U.S. Ambassador (ret.) Douglas Kmiec thinks it important that the slain Ambassador Chris Stevens be promptly replaced to demonstrate America’s commitment to the rule of law and democratic principles, including freedom of religion and free speech. Those are high-sounding aspirations, but in light of the danger, who would go? Doug Kmiec – now teaching human rights and constitutional law at Pepperdine University – has volunteered to serve.
Kmiec is no stranger to the region. He resigned as our Ambassador in nearby Malta in late spring 2011. I got to know him when I was teaching a masters course on Conflict Resolution and Mediterranean Security offered there by my university and the University of Malta. Like many people in that country, I was enormously impressed by his dedication, diplomatic skill, and policy savvy – and, most of all, by his sensitive handling of issues involving religious differences and sensibilities.
Kmiec had just finished the construction of the new $125.5 million embassy compound that had fallen badly off schedule when the Arab spring revolts erupted. In the midst of the fighting in nearby Libya, he directed the rescue of the U.S. Embassy’s Tripoli staff (via a rented catamaran!) and assisted special envoy Chris Stevens to make his way back to that divided nation. It was during this period as well that Kmiec and Stevens became acquainted and the two Californians discovered their strong affinity.
Last week, as this nation mourned the loss of Stevens, Kmiec wrote the President and the Secretary of State volunteering to continue the fallen ambassador’s work and to pick up where Kmiec himself left off in terms of interfaith diplomacy.
Malta lies at the crossroads of the three great Abrahamic religions, and it was President Obama’s thinking, as well as Doug Kmiec’s, that this would be the ideal place to explore training in interfaith understanding. With Ambassador Stevens’ killing in Libya, the importance of having open lines of communication to defuse potential violence over religious disagreements, misunderstandings, or insults is all too plain This is why Kmiec has offered to return to continue Stevens’s good work and to continue his own.
President Obama and his administration should take this offer seriously. In particular, they should not be deterred by criticisms of Kmiec made by bureaucrats who did not understand the importance of his unique approach to interfaith diplomacy. When he resigned in the early summer of 2011, the ambassador expressed some frustration that his work was being obstructed by people who did not seem to support President Obama’s Cairo initiative and strong interest in promoting interfaith diplomacy. Los Angeles Times correspondent Tim Rutten hit the nail on the head by writing, “Kmiec has emerged as one of this country’s most important witnesses to the proposition that religious conviction and political civility need not be at odds; that reasonable people of determined good conscience, whatever their faith or lack thereof, can find ways to cooperate in the common good. Though Kmiec has not sought their intervention, the president and the secretary of state ought to deal with the bureaucrats seeking to silence a voice whose only offense is to speak in the vocabulary of our own better angels.”
Perhaps the most reprehensible activity of Kmiec’s derogators was the suggestion that he had not performed his ambassadorial duties as well as he should have. This was 180 degrees from the truth. Doug Kmiec’s official evaluation as Chief of Mission, which he has shared with me, records:
“Ambassador Kmiec established new strategic priorities shortly after his arrival in 2009; they included enhanced regional security cooperation, the promotion of environmentally sensitive commercial investment, and the resettlement of the irregular migrant populations . . .
“. . . Ambassador Kmiec’s unconventional modus operandi has enabled him to achieve important successes. Of particular significance, he persuaded the Maltese to extend civil government training to the Afghan effort, helped keep Malta within the European Union consensus on Iranian sanctions, and reached out to Muslim populations in creative ways . . .
“Ambassador Kmiec . . . is known and highly regarded by the Maltese President, Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, members of Parliament and other officials and the Maltese public . . .
“Ambassador Kmiec is highly respected by the mission staff. He is considered forthright, honest, sincere, and with his heart in the right place. He is seen as really wanting to improve relations with Malta and as having in-depth knowledge of the issues confronting the bilateral relationship . . .
“Ambassador Kmiec’s profound sense of justice and environmental stewardship has shaped his actions as ambassador. . . .”
How can this superior record of diplomatic effort and achievement are distilled into neglect of duty or a forced resignation? It can’t except to Tea Partiers still fuming that Kmiec helped Obama secure the 2008 Catholic vote in four pivotal states. Kmiec’s 2008 book, Can a Catholic Support Him? laid out the arguments that Catholics clearly could, and they did, much to the chagrin of the Far Right.
Kmiec’s new 2012 book, lift up your hearts (available on Amazon – nationally and internationally) is a manifesto in support of a theology of kindness, which Kmiec treasures since it was embodied in his spiritual counselor, a beloved 94 year old priest who tragically died in an auto wreck in which Kmiec himself was critically injured. It is fair to say that Kmiec finds kindness lacking in today’s political discourse, and that he has dedicated his own career to reaching out across the lines of race, nationality, ideology, and religious belief that so often divide us in order to help generate a global culture of peace.
The President admired the courage of Chris Stevens; he should send Doug Kmiec to take up Stevens’ vital work in Libya.