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The vagabond who became an ambassador

The vagabond who became an ambassador


US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli: "I like the culture and the people here. The people have a way about them. They make you feel comfortable, especially in Cambodia. The people are open and gentle and have a good sense of humor."

Born in New York City in 1952 into a military family of Sicilian

descent, new US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli had unlikely beginnings for a

high-ranking international diplomat. A former deputy attorney-general for the New

Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, and at one time a self-professed vagabond

who swore he'd never return to the United States, Mussomeli says he spends his time

outside the embassy changing the diapers of his 14-month-old adopted son. In his

25 years of foreign service Mussomeli has had postings in Egypt, Morocco, Sri Lanka

and Bahrain. As Deputy Chief of Mission in Manila he earned a reputation as an outspoken

government critic. Mussomeli spoke to Charles McDermid about the state of

Cambodia's democracy, US business interests in the country, and his definition of


Post: Your embassy bio claims you dropped out of college to become an upholsterer

and hitchhike around Europe. What prompted this decision?

JM: I dropped out of Rutgers and had to become an upholsterer to have some money.

Then, when I finally got enough money - which wasn't much, only about $400 - I quit

that job and decided - not to hitchhike around Europe - but to move to Europe and

never come back to the US ever again. I was going to be a travelling vagabond, I

guess, for the rest of my life. I was 20. I'd finished two years of school. I had

very bad grades, so I had no choice but to get a job. Thirty years later it sounds

so stupid.

Post: What did you do at the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, and how did

that lead to the foreign service?

JM: I oversaw the Atlantic City casinos for a year. It sounds better on paper than

it really was: if it was really exciting I probably wouldn't ever have joined the

foreign service.

Casinos are interesting; I think it would be better to be a blackjack dealer than

a lawyer overseeing them. One year was enough and I was getting restless. I saw a

sign that said, "Take the foreign service exam." It was free and I'd always

liked to travel, so why not have the government pay for it. I'd get to do what I

wanted and do something I feel good about. So I took the test - and failed. Then

I took it again the next year and passed just barely.

Post: Is it still something you feel good about? How do you address the shift in

international perceptions of America - especially in terms of foreign policy?

JM: There are shifts back and forth. In my 25 years I've served five presidents and

probably 10 secretaries of state, and certainly there are different personalities

and emphasis for each one. This is what I tell my junior officers all the time: "Don't

come into this job thinking your going to agree with every policy, because that's

just not possible."

And I tell them that also if they ever come to a point where they just can't sleep

at night then its time to quit. It's not time to complain or to make public comments

against an American policy; it's time to find a new career.

There are two or three times in my own career that I've thought of resigning or quitting.

I think it happens to all foreign service officers.

The reality is that there is no American from the President on down that really 100

percent agrees with every policy. All of them are compromises in one way or another.

All of us are in the same boat. The basic philosophy is that it's better to be inside

the boat and try to help direct it than to be drilling holes in the bottom of it.

Post: How was the experience of working in predominantly Muslim countries, and was

it your choice to come to Asia?

JM: I joined the foreign service to spend my life in the desert among Arabs. My first

tour was Egypt. I had a real fascination with the Muslim cultures. That's where I

wanted to be and three of my postings have been there.

Over time I was drawn more to Southeast Asia. I jumped at the chance to go back to

the Philippines for a second tour. I really didn't want to leave the region. Cambodia

was open and it was my top choice. It was the first time I've ever gotten my first


I like the culture and the people here. The people have a way about them. They make

you feel comfortable, especially in Cambodia. The people are open and gentle and

have a good sense of humor.

Post: You were known as an outspoken critic of the government in Manila. What was

it about the political situation that prompted you to make strong statements, and

are there any comparisons to Cambodia?

JM: I was Chargé d'Affaires so I was supposed to convey American views. There

are different philosophies on how that ought to be done. Some people like a very

quiet approach and some people like a very loud approach.

I don't think either is very effective. It's certainly not good to be confrontational,

but it's also not good to hide in a corner as some of our other embassies do. It's

important first off to make sure the government and the people know that you are

their ally - and that you care about them. And then it's different.

I don't think there's anyone in Cambodia from the Prime Minister on down that doesn't

think I am trying to improve the bilateral relationship, and that my primary interest

is the benefit of the Cambodian people.

Once people are convinced of that, you have greater latitude in what you say and

how you say it. An ambassador is remiss if he doesn't express concern over problems,

just as he is remiss if he does nothing but criticize with no positive dimensions.

This embassy tries to maintain a balance and frankly, there are a lot of good things

happening. Despite what's happening politically there are many good things - politically,

socially, economically - going on here.

Post: You said the benefit of the people, not the government?

JM: The government to the extent that they represent their people - but this is never

completely true: even in the most robust democracies there is always some tension.

It drives me crazy when people say democracy is for idealists - it's the opposite:

democracy is for pessimists, cynics who don't trust government. Democracy is the

belief that anyone - even good people - with power will be corrupted.

Anyone who believes in democracy doesn't trust government by definition. That's why

we vote them out and change the people at the top. It's the conviction that government

left to its own devices will ultimately go against the people.

Post: How do you define diplomacy? And further, American diplomacy?

JM: There are lots of aspects to diplomacy. Most of it is communication. Most of

it is making sure people perceive and understand your government and what its priorities

and concerns are. You're sort of a medium between your government and other governments,

your people and other people. That's much of it.

America is a reactionary country. We like the status quo. We like stability, peace

and order, and our view is that the best way to ensure stability is to ensure justice

and freedom. Instability worldwide is bad for American interests.

When I criticize a government for eroding freedom, they argue that it is done to

ensure stability - my counter argument is: Only in the short term - in the long term

they are destabilizing their own society.

Post: Recently an element of the Marines built a medical clinic in Kampong Chhnang.

Do you see further US military involvement in Cambodia?

JM: We have been very reticent to have "mil-to-mil" relations with Cambodia

through the nineties; since 1975 we've been reticent. But in the last three years

my predecessor did wonderful work in this area, trying to generate, or at least set

stage for, deeper and better military-to-military relationship.

Slowly we've moved in that direction. The Marines are a good example. It could go

a lot further. There's a lot of potential there but this is all in the future. This

is the process and it's a process linked inexorably to how Cambodia is doing as a


Post: So, how's it doing right now?

JM: It's an uneven record. The last year has been particularly worrisome. There's

a lot of good things still.

Religious tolerance is remarkable. It's like nowhere else in the whole region. The

media could be freer, but still by regional standards, it's not bad at all. People

can still criticize the Prime Minister and the government in some ways. At least

it can be reported on that there's been criticism. My own criticism of the government

wouldn't have made it to the public in some countries -some media is still open.

Also, the new generation is Westernized - in the good way. They're not afraid of

dialogue and disagreement. They're curious about the rest of the world. I think the

long-term prognosis for this country is actually very good - economically and politically.

We're running right now into a tough time. The last 13 months or so have been difficult.

There is a problem right now - how it will play out, I don't know.

When people overreact and characterize this as a fascist or totalitarian state they

are off the mark. This country still has great hope for it.

Post: In your opinion, what must happen to stop this "tough time?"

JM: Better communication. And that means more than just telling each other what our

views are on freedom of expression.

Clearly the government is nervous about certain issues. Certainly the international

community is nervous about the repercussions for democracy and freedom of expression.

There needs to be more confidence, really. The government is not about to topple:

they need to just relax a little. As my teenagers say "They need to chill."

They're in no real danger here.

It doesn't help when opposition figures speak in very hyperbolic ways, very irresponsible

ways. It helps even less when you overreact to the situation.

Post: The World Bank has condemned the recent arrests of government critics. What's

the feeling of the international donor community?

JM: The World Bank is concerned. We're all concerned. We honestly don't see the justification

for the arrests - especially the last one. The border treaty is signed and there's

no indication of instability anywhere in the country.

I shouldn't speak for the whole donor community, but there is widespread concern

that the government has gone too far this time, and for no reason.

But there is sympathy as well, including my own sympathy for the border treaty. I

think it's wonderful that the government is trying to fix the borders with Vietnam.

You can't be a modern state and not have borders.

But if you don't allow people to criticize it, you run the risk in the long-term

of undermining it. Ten or 20 years from now people will look back and say "We

never got to argue about it." I think it's a good treaty in principle, but every

country has these xenophobic, nationalistic tendencies. If you don't allow dialogue,

these things fester.

Post: You were on hand during the arrest of Kem Sokha. What was your personal assessment

of that situation?

JM: It was done in a reasonably orderly fashion. The fact that he was allowed to

make a statement before being taken in to custody; the fact that his colleagues and

friends were allowed to be with him - these were all good things. I don't emphasize

them because the plain fact is he should not have been taken into custody. Things

[in Cambodia now] are not horrible, they're just disturbing.

Post: What is your impression of Prime Minister Hun Sen? How has he greeted you?

JM: Warmly. He seems like a man who has been through a lot of difficult experiences

and is working to improve the situation for the Cambodian people - I don't doubt


We wouldn't be working to improve the bilateral relationship if we didn't believe

that the Prime Minister is concerned about the Cambodian people and has their best

interests at heart. I've had one long conversation with him and I found that he has

a very good sense of humor.

Post: Issues of land rights and displacement are becoming increasingly visible. What

are your thoughts on Cambodia's history of "land grabbing?"

JM: Land rights are a big, difficult problem. It's where need and freedom collide.

I think it will be the issue that, a long time from now, this government and perhaps

the whole society will be judged on.

There has been some improvement, but the Khmer Rouge screwed things up so badly that

it was a real mess.

It's an issue where the weak and powerless can be easily trampled on. It's a place

where the government must exert great effort or it could easily get out of control.

There's so much wealth and it's so easy to just grab the land and take it from people

on the land. It's a great temptation and a great outrage. There is potential for

a real problem, but I think the government is aware and working to protect the land

rights of people.

Post: What is the biggest US business interest in Cambodia?

JM: Garments. People don't know this but garment purchases from American buyers really

pull this entire economy.

It's a staggering number: it's like a billion dollars now, or close to it. I think

the garment purchases are $1.7 billion and more than 70 percent go to America. Without

that, the economy would almost collapse. The donor community is important, but the

garment industry is far more important for the future of this country.

One concern is that one of the people in jail is one of the union leaders. This looks

bad... and Cambodia risks losing or hurting what they're doing now. I know the government

doesn't think so, but we know otherwise from talking to the garment buyers.

Post: There has been much speculation about a potential regional power struggle between

the US and China. Do you find evidence of this today in Cambodia?

JM: No, we don't feel a rivalry. The Chinese like this place. They worry about Vietnam

- and they're not that close to Thailand. Strategically they may think of Cambodia

as a "wedge" state. We clearly are not thinking of Cambodia in those geo-strategic

terms. If we were, we'd have a more robust military-to-military relationship. We

don't see the need.

We see Cambodia being a neutral country as just fine. I think Cambodia sees it that

way too - they want good relations with all their neighbors.

Post: How are you finding life outside of work? Do you take it home with you?

JM: Right now, I'm changing diapers. The new child has preoccupied us. We have national

days, dinner parties, and we have to host a lot of receptions and social events.

But I don't take work home, almost never. Sometimes I talk to my wife about issues.

The real value about having a spouse is that you have someone who can tell you when

you're full of shit.


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