An exclusive official interview with Dr. Richard J. Schmierer, The United States of America's Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Sultanate of Oman.
Dr. Schmierer graciously consented to answer my questions about the Embassy, Oman, the Free Trade agreement, US Foreign policy in the region, Israel, Iran, and many other issues. He did not give a "no comment" to any question, even the one about if there is a meeting planned between His Majesty Sultan Qaboos and Barack Obama, US President.
The interview was quite extensive and wide ranging, and I asked a lot of questions, so I'm publishing it in two parts.
The questions and answers are totally unedited and in the order that they were asked. His Excellency's official biography is at the bottom of this first post, if you're interested.
File Photo: Dr. Richard J. Schmierer, US Ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman.
Muscat Confidential Interviews:
Dr. Richard J. Schmierer,
U.S. Ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman
May 16, 2010
The rule was no cameras, no mobile phones. After passing through the large concrete blocks outside the entrance, the polite security screening and with the metallic buzz of the electric lock on the steel door still fading in my ears, I couldn't help but notice the sign "Keep off the grass" on the patch of green between me and the imposing entrance to the US Embassy in Shatti, Muscat.
I stayed off the grass.
Initial security may have been Omani staffers, but the clean cut and noticeably armed Marine inside the heavy glass door certainly wasn't. I was ushered through into a suitably dignified library and promptly commenced my private interview** with Dr. Richard J. Schmierer, the current U.S. Ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman.
Undercover Dragon: Thank you for granting Muscat Confidential an interview, Your Excellency. This is a bit of a 'first' for the blog, and I'm told this is also your first blog interview.
Richard J. Schmierer: Before we start, a quick word of thanks for the chance to reach out to your readers – I know that lots of people, Omanis and expatriates, regularly check in here. If nothing else, the great audience that came out for our blues concert last month, many of whom apparently read about it here, convinced me of that!
UD: What is the mission of the US Embassy in Oman?
RJS: Like all embassies, our primary role is twofold: to manage the bilateral relationship between our two countries, and to provide services to American citizens visiting and living here.
UD: How did you get to become The United States Ambassador? Are you a career diplomat or a 'political' appointee?
RJS: As Ambassador, I serve at the pleasure of the president, following confirmation by the Senate. I’m a career Foreign Service Officer; this is my thirtieth year as a diplomat.
UD: What does the United States think about the relationship between Oman and Iran?
RJS: It seems very much a part of the Sultanate’s consistent foreign policy over the years of maintaining good relations with all of its neighbors, and more broadly with the world in general.
UD: People are often encouraged by Middle Eastern media to see the United States as being responsible for the Palestinian crisis and that the US back Israel no matter what (even when they continued to build settlements). Can you demonstrate specifically how the United States is not in the pocket of AIPAC and Israel?
RJS: The U.S., of course, is a representative democracy, and our elected officials do listen to their constituents, many of whom feel strongly that Israel is an important ally. Support for Israel is part of our foreign policy. At the same time, though, I think that our support for the Palestinians has been equally clear.
Our position is straightforward: We support a two-state solution, with Israelis and Palestinians co-existing peacefully and with mutual security. We believe that through good-faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.
The successful effort to launch indirect talks between the parties is the most recent sign of our resolve.
UD: The United States has long had a foreign policy of support for democracy and human rights. How does the US square this with their continuing support (economically and politically) for non-democratic governments in the region with a tremendously poor human rights record, or extremely questionable democratic credentials, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or the UAE?
RJS: Every nation, and the United States is no exception, crafts its foreign policy to pursue its ideals as well as its national interests.
In this region, especially, we see that the mechanisms for citizens to participate in public life and influence their societies and their governments take many forms. Our efforts and commitment all relate to the desire to strengthen accountable and responsive governance.
One reason that our Middle East Partnership Initiative has been so successful – including in the countries you mention – is that we’re connecting more and more with grassroots partners who are working toward this goal in a positive way within their own cultural framework. In Oman, for instance, there are people who are building on the country’s long and deep traditions of consultation and consensus, which can be very empowering for ordinary people.
UD: Isn't current US policy in practice essentially a continuation of Kissinger's Real-Politik?
RJS: Which was based on Bismarck’s Realpolitik, which was based on…
I think you can stretch out historical analogies until they’re not all that useful. American foreign policy is based on the evolving reality of the world around us – in the context of consistent values, which include peace, stability, respect for human rights, and others – and the best interests of the American people.
UD: Muscat Confidential has always promoted the position that freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of association are far more fundamental and important to attaining the core principals of human rights and democracy than the mere act of balloting or casting votes (as recent events in Iran demonstrate, in my opinion). Do you have any opinion on the relative importance to the USA of freedom of speech, and a free press, vs voting (but where there is severe repression of the press)?
RJS: I think that these are interconnected issues. They’re certainly issues that different countries – even countries with which we have excellent relationships, like Oman – handle quite differently. In the United States, from our earliest days we have had a strong commitment to freedom of speech; some might say that we’ve promoted freedom of speech at the expense of other considerations, such as respect for authority, public decency, etc.
The freedoms enshrined in our Constitution – freedom of speech, of assembly, etc. – are at the very heart of our ideas about government, and in general I think Americans agree that they are worthwhile and underpin a system that works quite well.
You make a good point: an informed citizenry is important to an effective electoral process. The balance of freedoms is important: it’s no use assembling if you can’t speak freely; it’s less useful to speak freely if you have no impact on governance. And, as your question suggests, the process of electing leaders is enhanced to the extent that such a process takes place in a robust information environment.
UD: What foreign aid does the US supply to Oman?
RJS: Foreign assistance in our system comes primarily from the U.S. Agency for International Development -- USAID -- which is not active in Oman. That said, we do carry out various kinds of other cooperation – educational and professional exchanges, for example, like the Fulbright Program or the Humphrey Fellowships. The Middle East Partnership Initiative has a small-grants program that local organizations have taken advantage of, as well as larger programs that are usually regional in nature. Those programs do things like provide American private-sector expertise in areas such as developing small- and medium-sized businesses or supporting Oman’s own work in improving educational administration.
UD: How has the Free Trade Agreement impacted trade between Oman and the US? Can you give us some specific examples of the types of changes and new businesses that have come about? How can an Oman-based business make best use of the FTA to start businesses or boost profits? What advice would you give to Omani business men and women about how to export to the USA?
RJS: The FTA has set the stage for significant increase in future trade, not least because of the ways that reaching the agreement spurred advances in Oman’s commercial law, intellectual property law, and government procurement process, all of which helped create a more conducive trade and investment environment for businesses in the U.S. and Oman.
As it happened, the FTA came into effect in January 2009, just as the global economic crisis took hold in the region and internationally. As a result, we have not yet seen the immediate results that we would like to have seen. Even so, our bilateral trade reached a healthy $2 billion last year and is set to continue to grow.
Over the past several months, we have noticed a marked increase in the number of Omani and American businesses looking to take advantage of the FTA, the cause of which isn’t just the economic turnaround. Private-sector businesspeople are increasingly looking to introduce to Oman companies that are considering opening a Middle East office and to publicize opportunities available here to the business community in the U.S. Such private-sector activities are a welcome development – they indicate that the Omani economy is seen as increasingly welcome to new business.
The Embassy also plays a vital role in advising companies considering entering the Omani market. Sectors in which we have recently seen an increased interest include tourism and renewable energy.
As for advice? I think the best thing that Omanis interested in doing business in the U.S. can do is to make sure they have the information they need to make solid decisions. Online, sites like Entrepreneurship.gov, the FTA homepage, and our Commercial Section’s homepage can be good places to start. Of course, our Commercial section is always eager to assist on such matters.
Coming in Part Two:
Advice for Omani's wanting to get a visa or study in the USA; Why you and I don't seem to get invited to the US Embassy to party; Barack Obama and His Majesty: will there be a meeting?; America's new foreign policy in the region - the impact of the Obama administration; the official view on the infamous Human Trafficking report and Oman's Tier 3 rating; getting married at the Embassy; and a friendly word to Muscat Confidential's readers and other bloggers!
**Disclaimer: Not really, this scene setting above is totally imaginary. The interview did NOT take place at the US Embassy but was conducted via email in early May 2010 with the assistance of Mr. Daniel M. Pattarini, the talented Assistant Public Affairs Officer with the US State Department, Muscat. The interview was concluded on May 16th, 2010 and is unedited from the original.
Official Bio: DR. RICHARD J. SCHMIERER
Ambassador of the United States of America To the Sultanate of Oman
Richard J. Schmierer was sworn in as Ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman on August 20, 2009, after being confirmed by the United States Senate on July 10, 2009. He previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Department of State's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs from June 2008 through July 2009.
Ambassador Schmierer is a career Foreign Service Officer and a member of the Senior Foreign Service with the rank of Minister-Counselor. He began his diplomatic career in 1980, with assignments in Bonn, Frankfurt, and Hamburg, Germany, through 1984. He then served a three-year assignment at the American Consulate General in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia (1985-88). From 1988 through 1992, Ambassador Schmierer served at the headquarters of the U.S. Information Agency, and then from 1992 through 1996 at the U.S. Embassy in Bonn, Germany. He returned to Saudi Arabia in 1997, where he served as Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh until 2000.
From 2000 through 2004, Ambassador Schmierer was Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, followed by an assignment as Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 2004 to 2005. He taught at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, from 2005 to 2007, during which time he published a book entitled "Iraq: Policy and Perceptions." From June 2007 through June 2008 Ambassador Schmierer served as the head of the Office of Iraq Affairs at the U.S. State Department.
Ambassador Schmierer holds a B.A. degree from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, along with Masters and Doctoral degrees from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is married to Sandra J. Schmierer, also a long-time employee of the U.S. State Department. They have three grown children.