Serving as the ambassador to Malta should have been a breeze for Douglas Kmiec. A prominent pro-lifer and Catholic Republican who campaigned for Obama in 2008,the conservative turncoat had been rewarded for his efforts with the Mediterranean post in July 2009. Having previously worked as dean of Catholic University’s law school and as legal counsel to both Reagan and Bush Senior, he had some managerial chops. Moreover, his faith made him a natural fit for the 98 percent Catholic island nation, where divorce is illegal and religious education is compulsory.
And yet, in April, halfway through the standard three-year term, Kmiec found himself stung by an unfavorable government audit issued by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). Nine days later, Kmiec submitted a doleful resignation letter to Hillary Clinton, lamenting, “You and the President are being deprived of the intelligent insight of much of your Embassy’s work.”
Expectations for American ambassadors vary widely. While some are critical to national security, others are basically encouraged to take long walks on the beach. Those in the latter category tend to be political appointees—friends of the president, generous campaign donors—who enjoy low-pressure appointments in Europe or the Caribbean. Proximity to Libya notwithstanding, Maltese ambassadorial duties generally fall toward the walk-on-the-beach end of the spectrum. Curious about what could possibly have gone wrong, I reached out to Kmiec. Just what, I wondered, does one do to bungle one of the world’s cushiest jobs?
Usually the main problem with wayward American ambassadors is ignorance. Eisenhower’s pick for Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, admitted at his 1957 confirmation hearing that he couldn’t pronounce the name of the country’s prime minister. Mary Kramer, a former Iowa state senator appointed by President George W. Bush to serve the Eastern Caribbean, confessed to me that she wasn’t sure where all the islands were located before she accepted the position. “My husband and I went to Barnes and Noble, got a book, and studied up,” she recalled.
However, not all ambassadorial screw-ups are so innocuous. Nixon’s appointee to Jamaica, Vincent de Roulet, ruffled feathers from the moment he docked his 90-foot yacht off the coast of Kingston. He referred to locals as “idiots” and “children” and was eventually expelled from the country after bragging about his ability to skew the national elections. In 2003, then-ambassador to the Bahamas J. Richard Blankenship took it upon himself to revive the war on drugs in the country, calling Bahamian efforts “ludicrous.” When there was talk of him leaving his post, the ambassador told a local paper, “There are too many drunks around town starting rumors.” (He quit six days later.) And, in January, another OIG audit alleged that Cynthia Stroum, an Obama appointee, had brought the embassy of Luxembourg to a “state of dysfunction” with her bullying. The atmosphere in the embassy was apparently so toxic that staffers had asked to be transferred to Afghanistan or Iraq.
In the annals of diplomatic misbehavior, Kmiec’s is rather an unusual case. Even the critical OIG report notes that embassy morale was good, he was respected by the Maltese and his staff, and had “achieved some policy successes.” The problem, it seems, was that Kmiec may have taken the job a little too seriously. According to the OIG report, America’s man in Malta spent several hours a day holed up in his residence, penning speeches and lofty essays on religion for American and Maltese publications, believing he was promoting Obama’s interfaith initiatives. This irked officials back in Washington: His diplomatic schedule was “uncharacteristically light,” the OIG report noted, and “his unconventional approach” had created friction with his colleagues, not only in Washington, but at the embassy, who bristled at being asked to spend “an inordinate amount of time” editing papers and obtaining clearance for them.
In response to the report, Kmiec publicly charged his higher-ups with carrying out “soulless, secular censorship.” He wrote that “my voice has been prevented from speaking; my pen has been enjoined from writing”—apparently, the State Department had even tried to redact the religious parts of an essay written in honor of his recently deceased father—“and my actions have been confined to the ministerial.” Diplomatic sources say these accusations are unfair. “It’s just nonsense to say foreign service officers aren’t comfortable with religion,” says one retired career ambassador, and other diplomats noted that the State Department has an entire branch devoted to international religious freedom. Deputy Inspector General Harold Geisel maintains that the content of Kmiec’s writings was not the issue. The problem was that he was spending too much time on things not directly related to his mission. “He’s a good guy, but he didn’t understand the constraints on any public servant,” Geisel says. “If you take Uncle Sam’s buck, you play by Uncle Sam’s rules.”
To hear Kmiec tell it, he went above and beyond the requirements of his position. “I would be doing the normal work of any embassy throughout the day,” he told me. “And often, work well into the night to prepare the interfaith efforts ... until I awakened with the impression of the keyboard on my forehead.” His predecessor in Malta agrees: “Doug Kmiec is not the guy to take his position lightly,” says Bush appointee and pasta mogul Anthony Gioia. “This is a serious person. I’m sure Doug didn’t neglect his duties.”
When asked to comment on recent events, Kmiec told me that his mouth was sealed by the State Department. He did, however, send me a 24-page document outlining his rebuttals to the rebuke. “In a few weeks,” he wrote in a subsequent e-mail, “the movers will come, and so will I, leaving behind not an audaciously hope-filled country, but one that might just wonder exactly how reliable or trustworthy a nation could be that disposed of friends quite so disinterestedly.” Despite what Kmiec said was a “groundswell effort to reach the President to ask him to decline my offered resignation,” Obama accepted his departure.
In his farewell letter to the Maltese, published in the Times of Malta, Kmiec did not hide his frustration at how his appointment had turned out. “Even a dog knows the difference between being tripped over and being kicked,” he wrote. “I do too.”
Tiffany Stanley is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic. This article originally ran in the June 9, 2011, issue of the magazine.
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