America’s Philippines Blunder
Failing U.S. trade policy exacerbates Manila’s doubts of Washington’s security promises.
By GREG RUSHFORD
July 28, 2016 12:46 p.m. ET
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday discussed the “full range” of economic and security issues with Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ newly elected president. The visit comes in the wake of The Hague’s July 12 ruling that Chinese actions in the South China Sea violate Philippine rights.
Mr. Kerry’s diplomatic mission was to assure Mr. Duterte that Manila can count on Washington’s mutual-defense promises. But there are also Mr. Duterte’s doubts that the U.S. can support the Philippine trade and economy.
When Mr. Duterte was sworn in to office on June 30, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman announced a new trade policy that upends important economic growth plans in the Philippines. It threatens to wipe out an estimated $100 million annual boost to Philippine exports of travel goods such as luxury handbags, wallets and backpacks. It also complicates Philippine investment aspirations to create some 75,000 travel-goods-related jobs in the next five years.
At first glance, Mr. Froman’s announcement gives no hint of the economic controversy it has sparked. He says that President Obama wants to make “a powerful contribution to lifting people out of poverty and supporting growth in some of the poorest countries in the world, while also reducing costs to American consumers and businesses.” The policy benefits 43 least-developed beneficiary countries, such as Cambodia and Haiti, and 38 African nations. Pursuant to the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program, these countries will no longer have to pay stiff tariffs of up to 20% on handbags, wallets and other travel goods exported to the U.S.
The U.S. decision to give preferential treatment to the industry’s small players, while blindsiding the most competitive producers, is perplexing. Cambodia, for instance, holds a modest 0.4% of the U.S. market, producing mostly backpacks. Africa’s total travel-goods exports to the U.S. amount to roughly one hundredth of one percent market share. As a result, the policy gives just two countries—China and Vietnam—a combined 90% share of the $5 billion U.S. travel-goods market.
It is unlikely that preferential treatment will prompt least-developed countries to boost their exports. Even with 15 years of duty-free access to U.S. clothing markets under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, 40 African countries combined to export less than 1%, or $1 billion, of garments each year to the U.S. The Philippines alone exceeds Africa in clothing exports by more than $100 million.
Diplomats from other countries and industry giants in the U.S., such as Coach, Columbia Sportswear and Kate Spade, have written to Mr. Froman asking for an explanation. On Wednesday 14 members of U.S. Congress, including 10 from the powerful Ways and Means Committee that has jurisdiction over trade, also issued a strong letter to the U.S. trade chief. But Mr. Froman has yet to offer any economic rationale for the decision, nor is there any evidence on the public record to support it.
Developing countries with larger market shares of the travel-goods industry, such as India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand, must now reconsider their plans to expand their investments. Major U.S. players such as Coach and Michael Kors, which looked to U.S. trade officials to provide financial incentives to shift production away from China, will now put those investment plans on hold. China is thus poised to keep its 85% share of the U.S. travel-goods market.
Vietnam, as a communist country, is not eligible for the GSP preferences. But in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the U.S. agreed to give the Vietnamese—who now hold a 5% market share—the same duty-free treatment withheld from GSP-eligible countries. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif thought he had received assurances directly from President Obama last year that U.S. trade officials understood the “importance” of increasing enhanced market access for Pakistan’s GSP-covered exports. Diplomats I have spoken to chafe at the unfairness.
Viewed through the Philippine lens, the failure to connect economic cooperation with the security aspect of Obama’s pivot to Asia is glaring. Cambodia, apparently thanks to financial inducements from Beijing, has been the spoiler whenever the Philippines has sought solidarity from its partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in standing up to China in the South China Sea.
Asked repeatedly for his side of the story, Mr. Froman asserted through a spokesman that “travel goods are a product particularly well-suited to be produced in least-developed countries.” He declined to explain further.
While the broader security relationship will survive, it is worth noting that in international economic diplomacy, like in personal relationships, unnecessary smaller slights erode trust. With the Chinese watching on the sidelines and eager to buy their way out of their South China Sea mess, this is not a wise time to rub the volatile new Philippine leader the wrong way.
Mr. Rushford edits an online journal that specializes in international economic diplomacy.
by Greg Rushford
If war is too important to be left to the generals, as Georges Clemenceau famously said, it is unwise to leave important international economic decisions to technicians who fail to connect them to broader U.S. national security priorities. This story concerns one such decision that was announced by U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman on June 30. It immediately became the subject of heated controversy in Washington’s international trade circles.
It’s not difficult to see why.
Froman — characteristically — crafted his decision in excessive secrecy. An exhaustive research of the available public record turns up no economic evidence to support it. Pressed hard to defend it, Froman has been unable to point to any serious economic rationale. The intended beneficiaries, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa, are not positioned to take advantage of it.
Meanwhile, important U.S. trading partners across Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent that could benefit — from the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia to Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India —instead will be hurt. Diplomats from 14 of the affected countries just yesterday sent a strong letter to Froman bluntly expressing their “disappointment” concerning U.S. economic discrimination against them. The signatories included Brazil, Tunisia, Moldova, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India, and Paraguay. Privately, diplomats I’ve spoken with express their frustrations with the inequities of U.S. trade policies in, well, much stronger language.
The unusually strong criticisms would surprise a casual reader of Froman’s June 30 press release. On the surface, at least, it appeared to be a shining example of American generosity aimed at helping the world’s least-developed countries. The Obama White House, declared Froman, wanted to make “a powerful contribution to lifting people out of poverty and supporting growth in some of the poorest countries in the world, while also reducing costs to American consumers and businesses.”
But will it? More than two weeks of weeks of intensive independent research — including repeated efforts to obtain Froman’s side of the story — suggests otherwise.
Let’s take it from the top:
The intended beneficiaries are African countries like Ethiopia, Rwanda, Ghana, Lesotho and Kenya, and also impoverished Cambodia and Haiti. They will be given preferential access to the $5 billion U.S. market for travel goods: think suitcases, handbags, wallets, and backpacks. No longer will their exports of 28 lines of handbags and such face U.S. tariffs that range from 4.5 percent to a stiff 20 percent. (Last year, Congress authorized adding travel goods to developing countries eligible to participate in the Generalized System of Preferences program, and for the 40 member countries of the African Growth and Opportunity Act.)
The entire American travel goods industry was blindsided. To understate the matter, the executives who actually make the investment decisions were not thrilled that federal officials with scant business experience would think that they knew more than the CEOs about where their future travel-goods investments should be directed. Outraged, the American Apparel & Footwear Association, the Outdoor Industry Association, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, and the Travel Goods Association, have been demanding that Froman explain his decision, so far without success.
Comparing the June 30 Froman press release with the realities of the $5 billion U.S. travel-goods market sheds light on the emotions the U.S. trade negotiator has unleashed.
First, Froman’s determination does not appear to make anything close to a truly “powerful contribution to lifting people out of poverty,” and does not seem to be supported. Most of the intended beneficiaries, alas, have precious few travel goods to export, so the US preferences won’t help them much.
At least Cambodia, with 0.4 percent of the US market, does have a small-but-vibrant travel-goods industry, apparently mainly involving backpacks, that stands to benefit. So the Cambodians are poised to be winners. Still, Cambodia’s ambassador to the United States, Chum Bunrong, signed the July 18 letter from 14 countries expressing concerns about the discriminatory treatment. Cambodia had sought the GSP preferences, but had not lobbied to exclude other deserving countries.
Meanwhile, the Africans, the major intended beneficiaries, simply aren’t important players in the travel-goods industry. They aren’t positioned to become such anytime in the foreseeable future. All of Africa’s travel-goods exports to the United States amount to a roughly one hundredth of one percent market share.
There is (happily) some foreign investor interest in developing the African travel-goods industry, involving as much Chinese as U.S. and European multinationals. But (unhappily) not much. Stiff U.S. tariffs aren’t the main problems — clogged ports, bad roads, red tape, and too many other economic inefficiencies to list in one line are far more important obstacles to viable African trade expansion.
The Africans also have been slow to take advantage of the generous trade-facilitation financial assistance pursuant to the World Trade Organization’s so-called Bali Package aimed at smoothing the flow of goods across presently difficult borders. The WTO inked its trade-facilitation deal when ministers met on the famous Indonesian resort island in December 2013. To date, only eleven African WTO members have ratified it. One struggles to find a sense of economic urgency.
Moreover, making backpacks, for instance, with all their zippers and complex components, is far more difficult than making T-shirts. Yet even with 15 years of duty-free access to the U.S. clothing market under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, all of Africa’s apparel exports to the U.S. still only amount to about $1 billion annually. That’s less than one percent of the U.S. clothing market.
The Philippines, one of the smaller exporters of garments to the United States, exports about $1.1 billion worth of clothing to the U.S. annually. That’s roughly $100 million more than the yearly garment exports from all of the Africa countries combined. And Bangladesh’s US clothing exports are more than five times Africa’s total.
The Africans get duty-free treatment for their garment exports pursuant to the African Growth and Opportunity Act. But the Philippines, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and the rest of the world’s rag trade face stiff U.S. clothing tariffs. Those tariffs mainly hover in the 12- 16 percent range, but can shoot sharply higher. The unavoidable economic bottom line: African countries that struggle just to make shirts and trousers, even with the existing AGOA duty-free preferences, are not poised to attract major investments in travel goods.
Consider further the June 30 Froman press release’s boast of “reducing costs” for American consumers and businesses by slashing tariffs on travel goods for Africa. Driving up costs by upending multi-million dollar investment plans of major players in the industry — like Coach, Michael Kors, Under Armour, Columbia Sportswear, and Kate Spade — is more like it.
That’s because such stalwarts of the American travel-goods industry have been planning to enhance their investments in the countries which are poised to take advantage of them, mainly the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India. The U.S. industry leaders have been aiming to shift production to such developing countries away from China, which holds an estimated 85 percent of the U.S. market. But now, that production will mostly remain in China — ironically making the Chinese the biggest winners of the U.S. trade representative’s decision.
Vietnam holds another 5 percent of the American travel-goods market. As a communist country, the Vietnamese are not eligible to participate in the American GSP preference program. But Froman has agreed in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal to give Vietnam the same duty-free treatment for the same 28 tariff lines of travel goods. Put another way, U.S. trade policy has been shaped to carve out at least 90 percent of the American travel-goods market to two communist countries: China and Vietnam.
Meanwhile, the losers in Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent will just twist in the proverbial wind. Froman’s June 30 announcement did not flat-out deny such developing countries the GSP duty-free preferences. Rather, the U.S. trade chief has said he is merely “deferring” their petitions into an indefinite future before deciding whether they deserve them. The government-induced market uncertainty, of course, is a nightmare scenario for any investor whose plans are thrown into limbo.
Do the math: Froman and President Obama will leave their offices in six months. It takes perhaps 18 months after an investment decision is made to get a travel-goods factory up-and-running. So assuming that such an investment plan were to be made this week, we’re looking at early 2018 before, say, a travel-goods operation would be established in, say, Rwanda. Then it would take another several years before export data would be generated. U.S. trade officials might be able, sometime after the 2020 presidential election, to start a lengthy review process. Imagine how the CEO of a major U.S. multinational would feel about that.
And imagine how poor women in places like the Philippines — a country of 100 million people, some 25 million of whom are suffering in poverty — might feel about the June 30 U.S. trade action that put equally deserving African workers’ interests ahead of theirs, should someone ask their opinions. (To their credit, the Africans did not ask that workers in other poor countries be excluded from the US travel-goods decision.)
Ironically, on June 30, as Froman was releasing his press release in Washington, the Philippines was swearing in a new president. Rodrigo Duterte has not been shy about the fact that over the years he has developed a certain attitude toward perceived American high-handedness.
President Duterte comes from the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. He and some of his key economic and security advisors have seen this sort of discriminatory behavior from Washington before. For years, Washington officials have refused to consider slashing high U.S. tariffs that would boost the economic prospects of (mostly Muslim) workers in Mindanao’s canned tuna industry. This is another example of how U.S. economic policies can be disconnected from important diplomatic priorities to win trust in the Islamic world.
And more recently, U.S. trade chief Froman has even turned a deaf ear on Philippine requests that garment workers in typhoon-ravaged areas be given duty-free treatment for their clothing exports to the United States. While this might be a largely symbolic gesture in the grand scheme of things, America would be highly praised for showing such generosity. Instead, on the very day he was sworn into office, President Duterte was greeted by still another example of American ungenerous economic thinking.
The Philippine travel-goods industry had been looking to create an additional $100 million in annual exports to the United States — that’s $500 million in five years, involving some 75,000 new jobs. Now U.S. Trade Representative Froman has put those aspirations on indefinite hold.
The Philippines is also one of America’s closest treaty allies, and sits astride sea lanes in the South China Sea that are of vital importance to global commerce. But the Chinese have an agenda that would put Beijing in charge of Philippine waters.
On July 12, Beijing’s claims to economic domination in the South China Sea were branded illegal by a well-crafted international tribunal’s ruling in The Hague. But while seriously embarrassed, the Chinese have other cards to play. They are infamous for their special brand of economic diplomacy (suitcases full of money).
China’s top leaders have made it no secret that they will try to offer financial inducements to the new Duterte administration. Meanwhile, the US travel-goods announcement has given Filipinos another reason to doubt America’s trustworthiness as an economic partner. Sometimes in international economic diplomacy, as in personal life, it’s the smaller slights that do the most to fray relationships.
Pakistan, although hardly a trusted ally like the Philippines, is nevertheless another country that is important in the U.S. national security equation. Now the Pakistanis must wonder how truthful President Obama was to their prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, when Sharif visited the White House last year.
On October 22, 2015, Sharif and Obama issued a joint statement that took note of the “importance” of increased “market access’ for Pakistan in the GSP preferences program. “President Obama indicated that the United States will help Pakistan create conditions for accelerated trade and investment-driven growth,” the statement noted. Now, Froman’s June 30 decision to defer Pakistani hopes for duty-free treatment regarding travel goods raises more questions about American sincerity.
Not everyone is unhappy with the U.S. trade representative. Stephen Lande, the president of a respected Washington consulting firm, Manchester Trade, has had many years of experience with Africa. “I am happy” that Froman decided to give African countries preferences on travel goods, Lande says. “Because that’s what AGOA is all about.”
Lande says that he hopes that Froman’s decision will encourage CEOs in the travel-goods industry to put more money into Africa. Countries in Southeast Asia like the Philippines could acquire the same GSP benefits by joining an expanded TPP trade pact, Lande adds.
Froman, meanwhile, is hunkered down. He refused to allow the U.S. trade officials who worked on the case to explain an economic rationale for his June 30 announcement. He wouldn’t even say which office handled the paperwork (apparently the economic-policy shop run by Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Edward Gresser). The organization chart at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative — who reports to whom, and on what — is considered classified information.
When I pressed, Froman finally asserted through a spokesman, Trevor Kincaid, that “travel goods are a product particularly well-suited to be produced in least-developed countries.”
Will that be the last word? Stay tuned.
By Greg Rushford
Monday, May 23, Washington, D.C. —Air Force One touched down yesterday evening in Hanoi. The White House and influential Washington think-tank scholars are spinning President Barack Obama’s three-day Vietnam visit as a “legacy” moment, validating the president’s “pivot” to Asia. Expect much warm talk of how America is forging ever-closer economic- and security ties with a modernizing Vietnam. Expect the usual heartwarming television images of happy people —including peasants toiling in lush rice fields, wearing their iconic conical hats.
Don’t expect any admissions from Vietnamese Communist leaders of the suffering they continue to inflict upon some of their country’s best citizens. As former prisoner of conscience Cu Huy Ha Vu rightly notes, today’s Vietnam is “a kleptocracy.” Intrepid pro-democracy advocates stand in the way.
Courageous men like Dang Xuan Dieu, Ho Duc Hoa, and Tran Vu Anh Binh, three of Vietnam’s 100-plus current political prisoners. They languish behind bars, while some Washington insiders have averted their eyes.
Some of those insiders are Southeast Asian analysts who work inside the gleaming $100 million headquarters of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, just a few minutes from the White House — and who have undisclosed sidelines as business consultants. They know that to speak forthrightly on Vietnam’s shameful human rights record would threaten their easy access to senior communist officials. Their corporate benefactors who depend upon that political access to win lucrative business contracts in Vietnam could lose the big bucks.
Moreover, Vietnam’s ambassador to the United States has a team of $30,000-a-month Washington lobbyists on his payroll. Their assignment is basically not to let awkward questions about political prisoners interfere with enhanced U.S.-Vietnamese commercial- and security ties, especially the sale of lethal weapons to fend off Chinese maritime intimidation.
One wonders what Dieu, Hoa, and Binh, locked away in their cells, would have to say — if they were free to speak.
Dieu, a devout Catholic citizen journalist, has been imprisoned since 2011. He committed the “crime” of exercising free speech. Dieu has been living “in hell” — beaten, humiliated, and treated like a “slave” for refusing to wear a uniform with the word “criminal” — his brother has told Radio Free Asia. Hoa, also a blogger whose crime was his free speech, has been incarcerated since 2011. Binh, a songwriter, lost his liberty in 2012. His crime was writing music that offended the Communist Party. While Binh’s term is scheduled to end next year, Dieu and Hoa could languish behind bars until 2024.
All three men are associated with the Viet Tan, a U.S.-based political party that is highly effective in using the social media to advocate democratic freedoms of speech and assembly. The Viet Tan reaches a wide audience, both inside Vietnam and in the Vietnamese diaspora. For its skilled high-tech advocacy, the Hanoi’s feared Ministry of Public Security brands Viet Tan as a “terrorist” organization.
Binh, Hoa and Dieu were amongst a group of 17 political prisoners who have been represented by Stanford law professor Allen Weiner, a former high-powered U.S. State Department official. Weiner won a United Nations panel determination that his clients — all either Viet Tan members, supporters or friends — had been unjustly imprisoned. While 14 of Weiner’s clients have been released, that’s unfortunately not quite a happy ending. “Some of those who have been released, however, continue to suffer severe harassment and intimidation at the hands of the Vietnamese security services,” Weiner reports. “They continue to pay a heavy price.”
That’s the sort of glaring injustice that no credible analyst of today’s Vietnam would want to downplay. Meet CSIS Asia analyst Murray Hiebert — a man who doesn’t deny that Vietnam has human rights issues, yet is careful never to use clear language that would anger senior Vietnamese officials.
Nine months ago, I brought Allen Weiner’s brave clients to Hiebert’s attention, asking if perhaps this would be an opportunity to highlight the injustice by holding a public forum. The CSIS analyst brushed off the inquiry — at the time I had not realized that CSIS has never held such an event. He also declined to say whether he agreed with Hanoi’s characterization of the Viet Tan as a “terrorist” organization.
(The White House and State Department are better informed than CSIS. Not only do they respect the Viet Tan for its peaceable advocacy, but Obama’s national security officials have maintained close ties with the Viet Tan leadership. Radio Free Asia reported that on May 17 representatives of the Viet Tan, along with other respected Vietnamese pro-democracy advocates including Boat People SOS and Vietnam for Progress, were briefed on Obama’s upcoming Vietnam trip in the White House on May 17.)
A few weeks ago, Hiebert once again did not respond to a request to be interviewed on the imprisoned Viet Tan supporters. I then tried to register for a May 17 press briefing that Hiebert and two other CSIS scholars held on the Obama visit. I had hoped to ask about Binh, Hoa and Dieu. But CSIS spokesman Andrew Schwartz — who also had not responded to a recent e-mail inquiry — denied me admission, asserting that the event was “oversubscribed.”
While the briefing room was indeed rather crowded, even full, according to people who were present, Schwartz found room for Vietnam Television. VTV is a Hanoi-controlled media tool that the Communist Party finds useful for spreading the party line. These days, VTV’s best “scoop” has been in warning Vietnamese independent journalists — and specifically the Viet Tan — to stay away from linking corrupt communist officials to a Taiwanese steel mill that somehow obtained environmental clearance to discharge toxic wastes into the sea, which has resulted in a massive fish kill.
(At the May 17 CSIS briefing, a Television Vietnam correspondent asked if the next American president would continue Obama’s “pivot” to Asia — which at least drew laughter. It is perhaps also worth noting that while “journalists” from Vietnam Television are welcome to peddle their propaganda in the United States, authorities in Hanoi continue to jam Radio Free Asia’s Vietnamese language service. And while the BBC is free to broadcast its English-language programs in Vietnam, the BBC’s celebrated Vietnamese Language Service frequently has run into problems.)
As it turns out, CSIS has a history of making life uncomfortable for guests at the think tank’s public events who might pose awkward questions. On May 24, 2015, former political prisoner Ha Vu angered the Vietnamese ambassador to the U.S., Pham Quang Vinh, by asking how Vietnam justified persecuting its political prisoners. Vinh, visibly upset, retorted that Vietnam has no political prisoners — which was pretty rich, considering that at that moment, the ambassador was busy trying to avoid making eye contact with one of Vietnam’s most famous political prisoners.
Moreover, CSIS analyst Hiebert, who chaired the panel, did not challenge the ambassador’s absurd claim. (The CSIS event discussed a study on U.S.-Vietnamese relations that Hiebert had co-authored; that study had not disclosed that the Vietnamese government had secretly financed it, Hiebert subsequently admitted to me.
And last July, Hiebert went to extraordinary lengths to accommodate Vietnamese security officials when Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong spoke at CSIS. Hiebert summoned a guard, escorting Dr. Binh Nguyen, a prominent Vietnamese-American physician, from the premises. Hiebert apologized to Binh, who had been invited, but said that the communist security officials insisted that she be ejected (for details see: How Hanoi Buys Influence in Washington, D.C., www.rushfordreport.com).
Turns out that there are other reasons to doubt Hiebert’s independence. While his official CSIS bio does not disclose it, Hiebert is also a senior advisor to a prominent business consultancy, the Bower Group Asia.
Hiebert’s boss at CSIS, Ernie Bower, runs the Bower Group Asia. “Our clients include the world’s best global enterprises,” the BGA website proclaims. “We understand the nexus between politics and economics.” Bower has more than 60 employees in his Washington, D.C. headquarters and in 21 Asian countries (including Vietnam). Another CSIS analyst, Chris Johnson, is a BGA managing director for China. Like Hiebert, Johnson does not disclose his business affiliations on his CSIS website.
Bower, who formerly chaired the CSIS Southeast Studies chair, responded angrily last year when I asked him which was his real day job: CSIS or his business consultancy. He said he was “saddened” that I had suggested he appeared to have conflicts of interest. But perhaps aware that others might also wonder, Bower now identifies himself on the CSIS website as a “non-resident” advisor. The chair remains vacant. CSIS spokesman Schwartz and John Hamre, the think tank’s CEO and one of Washington’s most acclaimed fundraisers, have not responded to persistent inquiries to explain the apparent conflicts.
Here’s how the conflict works:
At CSIS Hiebert has advocated the TPP trade deal. The Bower Group is actively seeking TPP business.
Hiebert has strongly contended that the U.S. lethal arms embargo on Vietnam has outlived its usefulness, and should be lifted. Lockheed, which wants to sell Hanoi its P-3 Orion and C-130 Hercules surveillance planes, has a seat on Hiebert’s CSIS board. So does Boeing, which has been peddling its P-8 Poseidon military surveillance aircraft in Hanoi. Imagine how the giant defense contractors would feel if the money they dole out to CSIS would be used to shine a spotlight on issues involving corruption and human-rights abuses in Vietnam.
Coca-Cola, a Bower Group client, got into Laos a few years ago, thanks to Ernie Bower’s understanding of “the nexus” between business and politics. Coke also has a seat on the CSIS Southeast Asia board.
Chevron, another major CSIS benefactor, also has a representative on CSIS’s Southeast Asia board. Hiebert authored a November 2014 column for the Wall Street Journal defending Chevron in bitter litigation the oil giant had in Indonesia. In his column, Hiebert identified himself only as a CSIS analyst. Then Ernie Bower got busy on the Bower Group’s Facebook page, touting the Journal piece: “BGA’s Murray Hiebert provides much-needed analysis of the court case against Chevron in Indonesia” in the Wall Street Journal. [Full disclosure: I have been an occasional contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s Asian edition for more than two decades.]
In recent months, Hiebert has been quoted widely by major news outlets including CNN, Reuters, the Associated Press, Forbes, Politico, the Financial Times, the Washington Times, and the Voice of America — always only identified as a CSIS analyst. Readers would not know that Hiebert also works for a business consultancy. They would not know that corporations that fund Hiebert’s CSIS programs have serious financial interests at stake. One wire-service report that quoted Hiebert about Vietnam’s new top leadership was picked up by the New York Times in April. This gave Ernie Bower another opportunity to twitter to his clients about how “BGA Senior Advisor Murray Hiebert” had made the pages of the Times.
And earlier today, CNN quoted Hiebert’s approving views of enhanced U.S. weapons sales to Vietnam, identifying him only as a CSIS scholar. Viewers were not aware that this “scholar” is funded at CSIS by major U.S. defense contractors, and has taken money from the Vietnamese government for co-authoring a study that called for the lifting of the U.S. weapons embargo to that country. Nor would viewers know that Hiebert also works for the Bower Group, which also touts its interest in facilitating arms deals.
A little digging illustrates how Bower mixes his CSIS affiliations with business. In 2014, for example, Bower opened some important doors in Washington to a Manila wheeler-dealer named Antonio “Tony Boy” Cojuangco. Tony Boy also sits on CSIS’s Southeast Asia board. Bower brought him to town as the head of an “eminent persons” group — such flattery can go a long way in certain Asian circles.
CSIS arranged appointments for the Filipino eminences in the White House, the Export-Import Bank, on Capitol Hill and of course at CSIS headquarters, where they had a scheduled appointment with the think tank’s president, John Hamre. That was during the day. That night, the Bower Group hosted a lavish dinner for Tony Boy and his associates at the posh Jefferson Hotel. Bower, Hiebert, Chris Johnson, and other CSIS/Bower Group operatives were present. To judge from photos I’ve seen, it was a good night all around, lubricated by bottles of Pomerol. (Hamre has not responded to repeated requests to comment. On the CSIS website, the CSIS head asserts that some unnamed journalists who have questioned CSIS ethical practices have ignored evidence to the contrary that he has provided.)
Agents of Influence
Speaking of influence peddling, if one looks closely, the Washington lobbyists on that $30,000-a-month retainer from Vietnamese Ambassador Vinh unwittingly illustrate how the official spin surrounding the Obama visit to Vietnam doesn’t tell the whole story.
The most recent foreign agent’s disclosure form that the Podesta Group has filed with the U.S. Department of Justice lists some of what the firm did to earn its $180,000 for the last six months of 2015. One is left wondering exactly what the lobbyists did to earn their keep.
The lobbyists disclosed only seven meetings, mostly with congressional aides. The only elected representative who met with Podesta representatives was Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican who is retiring from Congress at the end of this year.
Rep. Salmon had already met with Vietnamese Amb. Vinh earlier in the year and had been to Vietnam in May. The congressman already had supported an enhanced U.S.-Vietnam trade relationship.
Do the math: $180,000 for seven meetings. That’s about $25,000 a meeting, throwing in about 50 e-mails and five phone calls that the Podesta lobbying form mentions. David Adams, the Podesta lobbyist who has been working to facilitate the Obama visit to Vietnam this week, is a former close aide to Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state. Asked what he had really done to each the money, Adams declined to comment.
This week, when the television screens show images of happy Vietnamese peasants with their conical hats, toiling in their rice paddies, think of David Adams. The average Vietnamese citizen would have to work 13 years to earn enough money to pay for just one $25,000 Podesta Group meeting with congressional aides.
From the days of French colonialism to the present Communist kleptocracy, the Vietnamese central government has always stolen from its poorest people.
Amb. Vinh’s lobbyist Adams proudly styles himself as a part-time “gentleman farmer” in Virginia’s wine country. Wonder what those Vietnamese peasants would say, if they knew that their stooped labor is helping subsidize such a lifestyle?
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Hanoi this Thursday for a two-day visit. Expect much talk of how the United States and Vietnam have been developing closer security and economic ties — and how Vietnam’s praiseworthy “progress” in improving its human-rights record is making this possible. Hopefully, Vietnam’s feared Ministry of Public Security will be on better behavior this week than back in May. Then, Kerry’s top human-rights advisor, Tom Malinowski, held what he characterized as “productive” meetings in Hanoi with senior Vietnamese officials. On May 11, two days after Malinowski’s visit, thugs wielding metal pipes bloodied a courageous Vietnamese political dissident named Anh Chi. Malinowski deplored the incident, while still insisting that Vietnam has been making commendable “progress” on human rights.
Kerry’s Aug. 6-8 trip comes on the heels of a successful visit to Washington last month by Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the Communist Party. Trong had a “productive” meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on July 7, after which the two leaders issued a joint “vision” statement that said each country recognized the importance of protecting human rights. The next day, Trong made a major speech at an influential U.S. think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (better known by its acronym, CSIS). “Protecting and promoting human rights is the main objective of our development,” Trong declared. “We want to ensure, promote and protect the rights of all people in Vietnam.”
Well, maybe not all. Once again, a familiar pattern emerged: Shortly before Trong’s speech before a CSIS audience of mainly well-connected Washington insiders, there was another ugly incident behind the scenes. The incident illustrates what’s really going on when American and Vietnamese officials praise Vietnam’s “demonstrable” human-rights progress. Moreover, the CSIS embarrassment offers a glimpse into how the Communist Party has been quietly buying influence to advance its foreign policy agenda in Washington — a sophisticated lobby campaign that appears to be working. Hanoi, it appears, has learned that in Washington, money talks.
But that’s getting ahead of this story, which begins with Trong’s July 8 historic speech — the first-ever such appearance for a senior Communist Party leader — at CSIS’ gleaming modern headquarters a few blocks from the White House. As the secretary general was preparing to speak about his deep interest in protecting human rights, Vietnamese security officials were quietly demonstrating otherwise, even on American soil. It seems that Hanoi’s intelligence operatives had a file on one of the invited CSIS guests — like Anh Chi, another enemy of the state.
Persona Non Grata
When Dr. Binh T. Nguyen, a prominent Vietnamese-born physician (and an American citizen) showed up to hear the secretary general’s speech, she was informed that she was persona non grata.
Binh, an invited guest, cleared CSIS security at the entrance, as she had on several previous occasions. But when she went upstairs to join the audience, a CSIS senior fellow was waiting. Murray Hiebert, accompanied by a CSIS security guard, insisted that Binh leave the premises. An obviously uncomfortable Hiebert explained that he was so sorry, but the communist security operatives simply would not permit Binh to hear Trong’s speech. The apologetic Hiebert told Dr. Binh that he had tried his best to reason with the Vietnamese security officials, but to no avail. They were not interested in negotiating, and were adamant that Binh would not be allowed to hear Trong’s speech, Hiebert related.
Hiebert apologized sincerely to Binh, admitting that it was wrong for CSIS to have given into the pressure. Ejecting her had ruined the event for him, Hiebert told the doctor. I spoke with Binh twice, for nearly an hour, going over the facts carefully, in great detail. Subsequently I was able to substantiate that the doctor’s account was the same as how Hiebert explained the incident to one of his colleagues at CSIS, Benjamin Contreras, the program director for CSIS’ Southeast Studies section.
Dr. Binh told me that Hiebert was characteristically polite. Still, it was intimidating that he had a guard with him to make sure she left the premises, the doctor added. Binh said she does not seek publicity, and looked forward to being invited to future CSIS events. She asked not to be quoted directly in this article.
The Canadian-born Hiebert, 66, is a soft-spoken former journalist with the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Wall Street Journal. He is perhaps the last person one would expect would get caught up in a dubious human-rights episode. In 1999, Hiebert, then the Review’s Kuala Lumpur bureau chief, was jailed for writing an article that raised disturbing questions about the integrity of Malaysian courts. Even though his report was accurate, Hiebert was convicted of “scandalizing” the judiciary, and spent a month in a Malaysian jail.
At CSIS, Hiebert has spoken out against human rights practices in Thailand and Malaysia. Hiebert notes that he approved several recent blogs written for CSIS by respected Vietnam watchers that have been critical of Vietnamese human-rights practices, including curbs on the media. But at the same time, Hiebert seems to have become careful not to cause too much offense to authorities in Hanoi. He co-authored a 2014 study, for example, that treated Vietnam’s human-rights practices rather gently, while not being entirely forthcoming about the fact that the Vietnamese government had paid for it (more on that later in this article).
CSIS Gives Its Side of the Story
Hiebert declined to be interviewed, but he did answer some (but far from all) questions that were submitted in writing — until a CSIS public-relations spokesman sent me an e-mail saying that he had advised Hiebert to cut off the communications.
Hiebert’s written responses did not directly dispute Dr. Binh’s account about what happened. But he attempted to minimize the incident, not mentioning the main human-rights point: how he had been pressured by the Vietnamese security officials to escort Binh from the building, and that did so, knowing that it was wrong for CSIS to give into such pressure.
The CSIS spokesman, H. Andrew Schwartz, first claimed that “Murray’s side of the story is quite different from what you have recounted.” But Schwartz had no further response after being informed that Dr. Binh’s account was, word-for-word, the same as Hiebert had related to his CSIS colleague, Benjamin Contreras. (Schwartz was formerly a spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, known for its hard-nosed dealings with inquiring reporters. Before that, Schwartz was a producer for Fox News.)
While acknowledging that Dr. Binh had indeed been an invited guest, Hiebert seemed to brush off the incident as a sort-of bureaucratic snafu. “No one makes decisions about who attends events at CSIS but CSIS,” Hiebert wrote. “Dr. Binh was not on the initial RSVP list…CSIS made a mistake by allowing her to RSVP late to the event when the registration process had already been closed.” But Binh should have been allowed to attend, Hiebert agreed.
Enemies of the State
A public-record search shows why the Communist Party would have a file on Binh. She is chief of the thoracic radiology section at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and has received awards for her professional accomplishments. Being affiliated with one of the most respected medical institutions in the world, of course, wouldn’t send up any red flags in Hanoi. But what Binh does away from the office definitely would.
On her private time, Binh has worked on human rights issues in Asia with high-profile organizations including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. She has testified before the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, among other respected panels. She serves on the Virginia Asian Advisory Board, which advises the governor “on ways to improve economic and cultural links between the Commonwealth and Asian nations, with a focus on the areas of commerce and trade.”
And on July 1, Binh joined several other respected human-rights champions who were invited to the White House. There, Binh and her colleagues gave advice to the National Security Council on how President Obama might want to handle human rights when Secretary General Trong came to the Oval Office on July 7.
Also, during the Obama-Trong White House meeting, Binh may well have been photographed by communist officials across Pennsylvania Avenue in Lafayette Park, where she joined several hundred Vietnamese-Americans who peaceably protested Vietnam’s lack of democracy.
Vietnam’s ambassador to the United States, Pham Quang Vinh, did not respond to an e-mail asking if he would care to join Hiebert by apologizing to Dr. Binh. It didn’t take much digging to understand why.
On May 24, Amb. Vinh had appeared on a CSIS panel moderated by Hiebert. Vinh was visibly upset when he was questioned by a former political prisoner, Cu Huy Ha Vu. Ha Vu made a short statement criticizing Vietnam’s human rights record, asking when Vietnam would stop its practice of incarcerating citizens whose only crimes were to criticize the Communist Party. The angry diplomat retorted that Vietnam has no political prisoners — avoiding eye contact with Vu. (Asserting that Vietnam has no political prisoners is like claiming that there is no cheese in Paris.)
Vu told me that he was not invited to the July 8 CSIS event with General Secretary Trong. Hiebert declined to explain, but it’s easy to surmise that the Communist Party chief had made it clear he would brook no awkward questions.
Vu is no ordinary political prisoner. He is one of Vietnam’s most prominent pro-democracy advocates today — especially because of his family’s elite revolutionary background. Vu’s father, the poet Cu Huy Can, was close to Ho Chi Minh during the Vietnam War, and served in Vietnam’s first national assembly. The well-educated Vu also earned his doctorate in law from the University of Paris.
Vu became an enemy of the state when he started challenging senior Communist Party officials for their lack of accountability. He even filed lawsuits against Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on several occasions in 2009 and 2010, charging Dung with complicity in abuses of the environment, and for banning Vietnamese citizens from pressing complaints against the national government. Vu was imprisoned after being convicted in a 2011 show trial. His “crimes” included criticizing the Communist Party in interviews with the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.
Vu was released from prison last year, and exiled to the United States, where he continues to advocate peaceably for the Communist Party to enact democratic reforms. While he was not on the invitation list to hear Secretary General Trong proclaim his deep interest in protecting human rights at CSIS’s July 8 event, Vu has been welcomed at the White House.
On July 1, Vu joined Dr. Binh and several other pro-democracy advocates who were invited to brief the National Security Council ahead of Trong’s visit. Imagine what Vietnamese intelligence officers thought, if they spotted press accounts of that White House meeting.
Also present in the White House that day were two U.S.-based leaders of the Viet Tan, Angelina Huynh and Hoang Tu Duy. Viet Tan — shorthand for the Vietnam Reform Party — is particularly feared in Hanoi because of its skills in using social media to reach its followers inside Vietnam. The organization is also known for its peaceable advocacy of democracy for Vietnam. The Communist Party considers the Viet Tan to be a “terrorist” organization. The Vietnamese government has admitted that it has imprisoned citizen journalist/bloggers for the “crime” of being associated with the group.
A Lobby Plan Comes Together
While the U.S. government respects the Viet Tan’s legitimacy, Hiebert ducked the issue. Asked repeatedly whether he agreed with Hanoi that the Viet Tan is a terrorist group, Hiebert did not respond. That’s about when CSIS spokesman Andrew Schwartz cut off the communications, asserting that “Hiebert has answered all of your questions.”
Why would a respected CSIS political analyst avoid direct questions concerning Vietnam’s human rights record? The suspicion arises that it has something to do with money.
Hanoi has been paying $30,000-a-month to the Podesta Group, a high-powered lobby firm with close ties to major U.S. political figures. David Adams, who has been working on Vietnam’s behalf for the Podesta Group, was Hillary Clinton’s chief of legislative affairs when she served as President Obama’s first secretary of state.
Adams would be valuable to Hanoi because he has an insider’s knowledge to sell: he knows firsthand how U.S. officials at the State Department and the Pentagon tend to think about Vietnamese issues.
For instance, when Adams was with Clinton on Foggy Bottom, David Shear was the U.S. ambassador to Hanoi. Shear is now an assistant secretary of Defense, where he is helping shape U.S. military policies regarding Asia — including the issue of how to respond to Vietnam’s request for U.S. sales of lethal weapons that Hanoi wants to help fend off Chinese intimidation in the South China Sea. (Shear, when he was the U.S. ambassador, routinely assured Vietnamese-American audiences that before Vietnam would be allowed to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, Hanoi must make “demonstrable progress” on human rights. He never explained what that might mean.
The Podesta Group and Amb. Vinh declined comment on the Vietnamese foreign policy agenda they have been advancing. But it doesn’t take much digging to discover the three top priorities: Hanoi wants the U.S. arms embargo lifted. The Vietnamese also want to convince Obama and Congress that they have indeed been making enough “demonstrable progress” on human rights to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. And they have been lobbying for Obama to visit Vietnam, hopefully by the end of 2015.
Is it a coincidence that Hanoi’s agenda is generally shared by CSIS? The Podesta Group’s website boasts of its ability to help controversial clients boost their credibility. “We recruit allies from left-and right-leaning think tanks…to validate our clients’ messages and build an echo chamber of support,” Podesta boasts. It’s far from an unusual practice in today’s Washington lobbying scene.
Hiebert insists that he is unaware that the Podesta Group has been lobbying for the Vietnamese government. But Hiebert knew enough to invite someone from the Podesta Group to hear Trong speak on July 8; he says that CSIS does not disclose its invitation list.
(Hidden) Money Talks
Nor is CSIS completely transparent about where it gets its financing. CSIS is one of 150-plus think tanks around the world that are rated by an impressive non-profit named Transpacific on their willingness to disclose — or not — where they get their money. The well-regarded Transparify, based in Tibilisi, Georgia, is part of the Open Society Foundations that were founded by George Soros. In 2014, Transparify gave CSIS poor marks, awarding it One Star, near the opaque bottom of a Five-Star transparency scale. This year, CSIS earned Three Stars from Transparify — neither fully opaque nor transparent, but at least moving in the right direction.
The CSIS website now lists donors on a general range. It discloses that the Vietnamese government gave CSIS somewhere between $50,000 and $500,000 in 2014. But the site does not disclose what the money was intended for.
Hiebert co-authored a major 2014 CSIS study of U.S.-Vietnamese relations: “A New Era in U.S.-Vietnam Relations. So who might have paid for that?
Readers couldn’t tell from the study’s acknowledgments. “We would like to acknowledge the thoughtful and generous support and counsel received from the Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, and the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.” But who, exactly, paid for it?
Hiebert — after being asked twice — confessed that the Vietnamese government paid for the study. He said that there was no U.S. government funding for that study.
CSIS spokesman Andrew Schwartz insisted that it is “mean-spirited” to suggest that anyone who read the acknowledgment would not have known that it was “clearly” the Vietnamese who paid for A New Era. “[I]f you decide to write that CSIS didn’t acknowledge the support of the government of Vietnam, you will be in error,” Schwartz declared. CSIS always discloses the sources of funding for its studies, the CSIS media analyst declared.
Mostly always, might be more apt. A recent CSIS study focusing on human rights in countries like Russia, Venezuela and Ethiopia was forthright about where the money came from: “This report is made possible by the generous support of the Oak Foundation” it discloses. And still another CSIS study on U.S.-Japan relations discloses that the money came from Japan’s Sasakawa Peace Foundation. The contrast with the misleading acknowledgment to Hiebert’s New Era study is about as clear as it gets.
In that study Hiebert criticizes U.S. congressional human-rights champions for being an ineffectual name-and-shame crowd. He further criticized many Vietnamese-American pro-democracy advocates for being out of touch with realities in today’s Vietnam.
But when it came to Vietnam’s human-rights record, Hiebert seemed to pull his punches. There is no mention of Hanoi’s non-compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Vietnam is a signatory to. There is no mention of the provisions of Vietnam’s penal code that criminalize free speech and assembly — and criticizing the Communist Party. Instead, the study basically acknowledges the obvious: that human rights is the most difficult issue between the U.S. and Vietnamese governments. Instead of suggesting that Vietnam could help improve its credibility by modernizing its offensive penal code, Hiebert merely recommended more meetings between the U.S. government and Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security.
Hiebert vehemently denied that he softened his tone because of who paid for that study.
Meanwhile, Hanoi’s lobby agenda seems to be working. The U.S. government and Congress are leaning toward allowing Vietnam to purchase the lethal arms it seeks. There is little talk in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal about Vietnam’s first making “demonstrable progress” on the core human-rights issues involving the freedoms of speech, assembly, religion — and the offending provisions of the penal code that mock the international rights covenants that Hanoi has signed. (The precise details of the TPP deal, which has not been finalized, remain classified.)
President Obama has said he would like to accept Secretary General Trong’s invitation to visit Vietnam, although the president has not yet set a date. Hiebert pointed out in our exchange of e-mails that he has recommended that when Obama does fly to Vietnam, he speak forcefully on human rights.
A skeptic might observe that this is what Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski, Secretary John Kerry, and so many other U.S. officials have done — so many times, over so many years, to such little avail.
There are two paths that aspiring American ambassadors traditionally take to persuade the president of the United States to nominate them for that honor. First, there is the classic, merit-based path where senior U.S. foreign service officers with distinguished diplomatic backgrounds are quietly-and-carefully vetted in the higher echelons of the State Department. Those who survive the scrutiny by their peers have their names forwarded to the White House to get the formal — usually routine — presidential approval. The second route, the political one, is (sometimes scandalously) reserved for famous personalities, presidential cronies, and major contributors of campaign cash who buy their ambassadorships. But now comes the U.S. consul general in Ho Chi Minh City, a Vietnamese-American foreign service officer named An Le, with a novel third way: an oh-so-Asian way.
Le wants to become the next U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. Toward that end, the consul general has been working behind the scenes since at least last July with a network of Vietnamese-American allies, some of whom have political and business connections in both Washington and Hanoi. Although Le has urged his supporters to try to drum up congressional support, the main target of the lobbying campaign is the man who would make the nomination: President Barack Obama.
Toward that end, Le and his allies have demonstrated a certain Asian-style chutzpah. One of Le’s key supporters in the Vietnamese-American community is David Duong, an Obama contributor from the San Francisco Bay area. Duong has given more than $150,000 to Obama and the Democratic Party since 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. According to e-mails exchanged between Le and Duong that this reporter has seen, Duong related that he had approached Obama directly to press Le’s ambassadorial qualifications at a Democratic Party fundraising event held in California earlier this month.
Obama was in northern California raising money on April 3 and 4, the White House has reported. Businessman Duong informed Le in one e-mail that he had presented the president a letter, along with a list of people who have lent their names in support of Le’s candidacy, at one fundraiser held on the evening of April 3.
The list of Le’s supporters— reprinted in the public interest at the bottom of this article — has more than 70 names on it. The first name stands out: former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who is now mayor of Chicago. On April 4, Duong informed Le in an e-mail that he had pressed Obama a second time. “I had brunch with president and 27 other people this morning and did talk about you and letter delivered to him last night.”
Duong indicated to the consul general that he had received a friendly response from Obama: “We need to work and have a couple congress members and or us senators to recommend you. This will assure you will be in.”
The e-mails reveal that as he has sought to advance what Le has repeatedly referred to as his “candidacy,” the consul general has not been merely a passive observer. Le has participated in drafting and editing various letters of support and introduction. Before California business Duong presented the letter to Obama on April 3, Le advised his ally to correct a typo. Upon being informed by Duong that the letter had been delivered to Obama, Le expressed his gratitude in another e-mail. Writing on his iPad, the consul general related how “I appreciate” the efforts of such good “friends in advancing my candidacy.”
Duong and Le did not respond to several e-mails asking for comment. Nor was an effort to obtain comment from the White House successful. A call to Emanuel’s press office prompted a suggestion that this reporter request a response from the mayor in an e-mail — which was then not answered.
Duong, who came to America penniless after the communists won the Vietnam War, is the classic American immigrant success story: an entrepreneur whose waste-management company, California Waste Solutions, now has multi-million dollar contracts with government entities in both the United States and in Vietnam (the latter through a subsidiary corporation in Vietnam that has developed a $400 million solid waste landfill in Ho Chi Minh City, according to the corporation’s website and Vietnamese press clips.)
Apart from his business activities, Duong was appointed in 2010 by Obama to serve on the Vietnam Education Foundation, which receives U.S. government funding to give scholarships to provide higher education to Vietnamese students. The Vietnamese-American entrepreneur had been recommended to the White House by Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat and another recipient of Duong’s political contributions. Duong has praised the “full support” that he has received for his charitable work from the higher levels of the Vietnamese government, including Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.
Duong is not the only Vietnamese exile in Le’s network of supporters who has cultivated ties with the current Vietnamese government that he fled from as a child. Another key supporter appears to be Bui Duy Tam, a medical doctor who has helped introduce the consul general to Vietnamese-American friends in northern California.
Dr. Tam is another immigrant’s success story. An octogenarian, he is well-known in the Vietnamese-American community for his charitable medical works in his homeland, including a campaign to help Vietnam fight liver disease. Deputy Prime Minister Tuong Vinh Trong visited Dr. Tam at the doctor’s home in San Francisco in 2010. “The Deputy PM highlighted the great contributions made by Mr. Tam to the Vietnamese community in the US and to the homeland,” reported Hanoi’s official Voice of Vietnam, which broadcasts in Vietnamese and 11 other languages. “Mr. Tam said he was deeply moved.”
On July 28, 2012, Consul General Le sent Dr. Tam a private e-mail sent on a personal Hotmail account (presumably to avoid federal restrictions like those in the Hatch Act that bar government employees using official U.S. government computers and time to engage in political activities). “Thank you for your generous draft letter of introduction,” the consul general told the doctor. “Please allow me a few days to review and prepare a re-draft letter, as this is a very sensitive matter,” Le cautioned.
A few weeks after their exchange of e-mails, Le spent time in California on leave. Much of the official downtime in the state was to be spent advancing the consul general’s “candidacy as the next ambassador to Vietnam,” as he put it in one e-mail.
The disclosure of that candidacy is likely to be controversial in the Vietnamese-American community. Many Vietnamese-Americans who fled from communist rule have come to accept the normalization of diplomatic and commercial ties with Hanoi. But while there are naturally differing views on politics, there remain bright red lines for Vietnamese exiles who will always love their homeland, while also having become patriotic American citizens. One of those bright lines —perhaps the clearest — involves the fact that it remains a crime for Vietnamese citizens to assemble peacefully to advocate the democratic right to vote. Vietnamese citizens have been jailed for expressing such beliefs.
I asked Dr. Tam and David Duong if they believed that advocating democracy should be legally barred in their home country. Neither man responded. The fact that such prominent exiles are willing to avert their eyes and keep their mouths shut on core human-rights issues — perhaps because to do otherwise could be inconvenient for maintaining their current dealings with the Vietnamese communist-run government — will be considered offensive by many. And back in the homeland, one can imagine the reaction when this news is brought to the attention of Vietnamese citizens who are presently languishing in prison because they have been brave enough to advocate the right to vote.
The only member of Le’s network of supporters who responded to a request to comment for this article was Truong Ngoc Phuong, who is the executive director of the Harrisburg, Pa.-based International Service Center. The center was established in 1976 to assist Vietnamese refugees who fled from the communist takeover in the preceding year. It now helps others in need as well, including victims of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in Louisiana.
Truong declined to be interviewed on his work with Le regarding the hoped-for ambassadorship (and also further declined to express an opinion on the current Vietnamese government’s anti-democracy laws). Still, the Pennsylvania social worker was willing to explain his support for Le’s candidacy in general terms.
“We are only a small group of community and business representatives who happened to be aware of the wonderful deeds Mr. An Le was able to accomplish as the consul General in Ho Chi Minh City for the past three years,” Truong told me in an e-mail. “Out of admiration for Mr. An Le, and out of respect for the current U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, David Shear, we decided to organized a discreet campaign to mobilize additional support for Mr. An Le’s candidacy.” (The consul general was copied on the e-mail.)
In another communication that Truong has sent to potential supporters of the consul general, he reasons that Le is the Vietnamese equivalent to Gary Locke, who is now U.S. ambassador to China. Locke is a former governor of Washington state and a former U.S. commerce secretary. “The appointment of Gary Locke as U.S. Ambassador to China provides a precedent worth replicating,” Truong writes. “Ambassador Locke’s exemplary service owes much to his identity as a Chinese-American. His qualifications have enabled him to find areas of productive alignment between the two cultures and countries.”
It is highly unusual — perhaps unprecedented — for an active member of the U.S. foreign service to run what is essentially a clandestine political pressure campaign aimed securing a White House nomination for an ambassadorship to an important country.
A quick look at the background on what ambassador wannabes usually do illustrates just how unusual.
The first two paths to an ambassadorship are the usual ones. The current U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, David Shear, comes from the elite ranks of the U.S. foreign service. Shear earned a masters degree from the prestigious John Hopkins School of Advanced International Service, is fluent in Japanese and Chinese, and was a deputy assistant secretary of state for Asia before he was vetted by the State Department and tapped for Hanoi in 2011. That traditional route accounts for about two-thirds of all U.S. ambassadorships. Previous U.S. ambassadors to Vietnam have all come from the elite ranks: foreign service officers with broad national-security experience such as Michael Michalak, Michael Marine and Raymond Burghardt.
The first U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Douglas “Pete” Peterson, who served from 1997 – 2001, was a political appointment. But Peterson was considered an excellent choice. He was a respected former member of the U.S. congress and a former prisoner of war during the Vietnam war.
As for the political path in general, think of Caroline Kennedy, who is reported soon to replace U.S. ambassador to Japan John Roos, a Silicon Valley lawyer who earned his diplomatic stripes by “bundling” more than $500,000 for the Obama 2008 presidential race. Did Roos buy his ambassadorship? Of course. But thanks to the U.S. system of campaign financing, the bribery laws never come into play as long as there are winks-and-nods when the deal goes down, and not quid pro quos — which there “never” are.
To be sure, thoughtful circles in the U.S. foreign policy establishment rightly cringe at such political appointments. After all, ambassadorships — or any government positions — should never be for sale. Perhaps the surprising thing is that the system often produces good results, as some of the presidential cronies turn out to be skilled diplomats who represent their country admirably. Pamela Harriman, who was dispatched to Paris by Bill Clinton, comes immediately to mind. So does former child movie star Shirley Temple Black, who served admirably as U.S. ambassador to both Ghana and Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and ‘80s. And when the politically connected ambassador happens to be a little light, every U.S. embassy seems to have a top-notch deputy chief of mission to ensure that important American diplomatic interests do not suffer. Like career ambassadors, DCMs come from the elite ranks of the foreign service and can be counted upon to manage the real diplomatic affairs.
Le doesn’t come from such elite ranks. He is a former civilian in the U.S. Navy who, after 15 years of service, joined the foreign service in 1991. Le’s official State Department resume that is posted on the consulate’s website says, confusingly, that he was “born and raised” in Vietnam, which is subsequently contradicted with the assertion that he is “a native of Virginia.” A search of the available public record suggests that Le was indeed born somewhere in Vietnam, although exactly when and where, and when he left his homeland, remains unclear.
Le earned a masters degree from George Washington University in engineering administration in 1978, according to his resume. Le has been a senior member of the U.S. foreign service since 2001. But his State Department service seems to have been focused on the managerial side of diplomacy, involving issues such as buildings and administration, not deep involvement in national-security affairs.
An was the honored recipient in 2006 of the State Department’s top management award, the Luther I. Replogle Award for Management Improvement. However praiseworthy that award — and it is indeed a significant honor — such accomplishments suggest that his lack of experience in high-level diplomacy might not even qualify him to become a deputy chief of mission in the U.S. embassy in Hanoi, much less an ambassador.
Le’s immediate predecessor as consul general in Ho Chi Minh City, Kenneth Fairfax, is now the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan. But Fairfax has been one of the stars of the foreign service, whose previous service in sensitive positions included a high-level stint on the National Security Council staff, where he dealt with nuclear weapons issues. These days, diplomats based in the U.S. embassy in Hanoi handle sensitive matters of diplomacy, while the consulate in Ho Chi Minh City headed by An Le tends to be seen as a visa-processing center.
An educated guess would be that Consul General Le will not get the ambassadorship that he is seeking. Imagine the reaction from the U.S. foreign service if Le were to succeed in getting the White House nomination by making a political end run around the normal State Department vetting process, including a direct approach to the president — and at a fundraising event.
Note to readers: Below is the list of “Friends & Supporters of Consul General An T. Le in Ho Chi Minh City” that was apparently presented by California businessman David Duong to President Obama at a Democratic Party fundraiser during the president’s April 3-4, 2013 appearances in the San Francisco Bay area. The letter that the consul general approved, according to his e-mail correspondence that this reporter has seen, is un-edited. (The reference to (F) after the names of some of the endorsers — such as former U.S. Ambassador to France Craig Stapleton, himself a former political appointee — apparently refers to the “former” position. Le served in the U.S. embassy in Paris during Stapleton’s tenure.)
LIST OF ENDORSERS OF MR. AN LE’S CANDIDACY
|Title||First Name||Last N.||Position||Business/Organization||City||St.||Zip|
|T.H.||Rahm||Emanuel||Mayor||City of Chicago||Chicago||IL||
|Mr.||David||Duong||President||California Waste Solutions||Oakland||CA||
|Mr.||Pedro (Sonny)||Ada||President||Ada’s Trust and Investment, Inc.||Hagatna||GU||
|Mrs.||Jennifer M.A.||Ada||Ambass-at-Large||Governor of Guam’s Trade Mission to VN||Hagatna||GU||
|Mrs.||Stephanie||Au||Behavioral Cons.||Spencer, Shenk, Capers & Associates||Irvine||CA||
|Mr.||Charles R.||Bailey||Representative (F)||Ford Foundation/Vietnam||Chestnut Ridge||NY||
|Mr.||Mark||Baldyga||President/Owner||Baldyga Group, LLC||Tumon||GU||
|Mr.||David C.||Ball||Owner||DesignBalls Studio||Grapevine||TX||
|Mr.||Greg J.||Baroni||President/CEO||Attain, LLC||Vienna||VA||
|Mr.||Elvin Y.||Chiang||Senior Advisor||Ernst & Young, LLP||Tamuning||GU||
|Dr.||Hung Manh||Chu||Professor/Dean||West Chester University||West Chester||PA||
|Ms.||Sandy||Dang||Principal||11plus Philanthropic Consulting, LLC||Washington||DC||
|Mr.||Huy||Do||Chair/President||Strategic Alliance VN Ventures Internl.||Brisbane||CA||
|Mr.||Duc||Do||Editor||Thoi Luan Newspaper||Westminster||CA||
|Mr.||Thien-Chuong||Duong,Esq||Patent Attorney||AD Intellectual Property Consulting||Palo Alto||CA||
|Dr.||Huan||Giap,M.D||Director||Scripps Proton Therapy Center||San Diego||CA||
|Mrs.||Lourdes Leon||Guerrero||President/CEO||Bank of Guam||Hagatna||GU||
|Mr.||Loc||Hoang||IT Director||University of Maryland||College Park||MD||
|Mrs.||Diane||Hsiung||Prog. Associate||American University||Washington||DC||
|Ms.||Kim-Yen||Huynh||Founder/President||Asian-American Business Women Assn.||Huntington Beach||CA||
|Dr.||Johannes||Kratz||Physician||Massachusetts General Hospital||Boston||MA||02115|
|Mr.||Larry Trung||La||President||Meiwah Group||Washington||DC||
|Mrs.||Jennifer L.||Lawless||Professor||American University||Washington||DC||
|Dr.||Tommy||Le, PE||Vice Chair||County Board of Electrical Examiners||Silver Spring||MD||
|Mr.||Anh-Tuan, P.E||Le||Managing Cons.||Green Orange||Fountain Valley||CA||
|Mr.||Marc||Levin||Managing Partner||Levin Capital Management||Chicago||IL||
|Dr.||David||Mai, M.D||President||MediZen Advanced Imaging, Inc.||Fountain Valley||CA||
|T.H.||Constance A.||Morella||Congressman (F)||U.S. House of Representatives||Bethesda||MD||
|Mr.||Steve A.||Nagel||Council Member||City of Fountain Valley||Fountain Valley||CA||
|Dr.||Chau Thanh||Nguyen||M.D.||Private Practice||San Jose||CA||
|Ms.||Diem H. Helen||Nguyen||Mrktg Executive||Caesars Entertainment Corporation||Las Vegas||NE||
|Dr.||Chau||Nguyen||Physician||Chau Nguyen Osthreopathic Center||Westminster||CA||
|Ms.||Ginna Claire||Nguyen||Design./Professor||Ginna Claire Studio & Pasadena College||Pasadena||CA||
|Mr.||John Wynn||Nguyen||President||Imperial Investment & Development Inc.||Milpitas||CA||
|Dr.||Duc Tien||Nguyen||Vice-President||International Liver Foundation for Vietnam||West Covina||CA||
|Dr.||Thuan Hoa||Nguyen||Physician||Kaiser Permanente||Silver Spring||MD||
|Ms.||Hoa||Nguyen||Tec. Bus.Analyst||METRO/Public Transportation||Houston||TX||
|Dr.||Ai||Nguyen||Owner||Pain Clinic of Westminster||Santa Ana||CA||
|Ms.||Ai Van||Nguyen||Singer||Performing Artist||Cupertino||CA||
|Mr.||Chris||Nguyen||Co-Chair||Stanford U. Vietnamese Student Assn.||Arcadia||CA||
|Mr.||Dzuong Ky||Nguyen||Professor||Stanford University||Stanford||CA||
|Ms.||Anna||Nguyen||Chief Fin.Officer||Strategic Intl. Medical Business Alliance||Rancho St. Fe||CA||
|Dr.||Thu-Huong||Nguyen-Vo||Professor||University of California at Los Angeles||Los Angeles||CA||
|Mr.||Dean||Nguyen||President||USA Home Realty||Falls Church||VA||
|Dr.||Ngai||Nguyen||Medical Doctor||Viet Heritage Foundation||San Jose||CA||
|Ms.||Hong Thuy||Nguyen||Author/Board||Vietnam Literary & Artistic Association||Annandale||VA||
|Dr.||Quan H.||Nguyen||President (F)||Vietnamese Physicians Assn. of South CA||Fountain Valley||CA||
|Mrs.||Kim D.||Nguyen||Vice-President||Wells Fargo Bank||San Francisco||CA||
|Mr.||David||O’Brien||Vice President||University of Guam||Mangilao||GU||
|Ms.||Allyson||Perleoni||Grad. Assistant||Women & Politics Institute||Washington||DC||
|Dr.||Christina||Pham||Clinical Fellow||Harvard Medical School, Cambridge H.A||Cambridge||MA||02139|
|Ms.||Geneva||Pham||Manager||Management Sciences for Health||Washington||DC||
|Mr||Son Michael||Pham||Principal||U.S – Asia Gateway||Bellevue||WA||
|Mr.||Trong||Pham||President||Washington Vietnamese-American C of C||Seattle||WA||
|Mrs.||Susan W.||Preator||Exec. Chairman||Imagine Learning, Inc.||Provo||UT||
|Mrs.||Thanh-Lo||Sananikone||ManagingDirector||TAF International, Inc.||Honolulu||HI||
|T.H.||Craig||Stapleton||Ambassador (F)||Stapleton Management||Greenwich||CT||
|Mr.||Steve||Stewart||Chairman||Gulf Winds International||Houston||TX||
|Ms.||Cheryl||Sturm||Vice President||R. Crusoe & Son||Chicago||IL||
|Dr.||Michelle||Thai||Medical Doctor||St. Jude Medical Center||Westminster||CA||
|Ms.||Diem Lan||Ton Nu||Senior Vice Pres||Children’s Hospital, Los Angeles||Los Angeles||CA||
|Mr.||Brian||Ton, Esq.||President||Satori Law Group, Inc.||Fountain Valley||CA||
|Mr.||Nhan||Tran||Managing Partner||Advent Pacific Technologies, LLC.||Tamuning||GU||
|Dr.||Thanh Nga||Tran||Physician||Massachusetts General Hospital||Boston||MA||
|Ms.||Jenny||Truong||President/CEO||Apollo Manufacturing Services||San Diego||CA||
|Dr.||Joseph M.||Vo, PsyD||President||International Epic Solutions, Inc.||Riverside||CA||
|Mr.||Loc Van||Vu||Exec. Director||Immigrant Resettlement & Cultural Center||San Jose||CA||
|Mrs.||Rosine T.||Vu||Branch Chief (F)||National Security Agency||Silver Spring||MD||
|Ms.||Linda||Vuong||Attorney||International Service Center||Denver||CO||
|Ms.||Quyen||Vuong||Exec. Director||International Children Assistance Network||Milpitas||CA||
|Ms.||Diep||Vuong||President||Pacific Links Foundation||Santa Clara||CA||
|Mrs.||Margaret A.||Weekes||Associate Dean||School of Public Affairs (American Univ.)||Washington||DC||
|Ms.||Jackie Bong||Wright||President/CEO||Vietnamese-American Voters Association||Dulles||VA||
|Mrs.||Gamze||Zeytinci||Dean||School of Arts&Sciences (American U.)||Rockville||MD||