Too Catholic for Malta?

Malta is 98 percent Catholic, making it one of the most Catholic countries in the world. A reader sent along a link to a story about the United States ambassador to Malta getting into trouble with the State Department Inspector General. Here’s how the Associated Press put it:

The report by the department’s inspector general rebuked Douglas Kmiec for spending too much time writing and speaking about subjects such as abortion and his religious beliefs, while neglecting ambassadorial duties. Kmiec was a well-known conservative law professor and commentator before being appointed ambassador in 2009.

The only problem, as Jack Smith at the Catholic Key blog noted, is that this is not what the report actually said. The report does not say that he spent too much time writing and speaking about “abortion and his religious beliefs.” You can read it here. The word abortion only appears in the report once and it doesn’t have anything to do with Kmiec. And it doesn’t say that he spent too much time advancing his own religious beliefs but that he believed he’d been given a special mandate to promote interfaith objectives. The report basically says that Kmiec has achieved some policy successes and is respected by Maltese officials but:

[H]is unconventional approach to his role as ambassador has created friction with principal officials in Washington, especially over his reluctance to accept their guidance and instructions. Based on a belief that he was given a special mandate to promote President Obama’s interfaith initiatives, he has devoted consider­ able time to writing articles for publication in the United States as well as in Malta, and to presenting his views on subjects outside the bilateral portfolio. He has been inconsistent in observance of clearance procedures required for publication. He also looks well beyond the bilateral relationship when considering possible events for the mission to host in Malta. His approach has required Department principals, as well as some embassy staff, to spend an inordinate amount of time reviewing his writings, speeches, and other initiatives. His official schedule has been uncharacteristically light for an ambassador at a post of this size, and on average he spends several hours of each work day in the residence, much of which appears to be devoted to his non­ official writings.

It goes on to say that he has not focused on management of the embassy and doesn’t meet enough with government officials outside of social events. It also says that Kmiec had told the IG that he was going to discontinue his extracurricular writings and focus on embassy management but that within weeks, he resumed drafting public essays. This outside work took much time, according to the IG, from embassy staff members who had to review and edit and get approvals for the writings.

The original Associated Press story also claimed that Kmiec had challenged President Obama in a Maltese newspaper on the subject of abortion. That’s not true either. Kmiec is pro-life, but he’s a huge Obama supporter and wrote a book encouraging Catholics to support the pro-abortion-rights candidate. He didn’t challenge Obama in a foreign newspaper.

Later reports are much improved, including Kmiec’s response to the IG report (which he apparently says is about his religious views) such as here:

Kmiec said the criticism of his outspoken religious views was “especially odd” because his friendship with Obama began out of a common view that “too much of politics had been used to divide us, sometimes by excluding people of faith.” Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine University and a lawyer in President Ronald Reagan’s administration, was targeted by conservative Catholics and denied Communion by one priest for his support for Obama during the presidential campaign.

Kmiec, 59, said his work was part of Obama’s efforts to promote understanding among different religions, and that he’ll stay on as ambassador as long as he has the president’s confidence.

I should note that CNN’s Belief blog had a more accurate lede about what the IG report said. Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s much more to this story, whether it’s about hostility toward religious adherents in the State Department or political intrigue on a larger level or something. So please let me know if anyone figures out the real story behind Malta’s too-Catholic ambassador.

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  • Kyle

    I don’t have any insight into this story at all except the sense of how weird the tone of the whole thing is. Releasing that kind of criticism to public view struck me as remarkably, um, undiplomatic for the diplomatic corps. Maybe I’m just not as familiar with those things as I ought to be, but it just seems off.

  • Harold

    “if anyone figures out the real story behind Malta’s too-Catholic ambassador.”

    You seem to be accepting the AP’s spin on the story, via Kmiec. The report never says he’s too Catholic or even too religious. Instead, it says he spends too much on doing non-State Department work and using up the time of his staff who have to vet his outside speeches and stories while the Embassy goes unmanaged.

    I wish the AP and CNN stories had been clearer about what the IG does and what’s its relationship is to the State Department. As an independent office that is designed to be critical of the Secretary (and administration) when appropriate, it is not speaking for the State Department but instead ferreting out waste, fraud, and abuse. The runs counter to the wide-eyed conspiracies that it is some sort of witch-hunt for religious adherents or part of political intrigue. It could be that he’s wasting resources and a lousy manager.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Harold,
    You’re right, I should have written that more carefully. I used to cover the State Dept. from a waste-fraud-abuse angle so I’m actually aware that even from that perspective, this is a curious report. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some subtext here. Then again, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s not.

  • Jerry

    The problem as Mollie illustrates in her post #3 is that we have a vague report with some vague religious content. If he’s not fulfilling his duties, then the report should just say that. But I hardly think Malta qualifies as a class 1 embassy anyway. I suspect it’s one of those places that is used to reward friends. And that makes the report even weirder to my eyes.

  • Kyle

    I suspect it’s one of those places that is used to reward friends. And that makes the report even weirder to my eyes.

    Exactly right. The context of his appointment — having played so prominent and controversial role in the campaign outreach to Catholic voters — only plays up that impression, and thus the weirdness of this sort of public rebuke.

    There may be a really interesting story there, but I admit I have not got a clue what it is.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    I think it is interesting that the article contrasts two kinds of ambassadors: Those who rise through the ranks at the State Department and those who don’t, but fails to mention that all U.S. ambassadors are appointed by the President and serve at his pleasure. The article also fails to mention that many countries prefer to have personal friends of the President as the U.S. Ambassador to their governments because it is often thought such Ambassadors have more pull with the Prsident than do the career diplomat Ambassadors.

  • Julia

    Leading up to the Presidential election there were reports that Kmiec was angling for the Vatican ambassadorship and that Obama was likely to appoint him.

    http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/kmiec_considers_himself_a_candidate_for_vatican_ambassadorship/

    http://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/washington-whispers/2008/12/09/president-elect-obama-considering-doug-kmiec-for-vatican-ambassador

    After having helped the President with the Catholic vote, the Vatican rejected both Kmiec [and supposedly Caroline Kennedy] for that position – as being not Catholic enough.

    http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/why_kmiec_will_not_become_the_new_vatican_ambassador/

    Perhaps the IG’s tone is meant to signify that Kmiec is treating his ambassadorship to Malta negligently – as an unsought, 3rd rate, booby prize which the locals find insulting.

    BTW, the Catholic Knights and Ladies of Malta, officially known the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and Malta, are wealthy movers and shakers from all over the world who help support the church financially, primarily in the Holy Land. They managed to survive to the modern ages whereas the Knights Templar did not. Until very recently their patron was an American Cardinal who probably had strong opinions about Kmiec. The Order of Malta and the 95% Catholic Maltese might not be very happy having Kmiec as the US ambassador to Malta. Perhaps the administration is trying to find a way to dump him.

    http://www.orderofmalta.org/?lang=en

    Another angle – maybe he just talks too much – check out this interview by the Times of Malta, September, 2009 where issues about religious beliefs predominate.

    http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090920/interview/catholic-pro-life-pro-obama.274052

  • John Pack Lambert

    Depending on the nature of Mr. Kmiec’s “outside” and “non-official” writting there may also be a disagreement between Mr. Kmiec and higher ranking state department officials on what constitutes legitimate advancement of US interests in Malta. This is actually the angle that would be best opened up by actually speaking with Mr. Kmiec. It seems a journalist would do us a great service by asking Mr. Kmiec point blank “do you view those actions classed as not central to your mission as properly so defined by the state department, or do you think that they are advancing US-Malta relations despite views to the contrary on the part of the state department”.

    A real good journalist would at least learn the title of Mr. Kmiec’s alleged outside publications, tell us in detail about them, and ask him specifically about each. The first two may reflect more space than a journalist would have, but doing the last seems logical, no matter how briefly the interchange is reported.

    One last note. Is the AP wrong in saying that Mr. Kmiec is being criticized for speaking on abortion. True, the IG does not say this is the complaint specifically, but if this is really the main content of Mr. Kmiec’s statements, would this not be the result of the criticism?

    The IG report avoids speaking of specificities, but it would seem to me that if the APs characterization of Kmiec’s writting is correct, which I do not know if it is or not, than their assesment of what the IG is really saying works. If everything Mr. Kmiec wrote that the State Department viewed as not part of his official duties was on why the US should support the rebellion in Libya, and the IG just claimed he spent too much time on writting non-duty related papers without specifying the content at all, would it be misleading for the AP to claim the IG was criticizing Kmiec for writting too much on Libya?

    I guess summed up the question is, if someone is criticized for writting, and all their writtings relate to subject X, is it an unacceptable connecting of the dots for the media to say someone is being criticized for doing X. Is the media req

  • John Pack Lambert

    I accidently prematurly submitted my last comment. I was going to ask “is the media required to report the inprecise language of IG reports when the reality of the situation means that a precise set of actions are being criticized.”

    At some level the answer probably depends on whether the claim the complaint is that the writtings are not official or whether the real complaint is that they relate to a specific topic. In an ideal world the media would report the claim and then find someone who analizes the claim and counters that the real issue is not what the IG claims, such as unofficiality, but the specific content of the remaks. However, can we expect such explanation of the deduction prcess with the tight deadlines and limited space that reporters constantly deal with?

    The argument for shorthanding “unofficial publicantions” is a content based attack according to some into just calling it a content based attack becomes progressively harder as the uniformity of the unoficial content attacked decreases, and I do not know what the actual content of Mr. Kmiec’s unofficial content is, but I think it is worth considering whether asuch avoidance of the wording of the attacks and instead focusing on the actual things attacked is ever justified.

  • Roger Conley

    “Kmiec is pro-life”? Not “Kmiec calls himself pro-life, or “Kmiec claims to be pro-life”? You’re vouching for him. You have a very odd view of what pro-life means. If I were writing an opinion piece, and my view was relevant, I’d say: “Kmiec is utterly tame.”

  • Ben

    Interesting Times of Malta link, Julia. I always enjoyed interviewing Kmiec as a source during the campaign and the Prop 8 drama when he was in California. He does a lot of thinking when questions are put to him and he acknowledged emotional components of arguments, even when they conflicted with his own ideology.

    I do find it odd that his tone in the Times of Malta interview hasn’t changed much from campaign tone. He’s an ambassador now, presumably speaking for America, not for candidate Obama.

    As for junior staffers in Malta being frustrated at having to edit his prolific output, well, boo hoo. It’s not like Malta is at the crux of world events and demands a lot from the mission staff.

  • Julia

    I’m wondering about other ambassadors who wrote prolifically while on the job – as other comments have stagted. Is the difference that they didn’t publish until after their ambassadorship was over? Statements from an Ambassador while in office have got to be received differently than those after the tenure is over.

    If the Ambassador was writing things to be published after he was done with the State Department gig, maybe there wouldn’t be a problem.