As most readers of this newspaper know, I was recently promoted from ambassador to citizen, and what is written here is from that perspective.
Returning home after a time away always requires some catching up. Home now for six weeks or so, I find our economy showing strong, but episodic signs of recovery, with too many with little savings still struggling; the President and the Congress grappling with formal limits or ceilings on public debt that most assuredly are important but in the long haul mean less than the political will of the people to spend only within our means; a few legislative doubts about President Barack Obama’s assistance to Nato in Libya in light of our temporary fiscal woes; and an almost two-year-old neputi who is just plain happy following his nanna around all day and thinks it a big deal to ride the bus with me from Santa Monica.
Because of Malta’s geographic proximity to Libya, many have asked my view about American involvement in the Mediterranean region, and they seem to ask it with special curiosity upon learning that I helped superintend, along with Rick Mills, the completion of a $125.5 million new embassy compound. Knowing my general frugality (this former ambaxxatur cycles the 10 miles round-trip to and from his office at the university), they need to hear the basis for the beautiful, but pricey, new structure in Ta’Qali.
Of course, one answer regretfully underscored last week is simply the safety and security of those working in our embassies and those receiving consular and other services there. Last week our embassy in Damascus was attacked by a pro-regime mob. Fortunately, no one was wounded, as individuals unhappily were in a simultaneous attack on the French embassy.
But more than security explains our new embassy home. Yes, it is beautiful; yes, it is sizeable, permitting regional work when warranted; yes, it is award-winning for its energy efficiency; yes, funding has been set aside for an even greater solar commitment; yes, the embassy team has been planning educational outreach efforts that simply were impossible in our prior space, and like our “yes we can” young President, it is our way of expressing both gratitude for your friendship and confidence in our shared future.
Of course, any narrative on Malta that I begin always recounts how Malta is famously friendly, and gives ample justification for its Biblical description as a place of “uncommon kindness”.
Its population is well-educated and hard working. English is spoken fluently even when a certain ambassador does great damage to Maltese; its climate is ideal, and in terms of preserved cultural heritage, some of the best in Europe.
In addition, Malta’s politics are mature and healthy, closely contested and followed by a vibrant press and intelligent voters. The Maltese economy is growing with a moderate rate of unemployment. Few countries today have all of these qualities.
Our sizeable new investment in Malta affirms the significance given to your friendship and your ability to influence positively the still uncertain democratic paths in North Africa. But this uncertainty is transient.
An embassy of sufficiently ample size and personnel is justified because it is reasonable to anticipate Malta’s own willingness – respecting her constitutional commitment to neutrality, of course (you see, I did learn something!) – to become an even more prominent “partner for peace”, by, for example, signing onto the multilateral reciprocal status of personnel memorandum.
The memo, sometimes denominated a SOFA, is more formality than function, but its absence has largely halted US ship visits, depriving us of your excellent dry dock and repair facilities as well as your hospitality to our servicemen and women.
The lack of Malta’s participation in what pretty much the rest of the world’s nations have signed, keeps some useful intelligence and defence information from you and leaves us both in the dark or uncertain as to what rules apply to whom.
A former member of my country team, Coast Guard Commander Sean Schenk, who regularly tried to get what should be an afternoon’s work – the reading and signing of this rather straightforward memo – is currently battling two aggressive cancers. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to put a ribbon on the signed memo and use it, along with our prayers, to encourage his recovery?
Whether or not the US Navy is able to return to your truly Grand Harbour, I can tell you that my neighbours are surprised and intrigued by Malta’s significant number of visitors: the many tourists by air and Mediterranean cruise ship, but increasingly, business conferences of all types, anxious for the tumult in Libya to be concluded well in order for the reopening of uninterrupted commerce.
In this, your public and private investment in telling your national story not just of sun and beach and splendid diving, but of faith and courage and commitment to family and community, including the highly talented female graduates of the University, is well worth every euro.
Part of the current history appropriately should include your redoubled planning to halt human trafficking, your helpful efforts to curtail Iran’s illicit pursuit of enriched nuclear materials, as well as your magnanimous humanitarian assistance to those in need of rescue and medical aid from the continuing and unnecessary violence in Libya.
From a diplomatic standpoint, Malta’s potential may be even greater. Malta has the ability to convey to reasonable minds in Libya that whatever achievement Muammar Gaddafi may have thought was his national legacy, it is now being fully eclipsed by the loss of life and opportunity for his own citizens which he himself must dearly regret.
Malta’s credibility is that of a nation which has always been a good neighbour, representing those who want to respect and invest in Libya’s future on fair terms without being encumbered by the machinations of the regime’s troubled political past.
Wouldn’t the world sit up and take notice if Malta could serve as the definitive catalyst for peace – first, in its own neighbourhood, and then by derivative example of the blossoming that would follow, the entire Mediterranean, including the portion that extends to where two proper and secure states denominated Israel and Palestine could co-exist?
For too long the Western world ignored the distinctive potential of the Arab nations. For too long it also missed, or didn’t know, the full significance of a European nation with – yes, Guido de Marco – “a Mediterranean vocation.”
Too often, many nations, including my own under leadership of less vision and appreciation for the interdependency of our fate than that exhibited by Obama, preferred authoritarian stability to democratic possibility.
It turns out that propping up and then defending against authoritarian repression bankrupts the soul as well as the treasury. No more. My message to the folks back home is yes, to keep a careful eye on public expenditure in lean times; but use the other eye to watch Malta.
Better still, come see our new embassy there – you really can’t miss it; it’s the one just slightly smaller and less well lit than Mdina – and worth every single Lincoln penny.
Thanks to all those who came to help us celebrate. As the saying goes, ‘wish I was there’.
Prof. Kmiec is former US Ambassador to Malta and Professor of Law at Pepperdine University in California.
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