New American Ambassador Douglas Kmiec is interviewed by Anthony Manduca on his Catholic faith, why he endorsed Barack Obama, and his priorities in Malta.

Douglas Kmiec has all the characteristics one would expect of an American ambassador appointed by Barack Obama: intelligent, academic, articulate, soft-spoken and a strong believer in consensus, dialogue and engagement.

The Pepperdine University professor of constitutional law is also a devout pro-life Catholic who worked in the Office of Legal Counsel for President Ronald Reagan and until recently considered himself to be a Republican.

Why then did he endorse Barack Obama, who is in favour of keeping abortion legal, for President, when he wrote a book in 2008, entitled Can a Catholic Support Him?

"Barack Obama was someone who caught my attention in 2006 when he gave a speech at a conference called the sojourner's conference. It demonstrated to me someone of great discernment, someone who understood that one of the things that had gone wrong in our country was political figures unthinkingly using people's faith as a basis to divide them from one another. Obama says we should understand the significance of faith to every person," he says.

Even if we believe that our faith understanding is true, Obama had said, we can't simply expect it to be automatically enacted into law because we believe it.

"I thought he was by virtue of those remarks someone who had both a deep faith himself and was capable of understanding the difference among people and having empathy for that difference," Prof. Kmiec says.

After that speech, Prof. Kmiec was invited to a meeting in Chicago of faith leaders, where many people were opposed to Mr Obama on several matters "including myself on the question of how the life issue should be handled".

He says Obama opened this meeting in a remarkable way, saying: "Alright, give me as good as you've got. Give me your best arguments. I know there is disagreement but I want to see whether there is source for common ground."

By the end of the meeting, Prof. Kmiec says, everyone realised that this was a man of humility, great intelligence and capable of listening.

"These were qualities I believed were much need in America in the Oval Office. I believe I saw some of those same qualities in Ronald Reagan in a different time, with a different emphasis," he says.

Even though there were areas of disagreement, Mr Obama pointed out the responsibility of government to provide a family wage, to care for the environment and to provide healthcare for the uninsured.

"When I thought about all these things, I thought 'this is my catechism come to life' because we are called to each of these things in the social teachings of the Church."

It is for that reason, Prof. Kmiec says, that he was convinced he had found a person of intelligence who had articulated a set of views and policies he could easily support.

Prof. Kmiec's views on abortion have certainly not changed since he was appointed an ambassador by the Obama administration.

"I believe life begins at conception, in the womb, and is to be protected there as it is to be protected at every moment throughout the progression of life," he emphasises.

He was disappointed when the US Supreme Court legalised abortion in 1973 and for some 30 plus years, as an advocate in the judicial system, including when he worked for Mr Reagan in the White House, he wrote briefs and made arguments seeking to reverse the law on that question.

"Of course it hasn't happened; year after year, millions die in those awful procedures."

He recalls how he told Mr Obama during the campaign: "How can you allow someone to terminate another person's life? What moral authority do you have for that?"

Mr Obama replied: "Well, professor, not everyone sees life beginning in the same way. The Methodists see it differently, the Jewish faith in part sees it differently." And he went through the list, Presbyterians and so forth.

"If I am elected President," he told Prof. Kmiec, "I am President of all these people."

Prof. Kmiec says Mr Obama told him that he views abortion as "a moral tragedy" and that there were two ways of addressing it. There is the law in which people who involved themselves in this procedure would be subject to a penalty. The Supreme Court has put that off limits.

The other way is to do something about it and look at what causes people to have an abortion.

Mr Obama asked Prof. Kmiec: "What would cause a mother to contemplate taking the life of a child? It has to be something awful. It has to be a woman without shelter, without insurance, without the next meal on the table."

Prof. Kmiec admits that this approach to abortion is not the ideal solution, saying that poverty or not being married is no excuse to take the life of a child. However, he believes one should be realistic about the problem and if the abortion rate could be reduced - and some studies point out that tackling poverty could lead to fewer abortions - "this seems to me a good interim step".

"I prayed on this," he explains, pointing out that Pope John Paul II had said that Catholics must be clear on their stand on abortion but also that people in political life could sometimes do less than they would like to do as long as there were moves towards the protection of life.

"Mr Obama has taken some steps towards this, perhaps not as fast as some would like," he says.

Prof. Kmiec denies American media reports, however, which claimed the Vatican had rejected his nomination as the next US Ambassador to the Holy See.

"These reports were a surprise to both the President and me. During the campaign I was doing faith-related issues for Mr Obama and along the way a reporter by the name of John Allen said he thought I would make a good Ambassador to the Holy See. Once it got out to the blogosphere it sort of took on a life of its own. I know the President really did not have that in mind, nor of course did I support the President with any expectation for that posting or any posting for that matter."

He defends the fact that, in last year's presidential campaign, he first supported Mitt Romney, the Republican former governor of Massachusetts, before switching to Mr Obama.

"Mr Romney is a Mormon and Mormons are known for their commitment to the family. I admired that above all as well as his background as a financial wizard. We could see the dark clouds on the horizon as far as the financial situation was concerned and, as Governor, Mr Romney had worked through some difficult corporate questions," he says.

Prof. Kmiec believes Mr Romney was rejected largely because of his faith, which was a great disappointment to him. He says both Mr Romney and Mr Obama had sincere commitments to family and faith, even though there are substantial differences between the two on aspects of social policy.

He adds, however: "As governor of Massachusetts, Mr Romney was the first in our country to make health insurance mandatory in the state. That's not a very Republican thing to do."

He emphasises that his relationship with the Catholic Church in the US is solid, even though some Catholics were displeased when he endorsed Mr Obama for the presidency.

"I think I am a good and faithful servant of the Church. I worship daily, whenever I can. I am an imperfect human person but I know that I am saved by the grace of Jesus in the sacraments that he has left behind," he says.

Prof. Kmiec points out the US often appoints Catholics as ambassadors to Malta, saying it respects the Catholic tradition of Malta.

"It is a sign of respect by our President and Senate to seek out someone who would have an appreciation for the Catholic faith. In my case it was both my Catholic faith - which I teasingly tell the President he should be converted to - and the fact that I did spend most of the time during the campaign helping him address faith-based organisations and audiences."

He says Mr Obama believes many of the world's conflicts have been allowed to be worsened by a failure to understand each other's faith traditions and that his speech in Cairo a few months ago emphasised the importance of different faiths reaching out to each other.

"The President said to me he thought Malta was the ideal place for part of this discussion to go on. He said I won't have any trouble getting people to come to Malta, which is a particularly good place to have quiet diplomacy."

The ambassador laughs when he says the President is right about not having a problem getting people over to Malta.

"When I told people about my assignment they told me: 'We'll be visiting you'. Suddenly, my number of friends has grown considerably."

Prof. Kmiec therefore sees part of his assignment in Malta to bring people together and explore if bonds of trust can be formed among people of different faith traditions.

"If a hot spot erupts we might be able to call upon these faith-based organisations to help diffuse a situation."

He says his primary priority in Malta is to maintain the relations between the two countries, which he describes as "quite good and quite strong".

The ambassador says he has been pressing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to ratify the double taxation agreement between the US and Malta and has been assured that this will be done this autumn. American firms, he says, will be able to take advantage of this agreement and use Malta as a gateway to the EU.

"We want to attract new economic opportunities here and we especially want to have responsible economic activity where there is concern for the environment. Energy security is an issue for both the US and Malta and it's something we can explore together. I have already had some discussions with US companies that produce wind turbines," he says.

Prof. Kmiec describes the work the Maltese armed forces do in the Mediterranean as "noble" and a "service to the world".

"Such a service not only keeps us safe from the illicit transportation of people or drugs or weapons - but is also a great humanitarian service, paying attention to people who would otherwise be ignored."

He adds: "Malta reaches out to these people fleeing their country, which shows not only a commitment to international law but it recognises what these people are really about."

He describe illegal migrants as people escaping from oppression and poverty and praised Malta, with its dense population and small area, for rescuing them at sea and bringing them in and, whenever possible, resettling them.

He says he was very proud of America's help in resettling some refugees who ended up in Malta and "I am definitely going to carry on supporting this policy". He says he will also look at new ways of strengthening the maritime training of Malta's armed forces by the US Coast Guard.

Some observers say President Obama's foreign policy has certainly changed the image and global perception of America for the better, but eight months into this presidency little has been achieved in certain hot spots such as the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. When did he think we would see some real progress in these areas?

"I think we are actually seeing how difficult these problems are and how deep the conflicts run. It wouldn't be realistic of the President to say 'You've elected me and the world is now at peace'," Prof. Kmiec says.

He says that Mr Obama is about conducting a foreign policy that is principled and lives up to international standards.

"The President is humble enough to know there are aspects of foreign policy that may be better understood by others."

He reiterates that the US cannot accept a nuclear-armed Iran but is open to diplomacy, something refused by previous US administrations, and that the President has repeatedly stated that a two state solution is the only option for the Middle East.

Mr Obama, he says, is being equally honest with both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. "The Palestinians must make an effort to have terror attacks against Israel stopped and the Israelis must stop the expansion of settlements."

He emphasises that Mr Obama has called for increased troop levels in Afghanistan and admits that this has raised some concerns in the US.

"Are we being honest with ourselves and can we achieve our goal? This is being carefully examined in Washington and I think it's more than what we have had in the past. The President wants to make the best judgment but the debate on this situation is yet to be concluded."

Prof. Kmiec believes Mr Obama is "absolutely right" in trying to reform healthcare in America.

"Let's go back to my Catholic faith which says that life in every instance - unborn, born, up to the natural moment of death, should be respected."

He says when you have a system in which families are spending enormous sums on healthcare, yet the country is ranked 37th in healthcare delivery, one has to question the quality of healthcare that is being provided.

Furthermore, he says, millions of people have no access to healthcare at all, which not only places their life in jeopardy, but removes their value as good parents, and good co-workers.

He says he is reasonably confident that, notwithstanding the opposition from certain sectors of American society to this reform, an agreement will be reached by Christmas.

What does the ambassador think of some of the ferocious criticism Mr Obama has been subject to from right wing conservatives - an important pillar within the Republican Party? Is this just politics as usual?

"I always think debates are better when they focus on substance rather than personality. So to the extent that the American debate has degenerated into a form of name calling or shouting, it doesn't advance democracy. However, I believe the vast majority of Americans do conduct themselves quite well," he says.

He added: "At the moment, the Republican Party, which I was a part of when I worked for Mr Reagan, is a bit lost in the wilderness. They haven't been able to find a national leader or decide how to react to Mr Obama."

Prof. Kmiec says there's a certain frustration level that has sunk in the Republican Party.

"They are worried that they won't regain their footing. I have news for them. Politics in America always shifts its emphasis, and they will return from the wilderness."

Prof. Kmiec says Mr Obama's economic stimulus package prevented the collapse of the banking and securities industry and the huge amount of money pumped into the economy was justified. But, he adds, there will be downsides: "One of those downsides may be the inflationary effects of the spending."

He says that what should be learned from the financial crisis is that the rules of the economy cannot be suspended mid-air, and ultimately there will be a price to pay.

"The lesson I know America has learned is that the price is paid indiscriminately, not just by the bad actors but also by people who were playing exactly by the rules," he says, adding that Mr Obama recently called on Wall Street to support an ambitious overall of the financial system.

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