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American history’s ex

Outgoing US Ambassador Douglas Kmiec speaks to Anthony Manduca about his Catholic faith, disappointment with the State Department, and continuing loyalty to Barack Obama.

US Ambassador Douglas Kmiec leaves office on Tuesday after being criticised by the State Department for spending too much time writing and speaking about his religious beliefs. His decision to resign, he says, was simply a matter of respect to US President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Malta.

“I didn’t want any of those parties to feel as if they were stuck with a second hand car and they couldn’t trade it in for a shinier model,” he tells The Sunday Times.

The popular US representative to Malta had submitted his resignation on April 16, a week after an inspector general’s report chided him for his “unconventional approach to his role”.

Weeks later, Prof. Kmiec remains adamant he did nothing wrong by promoting Mr Obama’s inter-faith dialogue initiative while in Malta, which is exactly what the President wanted him to do.

“I knew that resigning was honourable thing to do, especially because this leopard wasn’t going to change his spots. I was attracted to the President because of his faith commitments, because of his honesty about faith commitments, and because of their importance especially in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

He stresses he was at odds with the State Department on the ambassador’s role almost from day one of his appointment to Malta.

“I recently asked student diplomats whether ambassadors are entitled to think. My conception of diplomacy is that it is capable of changing the call in the middle of the game. The local team usually has the better of it. Just look of the dynamics of Malta and Libya. This is much better appreciated by my embassy staff than by anyone else back in Washington.

Although Prof. Kmiec had asked to resign on August 15, he was told by the State Department to step down by the end of May. Was this a direct snub?

“I interpret it as them not being as flexible as they might have been. One of my goals was to finish the new embassy building, which was a bit behind when I first arrived. It’s now finished, it’s beautiful, and when it’s shown off in July, I think people will be very pleased with it. I’ve invited all the former American ambassadors to Malta and a number have already accepted, as well as some very important folks from the US government.

“There was some small mindedness in switching the dates. A more charitable heart would have said: Of course we want you there and we want you to finish up your work this summer in an orderly fashion.

“But this means I will be home in time, God willing, to see the birth of my second grandchild who is due sometime in July or August. Maybe this is God’s way to make sure I’m home in time.”

Prof. Kmiec insists the report by the State Department is quite positive but “unfortunately the headline that accompanied the report made it seem quite negative. The report has 15 or 16 inconsequential recommendations and in terms of the overall performance of the embassy I’d say we were at the ‘A’ level and doing very well.”

He says something “curious” happened in Washington when the inspectors got back and new material was added after the inspection.

Prof. Kmiec stresses it is clear to him that Mr Obama was not directly criticising his work in Malta and that the people who were doing so fell short in a number of ways.

The critics failed to examine the public record to establish the responsibility for inter-faith diplomacy that had been specifically given to Malta and the Malta embassy under his direction, he says. They also failed to examine the fact the embassy was accomplishing great things in areas like maritime security, economic promotion and cultural integration of migrants.

“So my complaint is with the inspectorate general, and this is a complaint which is quite serious. It’s a complaint I believe the US President has to address... this is an entity that has specific and very important responsibilities against fraud, waste and abuse, to see if money is being mismanaged.

“They are not, however, to come into agencies and second guess the policy direction of that agency, or to second guess certainly the direction of the US President with respect to that agency.

Prof. Kmiec says that back in 1989 when he was President Ronald Reagan’s constitutional legal counsel, this was a very serious problem, and a legal opinion corrected it. That legal opinion has withstood the test of time.

Was he disappointed that Mr Obama did not reject his resignation?

“I’m not a fly on the wall of the State Department, but here’s my guess: The President is a busy man, he’s handling a very important European trip right now, and he’s also had quite a few things on his mind, two concurrent wars, the need to address Osama bin Laden, the economic crisis, and so forth.

“I think it’s not inconceivable that the President was given at best a mild briefing, a quick bullet point briefing about this issue, and somebody basically said to him: ‘Don’t worry about it sir, we’ll handle it in the department’ in the same way as administrative matters get handled when they pile up. When it got handled in the department it went back to the same people who I think under-appreciated the significance of the appointment that the President had made initially.

“Am I disappointed that the President did not call me up on the phone and chat with me about it? Frankly, yes. Who humanly couldn’t feel that disappointment? Do I feel that Malta will in any way be disadvantaged now? No.

“The person who will step up in my place, Rick Mills, the Charge d’Affaires, is someone who has experience in Baghdad and London. He is a career diplomat who knows how to manage the embassy very well. He’s an excellent person and I’m certain from the department’s perspective, they knew they could substitute one for the other and the world would continue to spin.”

Prof. Kmiec reveals he encouraged Mr Obama to nominate Mr Mills as the next Ambassador to Malta, saying if the request was accepted the confirmation could happen very quickly. However, he adds that sometimes in the US “if you’re not politically tied into an administration, and Rick hasn’t been”, somebody else will have to be found.

“If they go along that route there are hundreds of pages of financial disclosures and hearings in the Senate, all of which could delay things,” he says.

Prof. Kmiec had backed Mr Obama in the 2008 presidential election and helped him win over some Catholic and conservative votes. It appears his quarrel with the State Department has not shifted his loyalty away from the President.

“I think the President is doing a superb job. He’s someone who has made good on his principal promises against substantial headwinds. He came into office at a time when the economy was flat on its back and nobody had seen the proportions of how badly the financial systems and regulators had let us down.

He addressed that problem fulsomely and at the same time pursued a healthcare reform that put us back on the map of organised society that provides basic human rights for their people.

To extend health insurance to 32 million people is a re-election worthy credential in itself, the outgoing ambassador says. To see Mr Obama now interact on the international stage, addressing in a forthright way, the Israeli and Arab conflict, I think is the kind of thing we expect from a real leader.

The way Mr Obama has addressed Arab countries’ democratic reforms illustrates his grasp of foreign policy, and it is difficult to see another candidate who could perform so well in the presidency.

Prof. Kmiec believes the Catholic vote is “vitally important” for Mr Obama in his 2012 re-election bid and the President is well on his way to winning over this important segment of the US electorate.

“The more people understand about the healthcare reform, which was in flux at the mid-term election, the more Catholics will come to his side. Catholics care a great deal about the disaffected, of those who live on the margins of society and we have a preferential option for the poor.

“We understand government basically to be a mechanism by which to reach out and help others. This is the philosophy of Barack Obama and he has manifested it,” he says.

He reiterates his strong stand against abortion and stresses that Mr Obama issued an executive order banning the use of federal money for abortions.

Prof. Kmiec also highlights a number of important bilateral achievements during his term in Malta, such as the double taxation agreement, security equipment and training for the Freeport and the airport and help with migration, but points out that the principal unresolved issue remains the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which is a Nato Partnership for Peace document.

“It’s really not a controversial thing; merely an agreement that sets the rules in advance for Malta and visiting sailors – who handles them if they get into trouble – the ship’s captain or the Malta police?

“It sets out the rules in advance so nobody is guessing when they’re here, so you don’t have to make it up on each individual case. This would be advantageous to the US when service personnel are in Malta but it would be advantageous to Maltese troops serving abroad with Nato troops on particular missions, such as search and rescue exercises.

“Once such an agreement is in place, then things in the military world happen, such as the type of training in search and rescue operations, and the type of equipment used. It also opens up the way for the sharing of intelligence information. You have to join the club to get the club’s information.”

He says Malta can sign this agreement with such reservations as the Maltese people wish.

“US Navy personnel love to visit Malta, but the lack of a SOFA agreement prevents US naval vessels from coming to Malta. So today they come on an exceptional basis.”

As he packs his bags to leave the island, Prof. Kmiec is full of praise for Malta, saying it has “an extraordinarily blessed society”.

“I don’t know fully what accounts for it but I would be careful about changing it too much. Faith and family here are so well the pillars of society. Taking care of the elderly and children, Malta takes this for granted, but it doesn’t exist everywhere. People volunteer their time to help those in need. I feel blessed for the time I’ve spent in Malta,” he says.

He then dwells on his very difficult personal troubles.

His father and aunt died, and last August his life was turned upside down when he was at the wheel when a traffic accident took place which killed his two close friends, Sister Mary Campbell and Mgr John Sheridan.

“I faced my own survival requirements after surgery. I always tell people this: It’s your prayer that sustained me at that moment because if you’re in the care of two others and a tragic thing like that happens and you lose them, not only do you miss them, but you feel so grieved.

After the accident he says it was remarkable to see the kindness of the Maltese, which reminded him that good was possible.

“It was a horrible accident and we now have pretty much determined that some medication that I take for Parkinson’s (disease) is likely to have caused a blackout at that particular moment; that for whatever reason I had a low heart rate, and the low heart rate combined with this medication caused me to faint for four seconds and the car slipped off the road and into that ravine,” he reveals.

Prof. Kmiec says that understanding how he fainted made him feel a little better, but he did not feel exempted.

“I’m still accountable. They were in my care, I needed to return them home safely, and that didn’t happen. I will every day say a prayer that they, in heaven, have forgiven me for my fainting at the wheel, and that they will be welcoming me when it’s my turn.”

He is diplomatic when asked for his views on Malta’s divorce debate and how would he have voted on the matter.

He laughs: “Things aren’t bad enough? You want me to answer that question? I’m still a diplomat for a few more days and it’s inappropriate for me to address a local question.”

However, he cannot resist giving his views in general.

“I think the debate is fulsome. It is the kind of debate I would expect from a country that takes its faith seriously. The most important thing that the debate illustrates, whether you’re for or against, is that you are for families.

“Nobody in the debate seems to under-appreciate the family. That is a key distinction between Malta and the rest of the world.

“Family has been taken for granted in the larger society. It has been allowed to disintegrate in the larger society – and that’s not just about divorce, it’s about not spending time together, it’s about not caring about your children’s progress in school, it’s about working too many hours and not coming home on time, not having Sundays reserved for the family, all those things are standard in Malta.

“Those things, God willing, are not going to change in Malta whatever happens in this referendum.”

He believes, nevertheless, that the divorce question is one of the toughest issues.

“Both sides know what the preferred option is, which is a marriage for life, honouring that covenant you make to God, the community and yourselves.

“Then you get into the question of what happens if you live in an imperfect world, if somebody is abusive, or somebody is neglectful or just people grow apart. At what level do you excuse that, if at all?”

Prof. Kmiec now returns to Pepperdine University School of Law in Malibu, California, and will resume teaching in autumn.

“I will return to the classroom, back to being a professor of constitutional law. I have taken up the European Court of Human Rights course, that’s new in my portfolio.

“I’ll be teaching in the autumn, and I’ll be a much better person because I’ve been to Malta,” he says with a smile.

He has some advice for his successor: “Take advantage of everyone in the embassy because they are superb, never hesitate to have your own views challenged, if you to go about the Doug Kmiec route of being an ambassador make this clear in Washington before you come over, take advantage of the University community, in particular the diplomacy school, and most of all, get to know the people of Malta – don’t stay in your office or just go to the fancy receptions.”

Watch excerpts of the interview on www.timesofmalta.com

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