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||
[Part One of a Two-Part Series]
Last month I flew to Bangkok, Saigon and Hong Kong to try to get a better understanding of why something called “yarn forward” has been blocking progress in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations. The TPP talks presently involve the United States and eight other countries including Singapore, New Zealand and Australia — soon to be a group of eleven nations, with the addition of Canada and Mexico — in the fastest-grown region in the world.
For sure, the term “yarn forward” would not mean much to regular folks. But to a handful of diplomatic insiders and trade junkies who immerse themselves in the arcane jargon of international-trade politics, yarn forward is anything but an obscure phrase. It turns upon America’s reluctance to give Vietnam, and to a lesser extent, Malaysia, enhanced access to U.S. clothing markets — unless the Asians agree to disrupt their current global supply chains to make their clothing from U.S. materials.
The fight over yarn forward rules of origin for textiles and apparel is widely considered to be one of the key reasons that the TPP negotiations, despite a lot of hoopla, have essentially made very little progress since March, 2010. That’s marks the date when American trade negotiators put the concept front-and-center of Washington’s TPP agenda during the TPP’s first round of negotiations, which were held in Melbourne. This Friday, the TPP’s 14th round will conclude in Leesburg, Virginia, The Sept. 6 – 15, 2012 Leesburg meetings, like the others, have been shrouded in near-total secrecy. Once again, about all that outsiders see is the usual diplomatic happy talk about all the “important” meetings that have been held by a lot of important, busy officials, and about all the encouraging “progress” that is being made.