Friday, November 12, 2010

The Arctic, the Gulf of Mexico, Iceland’s björgunarsveitirnar (Search and Rescue) and a bit of controversy

While the weather is turning colder in Reykjavik, the tempo of activity at the Embassy has picked up with gusto.   The Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, recently made a brief stop in Iceland and shared with us and government officials his perspectives on the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico.  You would think that there is no connection, but there is:  President Obama asked Secretary Mabus to look into the economic impact of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with a view towards restoration and recovery in the region .  He told us that the economic impact on the livelihood of fishermen and the tourist industry was devastating and that we have a responsibility to ensure that any extraction of natural resources in the Arctic region be undertaken responsibly.    It is clear that the United States and Iceland need to work together to deal with this and other issues.
Secretary Mabus’s visit was followed by the Supreme Allied Commander, Admiral James G. Stavridis, who visited Iceland as a guest of the Icelandic Government.   The Admiral clearly noted that Iceland remains a very important partner of NATO.  We certainly agree with that; our commitment to our bilateral Defense Agreement with Iceland is unshakable, as is our commitment to strengthen our security cooperation.
Ambassador Arreaga with
Iceland Search and Rescue Member
This past week marked the annual fundraising campaign conducted by Iceland’s Search and Rescue Team (björgunarsveitirnar).   Before coming to Iceland, I learned that the björgunarsveitir had arrived in Haiti within the first 24 hours of the devastating earthquake and that they saved many lives.  We are also grateful to the team for evacuating many American citizens from Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake.   Like many great institutions in Iceland, the björgunarsveitir is the product not of government but of active citizens who volunteer to serve others selflessly.  It reminds me of the spirit of volunteerism in the United States.   I know that many colleagues in the Embassy (myself included) bought the traditional key chains from many björgunarsveitir volunteers selling them on street corners.   They deserve our support.
And speaking of similarities, I was invited to speak to a university class about the mid-term elections, foreign policy, and Icelandic-American relations.  I must confess that while I enjoyed meeting the students, I didn’t have an easy time of it.  I was asked many tough questions on many different subjects.  Some of my answers were met with skeptical looks and more follow up questions.  It reminded me of classes at some of our top universities in the United States.  Young people have a way of reassuring us that our future will be in good hands.
The last few days also brought us a bit of controversy produced by sensationalist press reports about our efforts to protect our employees (American and Icelandic) and our visitors to the Embassy.  It was useful  to listen to opinions on the subject which ranged from interesting to very thoughtful.    We regret that this has caused unease and concern among some citizens and diverted attention away from important issues.    Our policy is for these programs to be conducted in full compliance with applicable local laws.  The U.S. stands ready to answer any questions the Government of Iceland might ask us on this or any other matter.
 One of the benefits of the cold weather is having the opportunity to enjoy Iceland’s famous swimming pools.  There is nothing like getting into a hot pot in the middle of a cold blustery evening.  I highly recommend it.