Portugal and the United tates have a very close relationship because we think alike
THE RESIDENT reporter Gabriel Hershman interviewed the American Ambassador to Portugal, Alfred Hoffman Jr, at their Lisbon Embassy. Mr Hoffman, 71, has now been in post for four months.
Prior to his nomination, Ambassador Hoffman was founder and Chairman of the Board of WCI Communities, Inc., a Florida based company serving primary, retirement and second-home buyers in Florida, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Ambassador Hoffman served as a fighter pilot in the United States Air Force during his military career and later earned an MBA from the Harvard Business School.
Ambassador Hoffman will remain in his post until President Bush leaves office in January 2009. In this revealing interview, he tells The Resident about his administration’s foreign policy, his links with the Bush family and his hopes for trade between Portugal and America. He also explains why he believes Portugal is a vital ally in the war on terror and why freedom of expression has its limits.
The Resident: You are a very successful venture capitalist, entrepreneur and businessman. Why did you want to undertake your first diplomatic post and become American Ambassador to Portugal?
Ambassador: It was a tremendous opportunity to serve my country after finishing my formal business career. It was nice to know there was an important job that I could still do. The fact that the President asked me was a very significant honour. The idea of representing him and serving the American people was very attractive. I thought that that opportunity had ended with my military career, but, now, I’m back in the saddle and thoroughly enjoying it.
T.R: I read that you crossed the Atlantic by boat in 1984, passing through the Azores. Did you find Portugal attractive and did that influence your decision?
A: I loved the Azores and the Portuguese people are very warm and friendly. Portugal is unique because it’s part of Western Europe, yet it looks to the west as much as it looks to Europe for its identity and objectives.
Portugal and the United States have a very close relationship because we think alike. We have the same values and the same commitment to democracy and building those institutions around the world. So, it seemed like a very natural evolution for me to come over here.
T.R: There is great scepticism in Europe about your administration’s foreign policy – as you conceded in your recent speech to the American Club of Lisbon. Is this because of bad presentation, anti-Americanism or as a consequence of the Bush foreign policy?
A: Let me remind you that most of Europe was anti-Reagan, but now he is described as one of the great Presidents. Indeed, he shepherded America and the world through a very dangerous and difficult situation. Many Europeans objected to the way he approached foreign policy, but I think, in retrospect, he turned out to be right. So I don’t think George W Bush is being treated any differently from Reagan.
I don’t know why Europeans are so critical. They want to promote democracy in regions of the world, but many of them would rather let other people do it. But maybe that’s changing and I think that many countries in Europe now realise that they don’t have the luxury of standing on the sidelines and debating whether America’s actions are right or wrong. They have to participate and get involved because they face the same risks we do. Freedom itself is at stake.
I think that the attitudes in Europe will change. We all have the same goal but we might disagree on how to get there. They don’t like George W Bush because he invaded Iraq. But, do they like the fact that he got rid of Saddam Hussein? You bet they do! Do they like the fact that we’re out there destroying al-Qaeda in Afghanistan? You bet! They’re with us now in reconstructing and stabilising areas such as Bosnia and Kosovo – and they’re with us on Iraq now. So, I think the animosity or resentment is now history.
T.R: Do you speak a lot to President Bush on the phone?
T.R: But you are very close to the Bush family. Last week you were with former President George (Herbert Walker) Bush at the inauguration of President Cavaco Silva in Lisbon.
A: I’d talked to him (George Bush Senior) about coming over here and he was glad to do it because he realises the importance of the relationship between the two countries. Portugal is one of the strongest allies we have. He knew Cavaco Silva (whose period as Portuguese Prime Minister coincided with his presidency, 1989 and 1993) and so that was a happy reunion.
T.R: Can we also expect a visit from the current President Bush?
A: I don’t know about that. Wouldn’t that be nice?
T.R: Do you think criticism of the Bush foreign policy is unpatriotic in some way?
A: No, not at all.
T.R: But do you get angry about it?
A: Of course. I get passionate about it. There is a significant number of people in the United States who disagree with the Bush foreign policy but that doesn’t mean they’re unpatriotic.
I feel that it’s important that Europeans own the problem. I think that Americans are perceived to be more willing to reach out, confront an issue and take action to solve it. In the past, the European approach has been to move around an issue, see how it develops, watch it and make sure it doesn’t get any closer to home – a policy of laissez-faire. So there’s a different level of sophistication and approach. But I think we’re now coming together.
T.R: Do you think the former President Bush secretly wishes he had finished off Saddam Hussein in 1991 at the time of the first Gulf War?
A: Not at all. He had one mission. His coalition was built on the predicate that Saddam Hussein was removed from Kuwait, not that we would march to Baghdad and bring down the government. So he has no second thoughts on that at all. That was his mission and he accomplished it.
T.R: But wasn’t Bush Senior more of an internationalist and a coalition builder compared to his son? Do you think there’s a difference between father and son? Do you think they argue about policies when they get across the dinner table?
A: I’m sure they’re like any other family – they have their areas of difference and their areas of agreement. But, as ‘41’ (the 41st President, Bush Senior) says, he doesn’t give advice to his son. His son is determining foreign policy. Has his son asked his father for his opinion? I would guess he’s asked his father for his opinion on a whole host of issues – from what to give his wife for Christmas to what he should do as President. I would assume that because I know he loves and respects his father. His father has a viewpoint that is very cogent and he respects that.
T.R: Do you think it’s fair criticism to say that they had a plan for the war, but not for the peace?
A: That’s very easy to say. Everyone knew that the plan for peace would take longer than the plan for victory. So, how can you say that, just because it’s taking longer, they didn’t have a plan? I think that they’re finding it harder than they thought it would be, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have a plan. The plan is essentially the same: stabilise the institutions, raise the standard of living, educate the people and firmly establish the principles of democracy.
T.R: But they didn’t anticipate quite so much bloodshed in the aftermath of the war?
A: I think it’s fair to say nobody knew exactly how that would play out. But, democracy is not easy – it’s hard. It took us a long time in America to establish our democracy. We lost a lot more people in our civil war in America than Iraq is losing in its civil war, if you can call it that.
T.R: Do you call what’s happening in Iraq now a civil war?
A: I call it political jockeying between different political parties right now.
T.R: Do you think because Portugal ‘did the catering’, as some described it, for the Azores pre-war summit in 2003, that it is also a potential terrorist target?
A: No country is safe or immune from becoming a potential target and every country realises this. Whenever you have a high profile meeting of leaders from around the free world, then it obviously presents a risk. So, I think it was appropriate for the host country to take extra precautions last week (for Cavaco Silva’s inauguration).
T.R: On the far right and the far left, there seems to be a convergence of criticism of the Bush foreign policy. They say that Bush is too pro-Israel and that there is a Zionist neo-conservative clique influencing the President. Do you think that, if Bush was not so pro-Israel, terrorism would decrease?
A: Well, of course, many of the radical fundamentalists say that they hate America and the West because of its support for Israel. They might make that kind of statement to serve their own purposes but that doesn’t accurately describe the situation. We’re not so much pro-Israel as we are supportive of the principles for which Israel stands – freedom, democracy and the right to independence. It would be the same for any state whose very existence is being threatened and whose neighbours’ stated objective is the destruction of their country. So it is less about Israel or Jewish people and more about the principles for which they stand.
T.R: Do you see a growth in anti-Semitism dressed up as anti-Zionism?
A: I don’t see a growth, I see a continuation. It’s been around for centuries. I think that religious persecution by one faith against another is something that’s been embedded in our history and it’s something that we have to continually work to eradicate. Anti-Semitism has been around a long time and will continue to be around.
T.R: Portugal is Western Europe’s poorest country. You are a very successful businessman. Do you give advice to Portuguese leaders on how to turn the situation around? Do they ever ask you?
A: As American Ambassador to Portugal, I don’t give advice to the host country as to what they should do. But America can help in many of the things Portugal is trying to achieve in the spheres of innovation, enterprise, technical advancement, entrepreneurship and education. We’ve gone through the same set of problems that Portugal is experiencing. So the idea that we can share our experiences and resources is something I want to help promote. And we’re working out some programmes whereby we can encourage an exchange of resources. And if it helps Portugal to advance their mission – the Prime Minister’s technological plan, for example – then we’re happy to do that.
T.R: Have you had many meetings with the Portuguese Prime Minister and President?
A: I have met Prime Minister Sócrates and President Sampaio on several occasions.
T.R: Does President Bush speak to them a lot on the phone?
A: No, President Bush had a very good relationship with former Prime Minister Durão Barroso (now President of the European Union), but has not yet had the opportunity to develop a relationship with Prime Minister Sócrates. But I’m sure there will be time for that.
T.R: You have said that trade between Portugal and America needs a boost, in particular American trade to Portugal. How can this be done?
A: I would like to see increased trade. I want to ensure that American companies are given a fair crack when they make proposals for businesses in Portugal. Then it’s a case of ‘may the best company win’. Competition is very important. Trade isn’t just about goods and services. I’d like to encourage more American investment into Portugal.
T.R: I read that you once had an argument with somebody in a Florida art gallery. Is it true that you objected to an upside down painting of an American flag?
A: Yes, the painting in question was rather grotesque because it had chicken feed made out of animal parts – it was his way of protesting against our foreign policy.
T.R: So you demanded that he turn the painting the correct way round?
A: Yes. He said that it was “artistic expression” and I said, “No, it’s not artistic expression – it’s a sign of disrespect or distrust.” A flag is everybody’s symbol. If he had wanted to take his flag in his attic and turn it upside down and do whatever else he wanted, that’s his right. But the idea of his art was to display the flag in an offensive manner in a public setting. That was his whole concept of art. That’s not art, that’s just making a political statement. So he wouldn’t pull the flag down. And so I pulled it down for him. It made the news!
T.R: Have you travelled widely throughout Portugal?
A: Not widely, no. I’m extending my outreach as time goes by. I’ve only been here four months but I have travelled to Porto, Coimbra, Estremoz, Marvão and Évora, among others. I’m coming down to the Algarve soon. We’re going to vacation down there. I want to travel around Portugal as much as I can. I love the cities, pousadas, old convents, monasteries, medieval towns and the countryside.
T.R: I read that you have two adopted children …
A: I have two adopted Russian children, aged seven and three. My wife and I were feeling very grateful for what we had been able to achieve in our lives. She had had no children from her previous marriage, whereas I had three from mine, so she felt that doing something for children would be a great contribution. And what better way to save a life than to adopt a child?
T.R: I also read that they are being educated at Portuguese schools.
A: I think it’s important to be exposed to a different culture and its people. In order to do that, you have to learn the language and I wanted the children to have that opportunity. I’m also taking Portuguese language lessons almost every day. I’m not learning it as fast as my children, but I expect, at the end of three years, to be able to order from a menu in Portuguese. My only other foreign language is French, but I think that Portuguese is harder!
T.R: When you spoke at the American Club, you said your father was an Austrian immigrant.
A: My father was Jewish and he came over by himself when he was 16-years-old from Vienna in 1906. My mother was a Baptist.