Expanding the Fulbright Legacy in Vietnam (?)

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.  -Mark Twain (1835-1910)

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This was the title of a 2018 article written by Mary Beth Marklein (MBM) for Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning (Volume 50, 2018 – Issue 1, pp. 63-70).  The online version was published on 22 May 2018.  Since I have been following the development of Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) since it was first announced, I read Mary Beth’s piece with great interest and, ultimately, disappointment.  It read like a one-sided, US-centric puff piece that could easily have been written by the FUV public relations office or that of its benefactor, the US State Department. She took the time to speak to quite a few FUV people who, of course, confirmed her rosy view of this institution and whitewashed its recent controversial history.  In other words, she committed a number of sins of omission.    

Here are some comments from colleagues who know Viet Nam, all of which are spot-on, in my opinion.

She has drunk the establishment Kool-Aid.  She thinks no one can truly do any wrong, I guess.  She certainly skated lightly past a few important issues, such as how money was extracted from the Vietnamese for Fulbright U.  

Like most Americans, she conflates two quite different concepts: “unbiased” and “pro-U.S.”  Ironically, at most high-quality universities in the U.S. a large number of faculty see it as their mission to make their students aware of the powerful criticisms of the “neoliberal” world order, “globalization”, and U.S. policy.  Even in the U.S., serious scholars (with some exceptions) are not mindless sycophants of U.S. imperialism.  But FUV is much more U.S.-nationalistic than most universities in the U.S.  So it’s worse than just “meddling” and imposing a U.S.-style institution on Vietnam — it’s imposing a lousy U.S.-style institution on Vietnam.

Below are some of my comments in red after the author’s paragraphs in blue.  

If U.S. readers have heard about FUV, it is probably because of the cloud that hovered over it in 2016 when FUV announced that Bob Kerrey would be chair of the FUV’s board of trustees. A decorated war hero who went on to become the Governor of Nebraska, a U.S. Senator, and a university president, Kerrey’s reputation was forever stained in 2001 by a revelation that he had led an attack in 1969 that killed 13 Vietnamese women and children civilians, and then covered it up. 
 
Where did MBM get the “13” figure – Kerrey’s memoir or the US military?  The figure I have from various reliable sources is 21.  That’s number that was used in the initial New York Times report from 2001 that broke the story.  In fact, his Bronze Medal citation reads as follows:  “The net result of his patrol was 21 Viet Cong killed, two hooches destroyed and two enemy weapons captured.”  
MBM also stated that Kerrey and his unit killed only women and children, forgetting about the 65-year-old grandfather whom Kerrey held down as one of his men, Gerhard Klann, slit the man’s throat, according to Klann.  
 
MBM referred to Bob Kerrey as a “decorated war hero” without mentioning the fact that one of his medals, the Bronze Medal, was awarded for the Thanh Phong war crimes.  
MBM neglected to mention that rather important fact that Kerrey’s mission that fateful night in February 1969 was a Phoenix Program operation.  
 
Kerrey has acknowledged and apologized, multiple times, for his actions; still, the FUV appointment prompted both demands for Kerrey’s resignation and a spirited defense of his appointment. Today, Kerrey’s name remains on the FUV website as a member of the board of trustees. FUV Trustee Ben Wilkinson disputes a report, published in May 2017, that Kerrey had quietly resigned (Ashwill, 2017). Nevertheless, Thuy has taken over the chair’s duties (Taft, 2018). 
 
I’m afraid MBM is missing the forest for the trees.  The point is Kerrey should never have never been offered that position and, having been offered it, should have refused.  Of course, Ben Wilkinson (BW) disputed what I revealed in my May 2017 article.  Always the loyal soldier, I refer to BW as the “quiet American,” a textbook example of someone who is interculturally competent (IC as a skill set) yet a US nationalist (nationalism as a mindset/ideology).  His blood runs red, white, and blue.  He was dead wrong in this case.    
 
The debate over Kerrey is healthy and necessary, but it also distracts from the larger story of the making of Fulbright University Vietnam, a story that includes cautious baby steps and giant leaps of faith.    
 
Regarding the “debate over Kerrey” – whose fault is it that?  Two consecutive PR disasters:  1) Bob Kerrey’s appointment; and 2) Thomas Vallely’s interview with Isabelle Taft for Politico.  He said that Kerrey shouldn’t be singled out for criticism because of the sheer ubiquity of violence against civilians in the Mekong Delta. In other words, so what if Kerrey and his Raiders murdered a couple dozen people in some village.  It was a common occurrence.  Besides, “There’s no one in Thạnh Phong going to FUV,” as he put it in a snide and hurtful as remark.  (Check out my article from August 2018 for more information, if you dare.)  FUV is its own worst enemy.  Ted Osius, former US ambassador to Viet Nam, joined FUV as vice president and then resigns six months into the job.  A little birdie told me that Vallely is on the way out.  Gee, I wonder why?  

Last but not least, another sin of omission is a major source of funding for FUV, namely, the balance of the Vietnam Education Foundation (VEF), a scholarship-for-debt program.  That $20 million came indirectly from the Vietnamese government, a partner in this project in more ways than one.  

Finally, what about the victims, both the living and the dead, of Kerey’s war crimes in Thanh Phong?  What about the cruel and insensitive comments by Vallely in that Politico interview?  What about the cynical and persistent use of education not only as a tool but as a weapon of soft power in trying to shape Viet Nam in the USA’s image, which is decidedly anti-Fulbright?  

I could say more but I think this will suffice for a blog post.  

Note:  The author is a Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University, where her focus is on US higher education as public diplomacy.  My hope is that she develops a more critical perspective on the issues she writes about and doesn’t continue to uncritically toe the line of US public diplomacy.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA, The Unquiet US American

New Approaches to University Education in Asia

fuv conf

While I will reserve judgement, the theme of this Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) conference sounds like yet another example of US Americans telling others, in the case, Asian universities, how it should really be done a la Daddy knows best.  Why not just New Approaches to University Education?  

Or, as one colleague put it, “It’s nice to see that (Thomas) Vallely & Co have found that Vietnam is too small for their ambitions.  They want all of Asia to hear their wise words about higher ed.”    I wonder if there will be any criticism of US higher education as a negative role model, in some respects?  

Said colleague continues:  My own humble opinion is that what’s needed is a conference organized by Asians to explain to Americans how we can improve our universities.  My colleagues and I could tell many, many stories about how university education in the U.S. has deteriorated over the years.  In the 19th century, American colleges were at best comparable to European high schools.  We might be getting back to that in the 21st century.   

I wonder what advice Asian scholars would give to Americans about how to raise the level of education in the U.S.  Unfortunately, in order to avoid offending thin-skinned Americans, they’d probably keep most of their thoughts to themselves, and would not say, for example, “Drop the slogans!”  “Fire the bureaucrats!”  “Give lower grades!” “Ignore student evaluations!” “Abolish competitive athletics!” 

If FUV really valued the liberal arts tradition to which it pays lip service, it would organize such a conference.  My colleague and I won’t hold our breath.  

In the grand tradition of comparative studies, the US, with which the event sponsor, the Coca-Cola Corporation, and FUV are affiliated, like all countries, is a positive and negative role model, including its higher education system.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA

 

Fulbright University Vietnam & Moral Leadership?

48425414_726336877749126_906051796659601408_nGiven events of the past few years, these are two phrases that mix like oil and water.  Think textbook cognitive dissonance.  Or a feeble attempt at rehabilitation in the eyes of the public, an audacious means of gaining the moral high ground from the morass of historical tone and gross insensitivity.  

My first reaction upon reading about this 10 January 2019 lecture and, more importantly, the series of which it is a part, was “that’s rich coming from an institution that engineered not one but two consecutive PR disasters related to the US War in Viet Nam.”  

The first involved Bob Kerrey, who was offered and accepted the position of chairman of the board of trustees.  That misguided appointment was the source of considerable controversy and ultimately became a thorn in the side of a budding bilateral relationship – at the highest levels.  

The second involved another war veteran and “one of the most influential figures in the US-Viet Nam relationship you’ve never heard of,” Thomas Vallely.  He made a series of cruel and insensitive statements about civilian deaths during the war in an interview that was published in early 2018 in Politico

In case you’re just tuning in, dear reader, or are not entirely up-to-date, have a look at the articles and posts below.  

Bob Kerrey

Bob Kerrey and Fulbright University – What were they thinking? by Mark Ashwill (MAA)  (8.7.16)

47 Signatories Urge Bob Kerrey to Resign from Fulbright University Viet Nam Position by MAA (8.9.16)

The Fat Lady Finally Sings: Bob Kerrey Quietly Resigns from Fulbright University Vietnam Leadership Position by MAA (26.5.17)

Thomas Vallely

How a U.S.-Backed University in Vietnam Unleashed Old Demons by Isabelle Taft (4.2.18)

More Demons Unleashed After Fulbright University Vietnam Official Drops Rhetorical Bombshells by MAA (17.8.18)

The Importance of Speaking Up About “Things That Matter by MAA (26.12.18)

Make amends and come clean, FUV; then you’re entitled to launch a Moral Leadership Speaker Series in good conscience.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA, The Unquiet US American

“PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc receives Harvard University’s professor”

PM_Nguyen_Xuan_Phuc_receives_Harvard_Universitys_professor.jpg
Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (R) and Thomas Vallely at the reception. (Source: VNA)

When I saw this headline, I was curious to see who the Harvard professor was.  It was none other than Thomas Vallely, who is not a professor but an administrator with neither an academic appointment nor a Ph.D.  More importantly, this is the same Thomas Vallely (TV) who made a series of cruel and insensitive statements about civilian deaths during the war in an interview that was published earlier this year in Politico.  I listed and commented on the most egregious quotes in this August 2018 article, More Demons Unleashed After Fulbright University Vietnam Official Drops Rhetorical Bombshells

Apparently, Prime Minister Phuc is unaware of this background information or, if he is,  considers it so much water under the bridge.  While I understand the nature of politics as the art of compromise, there are some lines that should not be crossed.  

What was most striking about this article was TV’s proposal to name the “most important lecture hall” in the Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) school of public policy and management after the late John McCain.  Yes, the same John McCain who could never bring himself to properly thank the two Vietnamese men who fished him out of Truc Bach Lake in Hanoi after his jet was shot down in October 1967, thereby saving his life – TWICE.  The first time was from drowning and the second was by protecting him from an understandably angry crowd that wanted to finish the job. 

This is also the same John McCain who repeatedly referred to Vietnamese as “gooks” in various speeches and who never met a war he didn’t like.  (Sorry, but his death bed concession about Iraq doesn’t count.  While always better late than never, still too little, too late.)  Can’t TV and associates do better than that, I ask myself rhetorically?   

What’s next, the Bob Kerrey Auditorium?  It could be yet another feather in his cap, in addition to having his very own war crimes exhibit in the HCMC War Remnants Museum.  Yet another insult to the memory of the 4 million Vietnamese who were killed during the US war, the survivors, and the Viet Nam of 2018.  Since FUV has chosen to cross that line, why not the Richard M. Nixon or Lyndon B. Johnson Administration Building or the Robert McNamara Student Center?  

TV is a one-man rhetorical wrecking ball, living proof that Fulbright University Vietnam desperately needs a public relations makeover.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA

“More Demons Unleashed After Fulbright University Vietnam Official Drops Rhetorical Bombshells”

demons

This 17 August 2018 CounterPunch article is the third in a trilogy.  Here are the first and second articles.  This should be my last word about this sad story.  

Pardon the nasty military metaphor but it’s not nearly as nasty as some of the quotes from “one of the most influential figures in the US-Viet Nam relationship you’ve never heard of” in a January 2018 interview.  

Here’s an excerpt:  

The Victims

As I mentioned to an FUV official who was involved in Kerrey’s appointment in a previous incarnation, what I’ve discovered in all of this is how invisible the victims of that massacre at the hands of Bob Kerrey and his unit are, both the dead and the living, not to mention the millions of whom Thomas Vallely spoke in a couple of throwaway sentences.

That is my main motivation in writing and speaking out about this, not “sticking it” to any individual or institution.  The tendency of most people involved with this issue to completely ignore the victims is both heartless and morally reprehensible.

The last of the Buddha’s Five Remembrances about impermanence is relevant here (translation by Thích Nhất Hạnh):  “My actions are my only true belongings.  I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.”  The ground upon which Thomas Vallely once stood dissolved into quicksand the moment those chilling words about civilian deaths in the Mekong Delta and Thạnh Phong spilled out of his mouth.

Peace, MAA

“Air quality: Vietnamese professor calls for power price increase over unsustainable GDP growth”

The United States, with its love of big cars, big houses and blasting air-conditioners, has contributed more than any other country to the atmospheric carbon dioxide that is scorching the planet.  Source:  The U.S. Is the Biggest Carbon Polluter in History. It Just Walked Away From the Paris Climate Deal, 1 June 2017, New York Times

The title of this post was the ominous title of a recent article in the Vietnamese media.  Below is the photo that accompanied the article.  Much of the air pollution Viet Nam in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is caused by motorbikes.  Why not require that all motorbikes sold in Viet Nam be hybrid instead of using a traditional combustion engine?  What about hybrid cars, which are non-existent?

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Traffic in Hanoi. Photo: Tuoi Tre

40% of Viet Nam’s power is generated by hydropower plants.  While coal is projected to cover over half of all electricity production by 2030, the government is also targeting renewables such as solar and wind as a high priority.  Fortunately, it made the decision to move away from nuclear power.

The Pot Calling the Kettle Black?

Aside from these obvious points, I was struck by the broader political context of the comments made by this US-educated Vietnamese professor from Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV), essentially a US university.  His recommendation is precious, a case of the pot calling the kettle black.  Which country is the biggest carbon polluter in history?  You know who.  Which country walked away from the Paris (Climate) Agreement?  You know who.  Which country is among the biggest polluters in the world?  Ditto.   

The United States of America currently ranks 2nd with about 5,414 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year.  China is #1 but the difference between the two countries is that China is actually trying to do something about it and its contribution to global air pollution is recent, coinciding with its rapid economic development.  The US can’t seem to break the fossil fuel habit and its leadership is in denial about climate change. 

Anytime the US government is involved, or any government, for that matter, there has to be an agenda.  What’s the agenda here?  A colleague suggested the following tongue-in-cheek panel topic at a Vietnamese university: “What should the international community’s response be to a rogue nation that’s disproportionately responsible for the world’s pollution and has just pulled out of the Paris Agreement?”  Now THAT would make for one hell of a discussion.  (I wonder if FUV would consider hosting it, “he asks in a fleeting moment of fantasy.”)

Consider the source.  Always.  People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.  Or perhaps this is yet another case of “do as we say not as we do”? 

Peace, MAA

Fulbright University Vietnam & Free Speech: “Do As We Say, Not As We Do”

hy·poc·ri·sy
həˈpäkrəsē/
noun
noun: hypocrisy; plural noun: hypocrisies

the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform; pretense.

 

free speech notThis is a concept to which US Americans, including and perhaps especially those who represent the US government and affiliated institutions, pay lip service.  Presumably, this also includes a new US-style university in Viet Nam,  a private initiative, led by private citizens from Vietnam and the US.

Imagine my surprise when I posted an innocuous comment on the Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) Facebook page stating something along the lines that “It’s full steam ahead for FUV now that Bob Kerrey is no longer chairman of its board of trustees” and included a link to my 26 May 2017 article The Fat Lady Finally Sings: Bob Kerrey Quietly Resigns from Fulbright University Vietnam Leadership Position   When I tried to post a link to a Vietnamese translation my original comment had disappeared and I was already blocked from the FUV Facebook page.  Compare and contrast the screenshots below.

fuv fb page comment deleted
The original post has already been deleted, which is why there is “no permission” to add a comment.
blocked FB account
This is what a blocked account looks like.  There is no opportunity to comment or reply nor is there a way to message the host.  You can look but not touch, i.e., interact.
one account ok
One can comment and/or reply to a comment using this account.

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The original article had nearly 1,000 Facebook shares, before the site migrated to a new server.  It was quickly translated into Vietnamese and widely discussed on Vietnamese language blogs and Facebook pages.  Maybe the latter was the icing on the censorship cake? 

My comment reflected something I wrote in that article about having no need to play the quiet game because I’m not a diplomat.  (Bob Kerrey was appointed with much fanfare and some fanfare should accompany his surrender.)  Its prompt deletion also confirmed something else that I wrote, namely, that the silent treatment was an attempt to Clean up the mess and move on, as if nothing happened.  If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?  If an online comment is deleted, was there ever an original comment?

The irony of a university that claims to be inspired by the American tradition of liberal arts education  (think critical thinking and other skills and knowledge) yet wastes no time in digitally erasing views with which it disagrees was not lost on me.  It’s yet another example of do as we say, not as we do. We (US) claim to believe in freedom of speech and are constantly lecturing other countries, including Viet Nam, about their transgressions but we (US) practice it selectively.  Shameless and shameful. 

This arrogance reminds of something Ron Suskind wrote about a 2004 interview with a George W. Bush aide who was later revealed to be Karl Rove: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” In other words, the US government can do and say whatever the hell it wants because, well, the US is an empire. 

Speaking of arrogance, J. William Fulbright wrote about this mindset in a classic book entitled The Arrogance of Power written during the American War in Viet Nam.  Yes, that Fulbright after whom FUV is named.  Irony piled upon irony.  Shameless and shameful ad nauseam.

MAA

P.S.:  Bob Kerrey is still a member of the FUV board of trustees, according to the FUV website, a textbook definition of a flawed compromise.