Here is my latest piece for CounterPunch. Think of it as a Viet Nam-related sociopolitical fantasy. A guy can dream, can’t he?
Here is my latest piece for CounterPunch. Think of it as a Viet Nam-related sociopolitical fantasy. A guy can dream, can’t he?
I’m very happy to see this development. It’s yet another indication that Viet Nam is coming of age as a full-fledged member of the global community of nations because it reflects the government’s confidence in itself and its country.
In the past, the Peace Corps was viewed with official suspicion. (This is not without cause, based on past experience. In 2008, for example, it was revealed that in Bolivia, Peace Corps volunteers and a Fulbright scholar were asked by a U.S. Embassy official to provide details on Cubans and Venezuelans in that country.)
While the Peace Corps is very much a part of US soft power strategy, it represents another step forward in the bilateral relationship. The English teachers supplied by the program will help improve the English proficiency of many Vietnamese, both teachers and students. Note that the program is initially limited to English teachers, which makes sense, given past concerns.
Welcome to the newest kid on the US higher education fair block, which has expanded considerably in the past 10 years. I’m pleased to see that the US Embassy has its very own higher education fair along the lines of the Institute of International Education-Vietnam fairs of yesteryear. In a sense and in this particular area, strategic partners have become friendly competitors.
Below is a description of the first-ever EducationUSA higher education fair, which took place on 30 January in Hanoi.
DO YOU WANT TO STUDY IN THE UNITED STATES?
Did you know that over 16,000 Vietnamese students are studying in the United States right now?
Do you want to join them?
If so, please come to Hanoi’s First-Ever US Embassy sponsored Education Fair
U.S. Ambassador Ted Osius will make opening remarks! (In my opinion, Ted Osius, who arrived in late December, has the potential of becoming one of the better US ambassadors to Vietnam, perhaps in the same league as the ambassador he served during his first tour in Vietnam, Pete Peterson.)
You can meet more than 40 representatives from U.S. universities and colleges!
You can learn about the application process!
You can find out more about educational exchange programs!
You can learn about visas and hear from students who have been to America!
Here’s a link to the fair agenda and the list of 44 participating colleges and universities.
This is yet another example of US Mission Vietnam offering a service that it used to outsource to IIE, a process that begin in earnest in the fall of 2009, when the US Embassy and Consulate General took over the EducationUSA advising centers in both cities. This issue was discussed in a 10.1.10 diplomatic cable, entitled Education Reform In Vietnam: Everyone Being Left Behind, officially penned by then Ambassador Michael Michalak, the self-proclaimed Education Ambassador:
EdUSA Student Advising Centers, which have been operated by IIE under a grant from ECA to promote study in the U.S., will soon be housed within the Embassy’s and Consulate’s Public Affairs Sections (PAS), which will give the USG greater control over the Centers’ activities and ensure that they continue to provide objective and comprehensive advice to students interested in studying in the U.S. free of charge. The move from IIE to PAS will reduce annual operating expenses from $400,000 to $160,000. (Note: This process, the result of political and financial considerations, occurred in other countries, too. The backstory to this official about-face warrants a post or article of its own, in the opinion of a former quasi-insider.)
The only surprise is that it didn’t happen sooner. It was an opportunity waiting to be exploited, yet another way for the USG to exercise soft power in a vitally important area related to young people, education. US Mission Vietnam can control the message and cover its costs at the same time. That’s the best of both worlds from an official standpoint.
Below is a description of a new tour organized by EducationUSA, US Embassy, Hanoi. Its purpose is to reach out to talented and gifted students in five (5) provinces in northern Vietnam. Eligible t0ur participants include those who wish to “engage with Vietnam’s top students who are prime candidates for U.S. institutions looking to diversity their pool of full scholarship recipients” and, naturally, who are able to provide “full scholarships (tuition, room, board) to top international students.”
The potential benefits to the participating colleges and universities, in addition to diversifying their pool of full scholarship recipients and, possibly, its student population, are: 1) global service through outreach to rural areas; 2) favorable PR, should they decide to place any stories about accepted and funded students in the Vietnamese media; and 3) the possibility that they might find a student in one of these high schools whose parents have the ability to pay. (Not all of the nation’s wealth is in its cities.)
While I’m pleased to see a tour to places other than Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) – I organized the first US higher education fair in Danang back in the day – it’s worth acknowledging a political reason for this activity related to the exercise of soft power beyond the confines of Hanoi and HCMC, i.e., to demonstrate to State/DC that the US Mission is making the attempt – with the assistance of US college and university reps, to inform rural students about opportunities to study in the USA, even though most cannot afford it. (This reminds me of a former deputy principal officer in the US Embassy, the #2 person, who once went rogue, rhetorically speaking, at a reception for visiting US higher education colleagues, possibly after a few too many glasses of wine, when he voiced the opinion that the US Mission should focus all of its education-related outreach efforts on wealthy Vietnamese.)
If possible, I’ll check in with the participants and report back later this fall.
Spend one week visiting northern Vietnam’s best gifted and talented high schools that are “off the beaten track” of most U.S. recruiters. Engage with Vietnam’s top students who are prime candidates for U.S. institutions looking to diversity their pool of full scholarship recipients.
PARTICIPANTS: Accredited degree granting U.S. institutions providing full scholarships (tuition, room, board) to top international students. *Capacity is limited to 8 reps.
COST: *No registration fees
DATES & SCHEDULE: Five provinces in northern Vietnam will be visited from September 28 to October 3 (Sunday to Friday). Following is the schedule for the tour:
Sunday, September 28: Morning departure from Hanoi to Lao Cai
Monday, September 29: Lào Cai Province
Tuesday, September 30: Yên Bái Province
Wednesday, October 1: Nam Định Province
Thursday, October 2: Thanh Hóa Province
Friday, October 3: Nghệ An Province
*All transportation is by van provided by U.S. Embassy
TERMS AND CONDITIONS:
QUESTIONS? Email HanoiEducationUSA[AT]gmail.com
On July 31st and August 1st, US Consul General, Rena Bitter, hosted a conference on Vietnamese higher education. The star-studded list of guests included Dr. Ngo Bao Chau, the first Vietnamese to receive the prestigious Fields Medal, known as the Nobel Prize of Mathematics, Dr. Nguyen Quan, Minister of Science and Technology, and Professor Bui Van Ga, Vice Minister, Ministry of Education and Training. About 150 people attended the conference. You can find the agenda here, along with a number of presentations in the form of PDF downloads.
My two cents:
The Fulbright Program aims to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in friendship and peace.
– Senator J. William Fulbright in the Foreword to “The Fulbright Program: A History, 1965”
Here’s an item that’s been in the news recently and that encompasses the three Is of this venerable blog, Information, Insights & Intrigue: a proposed cut of 13% or $30.5 million – from $234.7 to $204.2 million – to the US government’s “flagship international educational exchange program”, namely, the Fulbright Program. (I have always considered this to be one of the US government’s most noble initiatives.)
To put this expenditure in perspective the cost of a MQ-9 Reaper Drone is $16.9 million, according to its manufacturer, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. This means that the current worldwide Fulbright budget equals the cost of about 14 MQ-9 Reaper Drones, one indication of just how much official USA loves its military hardware.
As Ann Jones, the author of They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story and a Fulbrighter herself (Norway 2012), points out in her recent piece, Washington’s Pivot to Ignorance, it’s also a sign of how much Washington “has come to rely on the ‘forward projection’ of military force to maintain its global position… the Fulbright Program may be the last vestige of an earlier, more democratic, equitable, and generous America that enjoyed a certain moral and intellectual standing in the world.” That, of course, was one of Senator J. William Fulbright’s goals in creating the program that bears his name. (Speaking of the “forward projection” of military power, the current defense budget is $640 billion.)
There is additional funding for several new programs, including $20 million for the Young African Leaders Initiative and $10 million for the Young South-East Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), both examples of the use of soft power as a tool/weapon to influence young leaders in strategically important countries, including Vietnam. This statement appears on the YSEALI website: Young people in Southeast Asia are working to make tomorrow a brighter day and the United States is here to help. When I read this, one my favorite idioms came to mind: Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. (How nice of the US to want to help but, rest assured, there are always strings attached!)
American Fulbright University in Vietnam
Tucked away in Ann Jones’ article is this paragraph, which refers to the creation of the American Fulbright University in Vietnam, which was discussed during President Sang’s meeting with President Obama last summer in Washington, D.C.
The ECA also plans to spend $2.5 million next year in Vietnam on what seems to be a consolation prize: a new American Fulbright University, named in honor of Senator J. William Fulbright who created the flagship program that bears his name and ushered it through Congress back in 1946. Fulbright, an Arkansas Democrat, was then a first-term senator whose experience as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford had fostered his international perspective. He went on to spend 30 years in the Senate, becoming the longest serving chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the twentieth century’s most influential senators. Yet if the State Department has its way, the proposed university to be named in his honor will be paid for by money cut from the international exchange program he considered his most important achievement.
My question, dear reader, is this: What will a paltry $2.5 million buy, given the exorbitant cost of establishing a new university or, in this case, building on the foundation of an existing program, the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program (FETP) in Ho Chi Minh City? They would need at least tens of millions of dollars to get things moving. Why not forgo a few MQ-9 Reaper Drones for the sake of higher education and international educational exchange? State says that the $2.5 million is earmarked to support “academic freedom and autonomy in developing new curricula”, whatever that means. Stay tuned…
Bonus: Yussi Pick, a Fulbright alumnus from Austria who was a German teaching assistant at the College of Wooster, in Ohio, created the SaveFulbright.org website and petition, which has generated over 26,000 signatures as of today.
MAA (ardent admirer of J. William Fulbright, eloquent and outspoken Vietnam War opponent, author of The Arrogance of Power, etc.; one-time Fulbright adviser for US students/faculty; and the first Fulbright Senior Specialist to Vietnam, 2003)
Note: If you’re an employee of the US State Department, do not pass go, do not collect $200, close this tab immediately. This post contains a “sensitive” Wikileaks cable that originated in the US Embassy-Hanoi and commentary on the same. If you read it, you are breaking the law, not to mention disobeying Madam Secretary.
Please pardon the use of this nasty wartime slogan but it is so apropos. This post and the Wikileaks diplomatic cable on which it’s based are about the US Mission’s charm offensive and the use of educational outreach activities designed to “win the hearts and minds” of young people here. Ultimate goal? To become the most popular kid on the block and to maximize American influence on Vietnam’s educational system and thus on the future shape of Vietnamese society.
The cable below is worth reprinting in its entirety. The date: Three years ago today. The scene: the American Center in the Rose Garden Annex of the US Embassy in Hanoi. The context: a “wide-ranging discussion” following the airing of the Secretary’s speech on internet freedom. The underlying assumption of this type of interaction between Embassy officials and young Vietnamese – with the requisite rhetorical questions and predetermined outcomes – is that the American Way is the Best Way. On a micro-level it’s yet another example of do as we say, not as we do.
It’s also a crystal clear example of an American Center event as an exercise in soft power and is completely consistent with other outreach activities of the US Mission in Vietnam, albeit more explicitly political. At many of these events you can be sure that a US Mission staff member is assiduously taking notes, some of which find their way into cables to other missions and Foggy Bottom (i.e., the State Department in Washington, D.C.).
The American Center
What is the American Center? It’s a “free information center providing specialized, accurate and authoritative information and programming on the United States for the Vietnamese public.” Well, not exactly “authoritative information.” It is, after all, a component of the USG’s public diplomacy mission – whose goal is to ensure that Vietnamese (and other foreigners) see mainly the good, not the bad and ugly, of America. (There’s also an American Center in the US Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City.)
It’s not exactly what Sen. J. William Fulbright had in mind when he proposed the creation of what has become the U.S. government’s flagship scholarship program. Fulbright once said about the objectives of educational exchange: “Its purpose is to acquaint Americans with the world as it is and to acquaint students and scholars from many lands with America as it is–not as we wish it were or as we might wish foreigners to see it, but exactly as it is — which by my reckoning is an ‘image’ of which no American need be ashamed.” (From the foreword to The Fulbright Program: A History)
Do As We Say, Not as We Do (aka A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?)
Given the US government’s many human rights violations in the post-World War II era, including the years since 9/11 (think torture, extraordinary rendition aka “torture by proxy,” the murder of civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, ad nauseum), I find it ironic that a “Human Rights Officer” led the discussion. It reminds me of the expression “those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” A lot of glass was broken that January afternoon back in 2010. As a friend put it. “Where’s America’s moral ground regarding human rights? Our President has assumed the right to murder anyone anywhere in the world at his whim. And he’s done it, leaked to the press the ‘kill list’ he keeps in the White House, brags about it.”
Or, as Peter Van Buren, the State Department whistleblower (and, coincidentally, former head of the Educational information Branch and director of Education USA at the U.S. Department of State) who worked for a year at a forward operating base in Iraq and wrote a book about his experience, put it: ”Better, so the message goes, to sip the Kool Aid and keep one’s head down, while praising the courage of Chinese dissidents and Egyptian bloggers. The State Department is all about wanting its words, not its actions, to speak loudest.” Hy·poc·ri·sy (noun) \hi-ˈpä-krə-sē also hī-\: a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not.
Mr. Van Buren’s price for becoming a whistleblower? As he wrote in Left Behind: What We Lost in Iraq and Washington, 2009-2012 “My case also illustrates the crude use of ‘national security’ as a tool within government to silence dissent. State’s Diplomatic Security office, its internal Stasi, monitored my home email and web usage for months, used computer forensics to spelunk for something naughty in my online world, placed me on a Secret Service Threat Watch list, examined my finances, and used hacker tools to vacuum up my droppings around the web — all, by the way, at an unknown cost to the taxpayers. Diplomatic Security even sent an agent around to interview my neighbors, fishing for something to use against me in a full-spectrum deep dive into my life, using the new tools and power available to government not to stop terrorists, but to stop me.”
Or, as Glenn Greenwald put it in a recent article about the detention of Imran Khan, the most popular politician in Pakistan, a vocal critic of US drone strikes and possibly that country’s next prime minister, with party’s supporters “What makes this most ironic is that the US loves to sermonize to the world about the need for open ideas and political debate. In April, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lectured the planet on how ‘those societies that believe they can be closed to change, to ideas, cultures, and beliefs that are different from theirs, will find quickly that in our internet world they will be left behind.’”
But I digress – sort of. And now for the main event, the 2010 Wikileaks cable entitled Many Vietnamese Youth Trust Big Brother to Monitor the Internet. As with many diplomatic cables, this one received wide distribution, including the US Embassy in Beijing, Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Phnom Penh, Rangoon, Seoul, Singapore, Taipei, and Vientiane, as well as the US Consulate General in Chengdu, Guangzhou, Ho Chi Minh City, Shanghai, and Shenyang, in addition to the Secretary of State in Washington, D.C.
Stay tuned for more commentary and analysis about education-related Wikileaks cables from the US Embassy-Hanoi and Consulate General-HCMC in Vietnam. There aren’t many but they sure are interesting and revealing.
P.S.: Speaking of free speech, American-style, can you guess, dear reader, how long a link to Peter Van Buren’s blog would last on any US Mission-Vietnam Facebook page? Or whether his book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People has found an honored place on the shelves of either American Center library? I thought so… The “open society” has its limits.
REF: A: STATE 4203; B: 09 HANOI 909
UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY Embassy Hanoi
R 270328Z JAN 10
Â¶1. (SBU) Summary: During a wide-ranging discussion at the American Center in Hanoi following the airing of the Secretary’s speech on internet freedom (Ref A) several participants parroted the Party line that the internet could be used to spread information that is harmful to Vietnamese society and should therefore be blocked.
Others, however, offered a contrary view, complaining that there is no true freedom of speech in Vietnam. A similar range of views were expressed on the broader topic of the media, with some participants supporting some degree of government censorship in the name of social order and others voicing frustration at the lack of press freedom. Most participants agreed that censorship of social networking and foreign news sites is wrong and expressed disbelief that the government would read their private e-mail orrespondence.
“The line between freedom and censorship is always moving in Vietnam,” one participant noted. Most participants said they had access to high-speed internet at home and spend an average of 3-5 hours a day online. End Summary.
Â¶2. (SBU) On Friday January 22, approximately 40 Vietnamese young people (ranging between the ages 20-30) gathered at the American Center in Hanoi to watch clips from the Secretary’s speech on Internet Freedom and discuss how the topic related specifically to Vietnam. After showing about 30 minutes of the speech, including a number of segments critical of Vietnam, the Embassy’s Human Rights Officer led a discussion about the role of the internet in the lives of Vietnamese youth and what involvement — if any — the government should have in monitoring and censoring its content.
Â¶3. (SBU) Expecting the audience to be reserved and hesitant to comment on such a sensitive topic, Poloff began with a series of questions relating to internet access and common web activities. Most of the audience said that they have high-speed ADSL connections in their homes. Those who don’t rely on internet cafes and their college campuses to go online. The majority of the audience said they have g-mail or yahoo e-mail addresses and spend an average of three to five hours a day online chatting with friends, e-mailing, gaming, catching up on pop culture, and blogging.
Â¶3. (SBU) Participants offered various opinions as to why Facebook remained blocked in Vietnam (Ref B). Some blamed “technical difficulties,” while others acknowledged that the government was likely the source of the problem. All participants expressed dissatisfaction with the current situation, and noted that they use work-arounds to maintain their Facebook pages. The participants were nearly unanimous that they would not to convert from Facebook to locally hosted social networking tools like zing.com; many laughed at the prospect. (Note: At the start of the event, there was a small celebration to commemorate the American Center’s Facebook page exceeding the mark of 1,000 fans in just over a month’s time. The speed of reaching 1,000 fans is notable given that the Facebook homepage has remained blocked in Vietnam throughout this time period. End Note.)
Â¶4. (SBU) There was a long pause when Poloff asked what type of content should be allowed on the internet. Eventually a young man asserted that politically sensitive content and pornography should be censored, arguing that it is permissible to oppose GVN policies but not specific policymakers. Another participant added that the GVN does not have hard and fast rules on internet censorship, but that every citizen should recognize the impact their online comments could have and should therefore be “constructive.”
HANOI 00000090 002 OF 002
Â¶5. (SBU) Another young man offered a dissenting opinion, however, arguing that because the government controls all forms of media, Vietnam’s citizens don’t have the chance to raise their voices. “I am very frustrated,” he continued, lamenting that “We are all missing out on good opportunities.” He specifically asked what the U.S. Embassy could do to “improve the situation.” Poloff noted the Department organizes public discussion sessions and also works behind the scenes in meetings such as the annual Human Rights Dialogue with Vietnam to raise its concerns related to free speech.
A third young participant countered that most Vietnamese are easy going and very satisfied with life as provided by the government, which ranks as one of the highest in the world. Vietnam’s government, he insisted — becoming less laid back — does not limit the voice of its people; rather, some people “abuse their rights” and are threats to the government that the government is correct to suppress. Still another participant cautioned that “chaos” would ensue if people were allowed to openly criticize the government. “Change should happen slowly,” he averred, adding that freedom of speech should be “restricted sometimes.” Another individual commented that the line between censorship and internet freedom is not fixed, insisting with disapproval that it is “OK in the U.S. to slander another person and post pornography on the internet.”
Â¶6. (SBU) Poloff pushed the participants on this point, asking whether it was permissible to voice opposition to GVN economic policies and whether the government should be allowed to read personal e-mail or text messages. Most bristled at the idea of the Government blocking news sites and blogs that do not comment on political news and reading their private messages. Many expressed shock when Poloff said that the Government of China routinely blocks internet sites such as Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and the New York Times. Most participants said that Vietnam should not follow China’s example. Poloff shared the story of leading dissident Dr. Pham Hong Son, who was jailed from 2002 – 2006 for translating and posting online a State Department pamphlet entitled “What is Democracy” from the Embassy’s homepage. Most participants said they had not heard of Dr. Son, and expressed disbelief that he would imprisoned for such an activity.
Â¶7. (SBU) Comment: The fact that such a wide-ranging discussion occurred, following the airing of a speech at times critical of the GVN’s actions, is notable in itself. While participants articulated a variety of opinions, all said that they depend on the internet to remain in touch with the larger world. While several vocal participants proclaimed that they had no problem with the government censoring political content, most expressed apprehension when confronted with more specific questions about the government’s role in censoring news media and personal blogging and rejected as illegitimate the notion that security services could be reading their own e-mails. Most participants acknowledged the importance of a free media in fighting corruption and environmental degradation. Of the quarter of the participants that offered views, the group appeared evenly divided between those who supported the Secretary’s message and those that argued in defense of Vietnam’s position. To conclude the event, PAS Officer noted that the attendees had just participated in the exercise of free speech and hoped that they would see the benefit of this type of open exchange.