Success without integrity is failure.
Since Ted Osius, former US ambassador to Viet Nam, is out and about hawking his new book, Nothing Is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam, at the usual haunts, including sympathetic home turf venues in Boston, DC, and New York City, this is an opportune time to set the record straight about some of the actions he took (and didn’t take) during his time in Hanoi and his post-State Department retirement.
Madison Avenue Ted
Shortly before President Donald Trump’s visit to Vietnam in November 2017, the White House requested that Osius leave his post and the country within six days. This was likely the result of his opposition to the Trump Administration’s cruel and vindictive policy of deporting Vietnamese American permanent residents who arrived in the US before the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1995 and had been convicted of a crime – in violation of a 2008 bilateral agreement. It was also a sure sign that the ambassador was on Trump’s hateful, revenge-seeking radar for that and perhaps other dubious reasons.
Given his affinity for Viet Nam and the lucrative non-governmental employment opportunities waiting in the wings, Osius took the logical step of resignation over disruption and humiliation. Sure enough, Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) issued a press release at the end of November 2017 stating that Osius had been appointed vice president with a starting date of January 1, 2018. (For reasons that transcend the scope of this essay, he resigned from that position six months later.)
US ambassadors normally serve a three-year term. Osius was appointed on December 10, 2014, presented his credentials in Hanoi six days later, and headed for the exit on November 4, 2017. That means his term was over in a month, anyway, give or take. The obvious question is why didn’t he resign earlier if he was so concerned about the deportations? It was not an issue that suddenly reared its ugly head in the waning days of his tenure.
Most people who don’t know the score swallow Ted’s spin, hook, line, and sinker, namely, that he resigned to protest the Trump administration’s deportation orders. In fact, the timing of his resignation is a shining example of someone who displays more profile than courage, with a nod to JFK.
In retrospect, Osius got good mileage out of his hasty departure, which created positive buzz in the media and enhanced his personal brand, as marketing folks would say. It was obvious he was already thinking about how to make lemonade out of lemons and craft his image for future success.
The Guardian, for example, ran an article in April 2018 with a headline that screamed, US envoy to Vietnam quit in protest at Trump plan to deport thousands of refugees. Not coincidentally, that was the same month that Osius’s article Respect, Trust and Partnership: Keeping Diplomacy on Course in Troubling Times appeared in The Foreign Service Journal, a mouthpiece of the American Foreign Service Association, which includes active-duty and retired foreign service officers.
Osius wrote, “When John Kerry swore me in as U.S. ambassador to Vietnam in 2014, I said it was a ‘dream come true’to be able to serve as America’s representative in a country I have loved for more than two decades.
A three-year tour as ambassador in Hanoi was the high point of my 30-year career in the Foreign Service and the honor of a lifetime. The high-water mark of that tour was hosting President Barack Obama during a history-making visit to Vietnam. In Ho Chi Minh City one million people turned out to welcome him, and I knew we had done something right.” (One million is a wild exaggeration reminiscent of Trump administration estimates of the malignant narcissist-in-chief’s inauguration attendance. Crowd estimates mentioned in media reports ranged from “thousands” to “tens of thousands,” a far cry from one million.)
The “high point” of Osius’s 30-year career as a US diplomat was sullied and marred by the Bob Kerrey debacle, whose position as chairman of the FUV board of trustees was announced by the same man who swore Osius in and wrote the foreword to his book, John Kerry, who counts Bob Kerrey among his friends. That surreal announcement ushered in a season of diplomatic discontent and strain.
What Were They Thinking?
For someone who has consistently chosen the side of the oppressed over the oppressors and the victims over the victimizers, I would characterize this act as the low point of Osius’s career. I remember when Vietnamese journalists reached out to me for my reaction. I was busy at a conference in the US, but I did have time late one night to fire off an email telling them I thought Kerrey’s appointment was, in a word, disgraceful.
A month later, I penned an article entitled Bob Kerrey and Fulbright University – What were they thinking? that was widely read and translated into Vietnamese literally overnight. While his name does not appear in my essay, Ted Osius, who played a key role in Kerrey’s appointment, was one of the “they” to whom I was referring.
I wrote that, “While the focus should be on the FUV and the challenges ahead, including fundraising, the spotlight is squarely on the controversial selection of Kerrey and that tragic night in Thanh Phong.
That’s really the heart of the matter. Bob Kerrey, a self-confessed war criminal, as chair of the board of trustees of a US university in Viet Nam named after Senator J William Fulbright?
What parallel universe do his supporters inhabit? They either do not comprehend the implications of selecting such a polarising figure for such an important position, or do not care. Could it be that sense of superiority and exceptionalism that distinguishes nationalists from patriots, what Fulbright wrote about so eloquently and passionately in The Arrogance of Power?”
Who was Ted Osius with, in this instance? Was it the victims who were murdered in cold blood with automatic weapons and knives, and whose cries and Kerrey and his men heard in the darkness as they made their retreat to the canal, or the victimizers?
Did Osius view this callous and insensitive decision to appoint someone with Kerrey’s bloodstained record to a prominent position in a binational university as a kind of tradeoff? Where was the seasoned diplomat who took all points of view into consideration, especially those of the host country he claims to love, knowing it’s not all about us(A)?
I brought up this issue in a 2018 email exchange with Osius:
What did you think about Kerrey’s appointment to that position? As AMB at the time, I assume you were consulted, if not directly involved in that discussion. Did you support it? Or did you express concern? If it was the former, why?
What I’ve discovered in all of this is how invisible the victims of that massacre are, both the dead and the living. To be perfectly honest, that is my main motivation, not ‘sticking it’ to any individual or institution. The tendency of most people involved with this issue to completely ignore them is both heartless and morally reprehensible. Your thoughts?
His response was predictable: silence. My guess is that he nodded approvingly while Kerrey’s appointment was being discussed, finalized, and proposed to Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama.
Dishonor and Disgrace by Association: Revisited
Earlier this year, in a bilingual attempt to promote his forthcoming book on Facebook, on April 30th, no less, Victory Day in Vietnam, Osius proudly and frequently dropped the name of Madeleine Albright, his mentor and former boss, knowing that she’s a global “brand” and that her name has cachet with most netizens who are either not familiar with her controversial past or don’t care.
As I wrote in an August 2021 essay, Dishonor By Association: A Red, White, and Blue Object Lesson:
This ringing endorsement is a benefit of being a member of a mutual admiration society. It’s a textbook case of cognitive dissonance in that Osius can – as he did with self-confessed war criminal Bob Kerrey – once again look the other way and not concern himself with Albright’s statements and actions that resulted in the deaths of over a million human beings.
As for Ted Osius, his close affiliation with the likes of Albright is a blood-red stain on his personal and professional reputation, not the feather in the cap he thinks it is. While America’s reconciliation with Vietnam was not impossible, the ability to decipher the objective truth about his country’s history and its role in the world, and to care about the implications, appear to be beyond his grasp. To paraphrase a quote from a 2020 Tweet about Trumpism, Ted and I don’t have a difference of opinion; we have a difference in morality.
Chuck Searcy, a US war veteran who has lived in Vietnam for over 25 years, had this to say about the aforementioned essay in the August 8, 2021 edition of his weekly Việt Nam Notes:
Ashwill’s criticism is not about Ted Osius’s book, but the institutional environment which allows America’s leaders to get away with what would likely be treated as war crimes in a fair and open system of global justice.
The conclusions Ashwill shares in this article he says are based on his experience as an international educator who has lived in Viet Nam since 2005, and his moral responsibilities as a citizen of the United States. Many Americans who know Ted Osius and who value his service as Ambassador in Viet Nam will find Ashwill’s critique arguable, many will likely view it as objectionable.
I have known both Osius and Ashwill for more than two decades, and I consider them both friends. Each has made serious and lasting contributions to Viet Nam and the much improved relationship between Viet Nam and the US. Among excellent US ambassadors who served with distinction in the post here, Ted Osius was a standout, in my opinion.
The institutional and ethical framework of the system within which we all operate – and how we respond to its challenges and constraints – is a serious matter raised by Ashwill that has merited deep consideration and discussion. It goes beyond Ted Osius and other diplomats and government servants, and probes the root of not just our international relations and global diplomacy, but who we are as human beings. There are no easy answers for any of us.
One easy answer is to follow a moral code rooted in humane values that precludes support for the likes of Madeleine Albright and Bob Kerrey in thought, word, or deed. One can always take a stand and refuse to go with the flow. From minions to leaders, we all have a choice.
Names such as William Blum, Coleen Rowley, Hugh Thompson Jr., and Jeffrey Wigand, drawn from the US public and private sectors over the past half century, spring to mind. What they have in common is that they listened to the insistent and uncompromising voice of conscience and did the right thing without regard to personal or professional cost. It is the true believers and the opportunists who consistently choose expediency over integrity, the path of least resistance.
Words and Actions as Legacy
While Ted Osius may have been one of the better US ambassadors to Vietnam since the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1995, let’s not whitewash his record. I am reminded of the last of the Buddha’s Five Remembrances: “My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.”
On a purely human level, his worst and most unforgivable act as ambassador was to be party to the appointment of Bob Kerrey as chairman of the FUV board of trustees. His nauseating display of sycophancy and loyalty to Albright to promote his book, the rhetorical equivalent of kissing her ring, fits this pattern of obedience to the US establishment.
Make no mistake about it. Faux protest resignation notwithstanding, Ted Osius is no rebel but rather a loyal and committed member of the US national security state. If he were not, he would not be able to drop Madeleine Albright’s problematic name in good conscience or support Bob Kerrey’s FUV appointment, an act that quickly metastasized into a painful thorn in the side of Vietnam-US relations until the former senator exited stage left.
Ted Osius’s 11th hour resignation reflects a steep deficit of courage, his decision to support Bob Kerrey a shocking lack of cultural sensitivity and common sense, and his decision to ally himself with Madeleine Albright a crystal-clear indication that his moral code is primarily guided by expediency. Osius cannot escape the consequences of his actions. They are part of the ground on which he will always stand.