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A voice for faith-based diplomacy is muffled

Op-Ed

Douglas Kmiec, the U.S. ambassador to Malta, believes he was charged by the White House with promoting interfaith initiatives. So why are bureaucrats seeking to silence him?

April 13, 2011|Tim Rutten

Elements with the State Department are attempting to silence an American diplomat who believes he was personally charged by the White House with promoting President Obama's interfaith initiatives.

The diplomat is the U.S. ambassador to Malta, Douglas Kmiec, a professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine and former dean of the law school at Catholic University of America. He served in the Office of Legal Counsel under Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush and, as a devout Catholic, for many years has been prominent in the antiabortion movement and among those arguing for a larger role for faith-based efforts in public life. Even though he and the president disagree on abortion, Kmiec said he found in Obama someone who had "a deep faith himself and was capable of understanding the difference among people and of having empathy for that difference."

After his election, Obama appointed Kmiec as U.S. ambassador to Malta, and, at his swearing-in ceremony, a White House spokesman talked of how the president was counting on the new envoy to further his interfaith initiatives abroad. The appointment was a good fit; Malta is a socially conservative, overwhelmingly Catholic country where abortion and divorce still are illegal. Kmiec is, by all accounts, popular with both the Maltese people and their government.

Last Thursday, however, the State Department's inspector general issued a report on our embassy there that castigated Kmiec for his "outside writings," demanding that he cease, while also reporting that his efforts in Malta had been effective and that his staff's morale is high. Kmiec, the inspector general wrote, "had achieved some policy successes. He is respected by Maltese officials and most mission staff, but his unconventional approach to his role as ambassador has created friction with principal officials in Washington.... Based on a belief that he was given a special mandate to promote President Obama's interfaith initiatives, he has devoted considerable time to writing articles for publication in the Untied States as well as in Malta, and to presenting his views on subjects outside the bilateral portfolio.... He also looks well beyond the bilateral relationship when considering possible events for the mission to host in Malta."

If all this sounds familiar, it's because all bureaucrats share the spirit, if not the politics, of the commissar.

According to a source familiar with the situation who asked not to be named, Kmiec first found himself at odds with the State Department bureaucracy shortly after taking office, when Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell asked him to fill in at a U.N.-sponsored conference in Malta at which Mediterranean parliamentarians were to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Israeli delegation walked out over the Palestinians' characterization of the Gaza situation, and officials in Washington urged Kmiec to follow suit, or at least not to deliver a planned address. He reportedly replied that he would require instructions from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to do that, then delivered a forthright speech affirming Obama's commitment to a two-state solution and Israeli security.

Since then, Kmiec has been harassed by officials at State over his outside writing, even when it involves personal matters of faith. A memorial piece on his father's death for the Jesuit magazine America, for example, was so severely edited that it misrepresented the dead man's views. He was prevented from writing about Ronald Reagan for these pages, and he has been forbidden to speak or write the words "faith-based diplomacy." He also was forced to cancel a prestigious international conference on interfaith cooperation that he had organized.

It's a petty campaign being waged against ideas and values that desperately need a hearing.

After the release of the inspector general's report, Kmiec told the Associated Press that he was "troubled and saddened that a handful of individuals within my department in Washington seem to manifest a hostility to expressions of faith and efforts to promote better interfaith understanding. Our Constitution proudly protects the free exercise of religion — even for ambassadors."

Over the last few years, 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.

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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