The 9/11 decade saw the world’s focus shift to the Middle East and North Africa, turning Malta into a valued listening post for the US and an important friend. Christian Peregin tracks the changes in bilateral relations.
Anthony Gioia became US ambassador to Malta only days before the 9/11 attacks. He vividly remembers how the events shaped relations between the two countries and his stories read like a cable out of Wikileaks.
When there is turbulence or uncertainty in the Middle East, having a country like Malta with a solid democracy and a stable government, can only help us- Former US ambassador
“I remember telling the foreign minister that if a bomb passes through Malta and ends up in the US or Europe, it will make the Lockerbie bomb look like small fry. I would be fired and Malta would never get into the EU. I was speculating of course, but I wanted to raise the importance of being vigilant,” he says.
America immediately prioritised the level of security at the Freeport which was known to be one of the most important transhipment ports for Iran.
“We were concerned things could happen. The people at the Freeport weren’t too happy because they took the term ‘Freeport’ quite literally. Customs were not allowed. But we convinced the Maltese, for the right reasons I believe, to become more aggressive in terms of what was going on and not give such a literal interpretation.”
He says his efforts worked and Malta quickly understood the importance of heightening security. “I was quite pleased.”
“We worked very hard with the government, which did not have the resources or sophistication at the time to screen these cargoes for weapons.”
Malta was always “a friendly country in a very tough neighbourhood” and its EU membership continued to enhance relations.
“I used to tell the State Department that when Malta joins the EU, we will have another country more aligned with Britain and therefore more supportive of America’s interests. I used to say Malta was a good investment for us because with a little bit of effort we could get their attention much faster than we could with a country like France at the time. But in the EU, each country has the same voice.”
The Arab Spring has continued to heighten Malta’s significance, due to its geographical location, particularly its proximity to Libya.
“When there is turbulence or uncertainty in the Middle East, having a country like Malta with a solid democracy and a stable government can only help us. One thing we’ve learnt is that the world is a small place. If there’s hostility in one part of the world it is naive to think it won’t affect another part. We learnt this the hard way.”
Mr Gioia, who was in Malta recently for the opening of the new US embassy, said he would never forget the warmth of the Maltese, particularly the support he felt after 9/11 from political leaders and the people in general, who organised Masses and other services.
Since his time, Malta’s relationship with the US has gone from strength to strength, and America became particularly generous regarding immigration.
This role was perhaps best embodied by former Ambassador Douglas Kmiec, whose stay came to a premature end because the US State department felt he spent too much time writing about his Catholic faith.
Prof. Kmiec said Malta and the US were always “close siblings” but were even closer today, 10 years after 9/11.
“It is obvious from the sizeable investment in our new embassy compound in Ta’ Qali that the US wants our particular diplomatic friendship with Malta to enjoy the very best of our resources.”
He said part of this closeness was attributable to Malta’s EU membership but also due to Malta’s many humanitarian efforts, vigilance against terrorist movements and the steps taken to interdict shipments that would proliferate the transfer or manufacture of illicit weapons.
But the former ambassador also sees a deeper link between the events of 9/11 and the relationship that has since evolved.
“The roots of 9/11 were nourished by religious difference which in the hands of the forces of terror became religious suspicion and hatred... Religious hatred in turn provoked the unspeakable violence in New York, Washington DC and Pennsylvania resulting in thousands of deaths of people of many faiths and nationalities.”
However, God, he says, finds ways to help us discern good out of the greatest of evils.
“Prior to 9/11, many in the US, including myself, had not given serious attention to promoting dialogue and interaction across religious boundaries. Because of the strength of Malta’s Catholic faith commitment and its proximity and good relations with the people of many different faiths in many lands, Malta was and is perceived – I believe correctly – as uniquely capable of inter-faith dialogue and understanding.”
He thinks Malta’s “empathy” with the Palestinian diaspora and America’s “steadfast support for Israel’s security” help Malta and America gain credibility as honest brokers of a two state solution that has eluded the world for far too long.
Meanwhile, former government adviser Martin Scicluna also sees the past 10 years as having had a remarkable difference in bilateral relations. But he sees the “game-changer” as being Malta’s accession to the EU.
“The US State Department would have noticed, even in the negotiations leading up to accession, that Malta’s position as an EU country, despite its miniscule size and limited diplomatic weight, would give it a different standing as a neutral country in the middle of the Mediterranean.”
“This, taken in conjunction with Malta’s geographic position as a listening post and sounding board in the Middle East, has helped to raise our profile in Washington.”
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