How (not) to become a U.S. ambassador

davidshearThere 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 Hồ Chí Minh City, a Vietnamese-American foreign service officer named Lê Thành Ân, with a novel third way:

An oh-so-Asian way.

Ân wants to become the next U.S. ambassador to Việt Nam.

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 Hà Nội.

Although Ân 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, Ân and his allies have demonstrated a certain Asian-style chutzpah.

One of Ân’s key supporters in the Vietnamese-American community is David Dương, an Obama contributor from the San Francisco Bay area.

Dương 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 Ân and Dương that this reporter has seen, Dương related that he had approached Obama directly to press Ân’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 Dương 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 Ân’s candidacy, at one fundraiser held on the evening of April 3.

The list of Ân’s supporters 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, Dương informed Ân 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.”

Dương 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 Ân has repeatedly referred to as his “candidacy,” the consul general has not been merely a passive observer.

Ân has participated in drafting and editing various letters of support and introduction.

Before California business Dương presented the letter to Obama on April 3, Ân advised his ally to correct a typo.

Upon being informed by Dương that the letter had been delivered to Obama, Ân 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.”

Dương and Ân 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.

Dương, who came to America penniless after the communists won the Việt Nam 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 Việt Nam (the latter through a subsidiary corporation in Việt Nam that has developed a $400 million solid waste landfill in Hồ Chí Minh City, according to the corporation’s website and Vietnamese press clips.)

Apart from his business activities, Dương was appointed in 2010 by Obama to serve on the Việt Nam 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 Dương’s political contributions.

Dương has praised the “full support” that he has received for his charitable work from the higher levels of the Vietnamese government, including Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng.

Dương is not the only Vietnamese exile in Ân’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 Bùi Duy Tâm, a medical doctor who has helped introduce the consul general to Vietnamese-American friends in northern California.

Dr. Tâm 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 Trương Vĩnh Trọng visited Dr. Tâm at the doctor’s home in San Francisco in 2010.

“The Deputy PM highlighted the great contributions made by Mr. Tâm to the Vietnamese community in the US and to the homeland,” reported Hà Nội’s official Voice of Việt Nam, which broadcasts in Vietnamese and 11 other languages.

“Mr. Tâm said he was deeply moved.”

On July 28, 2012, Consul General Ân sent Dr. Tâm 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,” Ân cautioned.

A few weeks after their exchange of e-mails, Ân 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 Việt Nam,” 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 Hà Nội.

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. Tâm and David Dương 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 Ân’s network of supporters who responded to a request to comment for this article was Trương Ngọc Phượng, 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.

Phượng declined to be interviewed on his work with Ân 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 Ân’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. Lê Thành Ân was able to accomplish as the consul General in Hồ Chí Minh City for the past three years,” Phượng  told me in an e-mail.

“Out of admiration for Mr. Lê Thành Ân, and out of respect for the current U.S. Ambassador to Việt Nam, David Shear, we decided to organized a discreet campaign to mobilize additional support for Mr. Lê Thành Ân’s candidacy.”

(The consul general was copied on the e-mail.)

In another communication that Phượng has sent to potential supporters of the consul general, he reasons that Ân 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,” Phượng 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 Việt Nam, 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 Hà Nội in 2011.

That traditional route accounts for about two-thirds of all U.S. ambassadorships.

Previous U.S. ambassadors to Việt Nam 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 Việt Nam, 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 Việt Nam 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.

Ân 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.

Ân’s official State Department resume that is posted on the consulate’s website says, confusingly, that he was “born and raised” in Việt Nam, which is subsequently contradicted with the assertion that he is “a native of Virginia”.

A search of the available public record suggests that Ân was indeed born somewhere in Việt Nam, although exactly when and where, and when he left his homeland, remains unclear.

Ân earned a masters degree from George Washington University in engineering administration in 1978, according to his resume.

Ân 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 Hà Nội, much less an ambassador.

Ân’s immediate predecessor as consul general in Hồ Chí 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 Hà Nội handle sensitive matters of diplomacy, while the consulate in Hồ Chí Minh City headed by Lê Thành Ân tends to be seen as a visa-processing center.

An educated guess would be that Consul General Ân will not get the ambassadorship that he is seeking.

Imagine the reaction from the U.S. foreign service if Ân 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.


Source: The Rushford Report


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