WASHINGTON, D.C. — Ambassador nominees Sam Kaplan and Miguel Diaz of Minnesota moved one step closer to their respective posts in Morocco and Vatican City after testifying today before a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing on their appointments.
During the hour-and-a-half meeting, which seemed like kiddy court next to last week’s marathon Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Sonia Sotomayor, Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken enthusiastically introduced the pair before they gave their opening statements and faced one question each from subcommittee chairman Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn.
On Kaplan, who is a prominent Minneapolis attorney and big Democratic fundraiser, Klobuchar said that there was “no one else quite like him.”
Franken added: “To say that they [Kaplan and his wife Sylvia] are legendary in Minnesota is an understatement.”
Klobuchar said: “Sam is a reassuring voice and calm manner. He’s one of the most informed people I know and someone with superb judgment.”
Said Franken: “[Kaplan] is a vigorous advocate and a skilled conciliator, one of the most respect attorneys in the Twin Cities. He is frank when he needs to be frank – and so is Sylvia – and he is a congenial negotiator.”
On Diaz — a theologian from the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. — Klobuchar said he “is a faithful Catholic…a gifted theologian…a respected scholar…a natural teacher…and a dedicated bridge-builder. He knows and loves America, and he knows and loves the Catholic Church.”
Franken added that Diaz’s work “makes clear he is a man of erudition, thoughtfulness and engagement.”
“Minnesota has a long tradition of looking outward, and engaging the world, and these two fine gentlemen will help the United States continue our renewed international engagement,” Franken concluded.
Morocco and Muslim world
During his opening statements, Kaplan focused on Morocco’s unique position in the Middle East under “an enlightened leader who has promoted economic and social changes.”
Kaplan added, however, that there was still room for improvement.
They are “not entirely free of problems,” Kaplan said. “Like so many countries, the unemployment rate of people is very high [and that is helping to] make young men vulnerable to terrorist activity.”
If confirmed, Kaplan would be among a small group of American Jewish diplomats positioned in the Muslim world — a fact that he also referenced in his comments.
“This is a new beginning of our relationship with the Muslim world,” Kaplan said.
“I assure you, as a Jewish American, I am sensitive to the kinds of contributions I can make, and I am honored to be here.”
In his questions, Casey mentioned that Morocco has been more open to people of Jewish heritage than many other countries in the Middle East.
“What is your sense of the role it is playing, or can play, [in the Middle East peace process]?” Casey asked Kaplan.
“It is a moderate Muslim country with a rich Jewish heritage and it is really a prime candidate for playing a mediating role,” Kaplan replied.
Kaplan addressed the fact that Morocco had closed its bilateral liaison offices in 2000, following continued conflict and violence between Israel and Palestine. But Kaplan said, that there are many lines of communication that are still open between the two countries.
In addition, Kaplan mentioned that he thought Morocco’s talks with Fatah, as opposed to Hamas, were encouraging.
It “is a sign of the ability to communicate with the more moderate Palestinian group,” Kaplan said.
‘Shaped by two cultures’
Diaz, in his opening comments, discussed how his unique background could positively inform his work in Vatican City.
If confirmed, Diaz would be the first Hispanic to serve as ambassador to the Holy See. Diaz, who was born in Cuba and moved to Florida at age nine, is fluent in English, Spanish and Italian. In addition to his current teaching posts, he has also taught religious studies and theology at three other universities, including Notre Dame.
“As a Cuban American, my identity has been shaped by two cultures,” Diaz said. “I strongly believe that this has made me more open to others.”
But Diaz stressed that his experience is “not limited to the realm of books… and the classroom.”
“At the College of St. Benedict, I have worked with religious leaders to [engage] communities,” Diaz said.
Diaz added that if confirmed he would focus on issues of cultural diversity, immigration, poverty and the role of religion in society.
Casey asked Diaz to give his assessment of the recent meeting between President Obama and Pope Benedict XVI and how it might affect his work as ambassador.
Diaz said that the president and the Pope had touched on many subjects of common interest: inter-culture dialogue, outreach to the Muslim community, establishing mutual commitments to the peace process, foreign assistance and abortion issues.
“It set up a great foundation for our work in years to come,” Diaz concluded.
Kaplan and Diaz were also joined by the ambassador nominees to Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands and the ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues.
The full committee is expected to meet this week or next to vote on their confirmation. After that vote, the full Senate will take up the matter and is expected to confirm their nominations.