Saturday, June 29, 2013

Diplomatic Life: Back to the Future

During the academic year 1996-97, I was a student at the National War College. During that time the decision was made to open a consulate general in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – the mission in Hanoi had been upgraded to embassy status, and former congressman Douglas ‘Pete’ Peterson had been nominated to be the first ambassador. Jim Hall, an old friend of mine, was country director for the region, and he suggested I put my name in the hat for an assignment to HCMC, as it was called. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I applied for the post of consul general. I wasn’t sure of my chances because I was only an FS-1 at the time, and the position was graded at the Senior Foreign Service level.

Fortunately for me, Pete Peterson thought my candidacy was a good idea, and the late Mary Ryan, who was then assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, supported me as well, so I was chosen over two or three senior bidders.

After graduating from the War College, I spent six months doing refresher Vietnamese language training, and with a lot of effort managed to get a 3/3 rating. My previous training in the language had been way back in the 1970s when I was preparing for my first military tour in Vietnam, and in 1997, I was 52, so cramming language into my brain was no easy task.

I went to Vietnam by way of Bangkok, where I consulted with the embassy there, because before we opened our liaison office in Hanoi, reporting on Vietnam had been done by officers in Embassy Bangkok. Then, I flew to Hanoi, where I had meetings in the embassy, and had to present my consular credentials to the Foreign Ministry and get my letter of credence allowing me to perform consular duties.

I spent several days in Hanoi, which was surreal, given that I’d never been north of the DMZ before, and didn't know what to expect. It’s an attractive city, but at the time a little backward. The airport was like something out of Heart of Darkness, and having learned the southern dialect, the language I heard on the streets grated on my ears.

Finally, it was off to Saigon, as I still thought of the southern capital. Landing at Tan Son Nhut Airport in late afternoon was like déjà vu at first. The parking revetments that had been used by American and South Vietnamese jets during the war were still there, as were several of the old buildings I remembered from my last time there in 1973. The airport, thankfully, had been upgraded, and there were people from the consulate, which was under the interim control of my deputy, Deborah Bolton, to meet us.

Driving in from the airport, I was struck by how much the city had changed. New buildings were going up everywhere, but some of the old buildings, including the one on Pasteur Street that I worked in during my 68-89 tour with MAC-SOG. We spent the first 8 – 9 months in a cramped apartment that was a bit of a distance from the temporary office, which was set up in an old building that had served as a billeting office during the war. The old embassy was a few blocks away, and demolishing it to make way for construction of a new consulate general building was one of my first tasks. We took the old flag pole down, had it reconditioned and using one of the granite blast plates from the ground floor of the old building as a base, erected it on the site of the new building, complete with an appropriate plaque.

I was busy for the first few months, overseeing demolition of the old building and construction of the new one, hiring nearly 200 new local staff, and training 15 or 16 junior officers to do consular work, as well as orienting the mid-level staff who were doing political, economic, and refugee work. In addition, I had a staff from USIA, officers from Commerce and INS who worked in another part of town. Along with that, I had to get to know my colleagues in the foreign consular community, local government officials, and the community in my district, which spanned the southern two-thirds of the country from Hue in the north to Phu Quoc Island in the south. It was a hectic time, but in short order we were functioning as a full-fledged consular post.

Most of the country’s business is in the south, and HCMC had an active American Chamber of Commerce. I initiated a series of informal meetings with the business community immediately. We would have a happy hour, which was called ‘Meet Charlie,’ a play on my first name, and the nickname we gave the Viet Cong during the war. Everyone knew I’d served there during the war, and it was a topic of conversation at most of my first meetings, even with local officials, some of whom had been VC. The mayor of HCMC, for instance, had been a VC commander in the Mekong Delta, but this didn't stop us from becoming friends and golfing buddies. There was even a colonel in the army who ran one of the military’s commercial enterprises, who would occasionally play hooky work and play golf with us at a Wednesday afternoon outing the Singapore consul general and I organized. That event caused some heartburn for the embassy number two, who thought it was a waste of time, but the ambassador recognized that it was a great way to get around the official bureaucracy, so he told the deputy to back off.

I traveled throughout the district, visiting Hue, Can Tho, Kontum, Tay Ninh, Danang, Nha Trang, and just about every other major town and industrial area. Nike was contracting a lot of its shoe production to Korean and Taiwanese factories in the area, and when they had a labor dispute that caused some negative publicity in the US, I had a chance to work briefly with former UN ambassador Andrew Young to deal with the issue.

One of the people I had frequent contact with was the man who had commanded VC forces during the Tet ’68 assault on the embassy. He and I would have tea at his house once a month or so. When the new consulate was completed and inaugurated (twice: once by Senator, now secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Mary Ryan, and a second time by secretary of state Madeline Albright) I invited him for a visit. At the end of the tour of the new building, I took him to the back and showed him the vacant spot where the old embassy once stood, and said, “I managed to do what you couldn't  I took down the American embassy.” He found it hilarious.

The new building was a favorite spot in the city. Not just for the hundreds of visa applicants who lined up early every day on the sidewalk outside, but for groups that I gave guided tours to. Some security types in Washington objected, but I prevailed. It was one of the most effective public relations activities we did to gain public support, and even the local government thought it a good idea. No sensitive information was ever compromised, and the good will we garnered can’t be measured.

Probably the most exciting event of my entire tour was near the end, when something touched off an uprising of Montagnards in the Central Highlands. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, at the same time, we’d received a query from a Montagnard in the US concerning a relative he thought had been arrested in the Highlands, so we’d been in touch with officials there to determine if it was true or not. The government in Hanoi, ever paranoid about the Montagnards, put two and two together and came up with three – I, because of my wartime relationship with the Montagnards, must have somehow incited the unrest. The ambassador was called in by the foreign ministry, and I was called in to the local foreign affairs office, where I was accused of unfriendly conduct, to wit, I’d been asking questions they didn't think I should be asking. The ambassador pushed back, and so did I. I told my interlocutor that if there were questions they didn't want me to ask, they should provide me a list. Until then, I would continue to do the job I’d been sent to do, and which my letter of credence entitled me to do. At that point, the hapless official began lecturing me on the arrogance of Americans who try to tell other people how to run their country. Exasperated, I shot back, “You’re not high enough in the food chain to have a discussion on this subject with me,” and stormed out of the room. The junior officer I’d taken along with me to take notes said as we were driving back to the consulate general that she’d not learned that diplomatic technique in orientation. I hadn't either, but it seemed the appropriate response at the time. Fast forward a couple of months when I was preparing to depart, and the same official hosted my farewell dinner. He was as friendly as could be. Thus is the life of a diplomat of foreign ministry official. He’d done what he’d been instructed to do, and I reacted in a somewhat blunt, but perfectly understandable manner, and that was that.

It would take a book to cover every adventure I had during the three-plus years I served in Vietnam as a diplomat, but these were the highlights. The key thing I learned from that tour was that the world is a big place, with room for all shades of thought and ideologies, as long as we’re prepared to sit down and talk about our differences and emphasize our areas of agreement.

From Vietnam, I went on to the State Department’s Senior Seminar, a month before the game-changing events of September 11, 2001. In the next installment, I’ll talk about my assignment as deputy chief of mission in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and how even in the midst of war, progress can be made.