her in the following four years. In that same vein, no one really knows which challenges Sanford will face in the future. However, one thing is certain. No matter what issue Christina Sanford is tackling, she will always go above and beyond what is simply required of her.

This medalist was the recipient of the Call to Service Medal, which was updated to the Emerging Leaders Medal in 2020.