What Kmiec's Resignation Means

The resignation of Douglas Kmiec as ambassador to Malta is a thing to be regretted on several levels. It appears that Kmiec was not forced out but, instead, chose to leave his post if he was going to be hamstrung in his efforts to define his role as he sees fit and, critically, as the President apparently indicated he wanted him to fulfill that role.

The most likely cause of the friction was the perennial tension between State Department lifers and political appointees. It is easy to see how a certain measure of resentment could creep into these relationships. Career bureaucrats might resent those they view as interlopers, people with no particular qualifications for their posts except the fact that they raised a ton of money for a successful presidential candidate. Conversely, the political appointees, who have some kind of special relationship with the President, resent the interference of bureaucrats who do not have such a special relationship with the President.

In the event, however, Kmiec did not earn his post by raising tons of money for candidate Obama. And, it is insane to think that someone as gifted as Kmiec, and as savvy, could not usefully serve as an ambassador. Surely the bureaucrats can recognize that there was not one of their number who could achieve the things he achieved. The same could be said of other political appointees who have distinguished themselves as exemplary ambassadors. Pamela Harriman leaps to mind. Is there a careerist who could have done what she did in Paris in the 1990s? Similarly, which career bureaucrat could understand, as Kmiec understood, that in a country as devotedly Catholic as Malta, to ignore the religion of the inhabitants would be to grossly misunderstand them, and therefore to fail to lay the groundwork necessary for bilateral relations?

In his letter to Secretary Clinton, Kmiec refers to an opinion he offered back in 1989, when he was a Republican appointee serving in the Office of Legal Counsel, an opinion that limited the role of the Office of Inspector General (OIG). The precipitating factor in Kmiec’s resignation was a report from the same OIG that said Kmiec was spending too much time on writings and speeches that did not directly pertain to his ambassadorial duties. Whether or not the report constitutes “sting back” for his earlier opinion, it is certainly the case that the OIG has, as Kmiec asserts, a “flawed and narrow vision of our diplomatic mission.”

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Since NCR broke the news of Kmiec’s resignation on Saturday, many people have called to ask what the back story was. Ambassador Kmiec declined to be interviewed about his resignation. I suspect that a man of such significant accomplishments can hardly be expected to relish the prospect of an on-going battle with the bureaucrats at Foggy Bottom. Not when he can be back in Los Angeles doing what he loves most, teaching law.

But, the fact that Kmiec will come out of this all right cannot obscure the fact that the administration has lost one of its most prominent, thoughtful members. Kmiec, like Obama and Clinton, understands that America’s role in the world is changing – and must change. That we must look less to our military abilities and concentrate on building sustained, fruitful relations not simply with governments but with the peoples of the world, that “soft power” will as likely produce the results we seek from our diplomacy as military might, indeed, that the U.S. military has become an over-used and often inappropriate and ineffective tool for achieving the goals we seek. The bureaucrats who authored the report that rapped Kmiec on the knuckles has a problem with Secretary Clinton and with President Obama, and, you might say, with the changing circumstances of the world, not just with Ambassador Kmiec.

Kmiec’s resignation is a loss not only to the administration but to the country. We should encourage accomplished men and women to take up public service as ambassadors, and in other posts, precisely because all bureaucracies need fresh ideas and insights. I am actually a big fan of bureaucracy and do not indulge the facile condemnation of them as responsible for all that ails our society. Our society is a complex one and we need bureaucracies to cope with that complexity. But, that should not blind us to the problem with bureaucracies, the way their insights and their procedures reify, their hostility to the new, their prioritization of process over people. No tool, be it personal genius or institutional bureaucracy, is without its difficulties. But, a bureaucracy that cannot see the accomplishments of a man like Kmiec is a bureaucracy that needs some shaking up.

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June 16-29, 2017