Ambassador Kenneth Quinn

Iowa Press | Episode
Aug 27, 2021 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, former U.S. ambassador to China, a former career foreign service officer and president emeritus of the World Food Prize Foundation, discusses the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, ongoing evacuations, refugees, relations with China and more.

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, and Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa and Iowa Bankers Association.


A long standing American military operation unravels in Afghanistan as the U.S. rushes to evacuate thousands of refugees. We gather perspective with former U.S. Ambassador Ken Quinn on this edition of Iowa Press. (music)       Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at (music)       For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, August 27 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen. (music) Yepsen: As Americans watch the August 2021 withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, some historic similarities have developed. A war torn nation facing uncertainty and an exodus of refugees as U.S. troops evacuate embassies and airports. Ambassador Ken Quinn from Iowa spent three decades in the U.S. Foreign Service. He was Ambassador to Cambodia in the 1990s and was instrumental in assisting Asian refugee resettlement to Iowa under former Governor Robert Ray. Ambassador Quinn, welcome back to the show. Quinn: David, thanks for having me here. I'm honored to be on one of your last shows. So, congratulations. You've had a great run. Yepsen: Also joining across the table, Erin Murphy is Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa. Henderson: Mr. Ambassador, let's start with your general reaction to what you and the rest of the world is seeing happen with the withdrawal in Afghanistan. Quinn: Well, my heart was broken when I saw this tragic killing, 13 Marines, an additional 20 or so wounded, all those Afghans who were killed, so, so awful. To all of their families I just say, protecting the lives of American citizens whether it's the Marines or the Foreign Service, since before our country was even a country, is our number one mission that we always took. So they died and were wounded in protecting American citizens. Otherwise, I've been very troubled about some aspects of the evacuations. Yepsen: Such as? Henderson: Which one? Quinn: So, good thing was got all the interpreters, or most of the interpreters out. But to me it doesn't look like we did as good a job as we should have with the civilians who worked closely, who put their lives at risk, who worked on behalf of our country and are just as deserving. And many, perhaps even most of them, are women. And we haven't been getting them out of the country the way we got the interpreters out. Murphy: President Biden, to that point, has said he feels that this was sort of inevitable, that this was going to be a messy extraction regardless of who and when. Is that fair? Or could this, in your estimation, could we have been better prepared? Could this have been handled a little better? Quinn: It's hard to tell. I think in fairness I certainly expected the government to last longer. I thought there would be more time. But I've never been to Afghanistan. So that seemed to have been a big surprise. I think we could have been better prepared. I knew where every American citizen was in Cambodia when I was ambassador. We had a network so we could contact them every day. So a little hard to tell if maybe keeping more of the troops, doing it slower, getting more people out sooner, that would have helped. Yepsen: You have been a critic, as a former Foreign Service officer, of the way we handle things in Afghanistan. There is a thing that Foreign Service officers have called the descent channel. And a few weeks ago there were stories about 22 diplomats, you were one of them, who were raising questions about what was going on. What was going on? What was your question? Quinn: So, those 22 officers who used the descent channel were all stationed in Kabul at the embassy there. And that channel is used for officers on active duty to raise directly to the Secretary of State concerns they have about the assessments being made, about what their own ambassador is reporting. So I wasn't part of that 22, but I have used the descent channel before. I have written to the Secretary of State when I was Ambassador to Cambodia and said, I refuse to implement your orders because it would put my embassy employees at risk. Yepsen: Is this what our diplomats were saying this time to the ambassador? Quinn: Yes, I think they were saying that the country was going to come apart and the government wasn't as strong as people were thinking and there wasn't going to be that much time for it. Henderson: So, in 2009 a program was started in the State Department, special immigrant visas, many of those folks are going to be relocated in the Midwest. What should Iowans do to help these refugees resettle? Quinn: Well, number one, think back to the legacy of Governor Bob Ray and how welcoming Iowa was to other refugees to whom we had an obligation. Number two is, remember as Senator Joni Ernst has said, and my compliments to her for doing this, these are people who fought side-by-side, helped keep American servicemen alive, aided them in the battle. So we should feel an obligation to them to welcome them into our community and help them start new lives here. And the others look around and see, people who came from Indochina, Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodians, they are -- and Tai Dam -- they are very active, positive contributors to our community. So they may speak a different language, different religion, different background, but when it was time to put your life on the line they did it. Yepsen: Ambassador, many of these refugees coming from Afghanistan speak English. That's why they're here. Quinn: Yes, and interpreters. Yepsen: So, won't they have an easier transition? Quinn: They will, they will indeed. They will absolutely. But some of them they have their families with them, they may have their spouse, they may have their parents who won't speak English probably. Murphy: So, for folks who may not be familiar with this kind of thing, and we've had settlement programs like this including in Iowa in the past, what does this actually look like? Who is in charge of this kind of thing when you have this kind of a significant refugee settlement? Quinn: Well, so I'm not in the U.S. government now, but what happens is the wonderful network of non-government organizations, civic, religious organizations, whether it's HIAS, the Jewish organization, Lutheran Immigration, Catholic Relief, Church World Services, they all say we're prepared, we will find sponsors, we'll find organizations, we'll find families who will welcome new refugees, take them in, help them get started, show them where to go, where to send your kids to school and help with that process. Usually there's some money from the government to help do that. And it worked really well. My wife is from Vietnam, all her family were immigrants brought in as the country was falling apart. And so we had to take them out and kids who have never been in America, you put them in high school or so. So, you need to have welcoming institutions as well. That can make a big difference. Murphy: And you mentioned sponsors and families willing to host. Let's say there's someone who is watching this right now and wants to help in some way. What would be your advice to them? Who should they get in touch with? Quinn: So, I would think if you are associated with a church or a synagogue or a temple, religious organization, check there first. There are, look on the Internet, there are other civic non-religious organizations that would be involved as well. I'm not sure where you check within state government on this. But there's Iowa International Center that may have a good feel for that. Yepsen: Do you know, Governor Reynolds has said she would welcome these refugees. Would you think the state government should be setting up a formal network? Have they reached out to you to help? Quinn: I have not been contacted. It may be a little soon. I'd be happy to offer ideas and thoughts. But Governor Ray, he set up an organization within state government to accept refugees. I don't know that that's, that was pretty unusual at that time because he was taking all the Tai Dam and he felt a personal responsibility. So I think that state government's job can be within the human services organization, probably have a focal point there to check in. But that would be a question I think to ask the Governor's Office and see if they have a focal point. Henderson: We've learned that some of these Afghan refugees are being flown into a military base in Wisconsin. A couple of republican lawmakers up there have raised concerns about security, whether some of these folks have terrorist ties. You mentioned Senator Ernst. Earlier this week in Griswold she had a town hall meeting and was asked if these people are being properly vetted. What do you say to critics who say we don't know, we aren't sure about these folks? Quinn: Well, I would say from all the things that I know from working with one particular organization is there is a very careful vetting going on and it's sort of two-stage. One is who these people are and that somebody certifies, some American certifies that they are okay and they don't have that kind of background to even get in the airport and get flown out. Then when you go to a midway point there's another vetting about whether you actually come to the U.S. So I think nothing is perfect, but I would think you could feel quite confident that those Afghans who make it into the U.S., who are admitted and would have been looked at carefully at least twice and then maybe a third time even after they get here. Yepsen: I want to switch gears, Ambassador, to China. Most Iowans know the story of how Xi Jinping as a young man, as a student, spent some time in Muscatine, Iowa with a family there, developed a close relationship, it led to Governor Branstad being named to U.S. Ambassador. Here recently you received a call from the new Ambassador to the U.S. from China, Qin Gang. What was that all about? Quinn: Well, he just arrived at the end of July. Yepsen: So why are you getting calls? Quinn: Well, exactly. I wondered that myself. And Sarah Lande, who was Xi Jinping's host in Muscatine and who was always considered an old friend of China and of President Xi Jinping, and I got asked if we would have a call with the new ambassador. So, of course I said yes. And the ambassador spoke to us for 70 minutes and he began by saying, I bring personal greetings to both of you, you're both considered old friends of China and of President Xi Jinping and greetings from the President and Madam Peng and we talked about the whole Iowa connection and it was the first call to any Americans made by the new Chinese Ambassador outside of Washington, D.C. He of course had to talk to people at the State Department. But we were the first two Americans that he spoke to. So, I think, as we talked about on the call, it's a really tough time in U.S.-China relations right now and I think they're looking to say, where can we look to, how can we find some place that could maybe help restore things back to where they were, as I said, back in 2012 when Xi Jinping came to Des Moines before becoming President, his last trip, he went to Muscatine, came to the State Capitol, gave a toast in which he invoked Mark Twain and the sun over the Mississippi and all these memories. I'd never heard a foreign leader talk about our country that way. So I think they see there's a basis in the Heartland, in Iowa. Murphy: Well, and speaking of that, we wanted to ask you. So one of those issues recently has been with farmers and trade relationship with China. It's such a huge trading partner but at the same time farmers have said that China is not always a faithful trading partner. Can that relationship be restored? What needs to happen there? Quinn: I absolutely believe it can. The Ambassador rattled off all these statistics about how much Iowa's trade with China is, how much it has increased in the past year and how anxious he is to do even more and build on that. So last March I did a four day conference with China and people from the Heartland, Governor Reynolds recorded a message, all about increasing trade. The CEOs of John Deere, ADM and Syngenta were all on there, educators. There is I think a huge interest and huge support in the Heartland of America to build that agricultural trade relationship. Henderson: But there are certainly people who say China is not our friend and they have this massive infrastructure project where they're going to other countries, other continents and building infrastructure to build relationships in places all around the world. Is that a danger? What should the U.S. be doing? We pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Quinn: Unfortunately. It was a terrible missed opportunity. And China is a transformed country. It is hugely successful, virtually eliminated poverty in 40 years, they've got Mars rovers now. It is going to be one of the two most significant countries on the face of our planet for sure. And our question to us and to them is are we going to have a super adversarial relationship? Or can we find ways to do things together? So my pitch would be to be sure we have enough food to feed 9 to 10 billion people, to deal with climate change, to prevent pandemics. China and the U.S. have to work together. Yepsen: Excuse me, what about the problems we have? They steal our intellectual property. It's thievery. And there's no disagreement about that. But for some reason America's policymakers can't seem to figure out how to deal with that. Quinn: It's absolutely a problem. I've heard that from university presidents. I'm not sure all the additional steps we need to take, put in place, to try to prevent that from happening. We absolutely must. But China now has a huge research capability, it has exceptional scientists. So, how do we prevent that? Absolutely. Yepsen: Follow up here, they also now have a Navy bigger than ours. Quinn: They have a very big Navy. Yepsen: So what do we make of that? To Kay's point, they're building these huge infrastructure projects. Are they a threat to the United States? Quinn: China will be an increasingly powerful military entity, scientific entity. We would not want to have a war with China. Henderson: Well, what should be the U.S. posture for the way it is treating Taiwan and Hong Kong? Quinn: I believe that we, Hong Kong is part of China and flies the flag of China. There's probably not anything we can do to change what is going to happen in Hong Kong. Taiwan I believe can be left quietly. I wouldn't make an issue out of it. I don't think that Beijing will. But if challenged they will never ever back down. The thing to remember about Taiwan, it's as far from China as Des Moines is from Iowa City. So, it's right there to them. So I think Taiwan should let it be. Murphy: Here domestically there has been a growing issue with animosity towards Asian-Americans. You mentioned that you met your wife in Vietnam. Do you have a prescription for that? Why is that happening? Why does that seem to be an increasing problem here? Quinn: So, my son, who is part Asian, is married to an ethnic Chinese Thai woman who grew up in the United States. Their grandchildren are half Chinese and one part Irish. They're really stubborn. But I want them to be safe and when I saw Asian-Americans being killed it made me scared. So I believe we need to have political leaders in both parties stepping forward and condemning that and being sure that we make Asians from East Asia, Indian, Africans, Latin Americans, everybody feel you're welcome in America because they have added so much. Murphy: Does your son feel safe? Quinn: He feels safe. He lives in the San Francisco area, the neighborhood he lives in. But I worry and I'm sure he worries as we all would about our children. Yepsen: What about the larger issue here, maybe the problem we're having with Asians being harassed is part of this. Is American headed toward an era of new isolationism? We lost in Vietnam, now we're losing in Afghanistan, people want to let's come home, take care of our own problems and then you have these racist episodes against people of Asian ancestry. Are we headed toward another isolationism era? Quinn: My sense is when looking back, comparing to say 1980 or a time, that there is much less of a sense in America of our role on the world stage, us being the leader of the free world against the Soviets, against global Communism. And with the fall of the Soviet Union I think slowly that has been eroded and so now I don't know that Americans generally would see us having that kind of role anymore. So I think my sense is as the Chinese interest is expanding, Belt and Road Initiative, aid programs, doing things in Africa, ours seems to be retracting from that. I don't know that it's going to be isolationism. But it's a sense of taking care of things at home first. Henderson: Given that atmosphere and given what Americans are seeing happen in Afghanistan, what would be your advice to someone who is debating whether to enter the Foreign Service? Quinn: There is nothing that compares to me to serving your country in whatever way. I would encourage anyone to take the test and to enter the Foreign Service. You can give it a try, see what happens and it's always a pretty good calling card. Henderson: You spent your career in Asia. What do Americans need to know about that area of the world where few of them are ever going to visit? Quinn: It is now probably economically the most important part of the world, it is going to become more so. The economy there are driving. It's a time of Asian emergence, triumphalism and we would ignore it at our risk. Yepsen: I want you to elaborate on something you mentioned earlier. What is the effect of climate change going to be on U.S. foreign policy? Quinn: I believe that climate, things are changing so rapidly now around the globe that it has to be dealt with and it has to be dealt with in a cooperative manner and we have to see now that what is happening whether it's derechos or wildfires in the West, flooding, that is happening in China, it's happening in Europe, and if we don't work on this together our plant is going to kind of crumble and fall apart. Yepsen: Do you see any sign that people are working together? The developing world says to America and the developed world, you guys earned your prosperity burning coal, why aren't we allowed to do some things like that to develop our economy? Quinn: Yes, and those will continue and you'll be asking countries to make sacrifices on that. But it has to be the answer. So it is in our interest to be providing aid to other countries to help them with that because climate change is too drastic, their economies fail, agriculture, people are going to be migrating, they're going to be migrating to Europe, to the U.S. Murphy: You mentioned earlier the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, you felt that was a mistake for the U.S. to withdrawal from that. What can be done now to repair what you feel was lost because of that? Quinn: I don't know whether it can be brought out again, whether too much has changed. But certainly having linkages to economies in Southeast Asia and East Asia would be super important to do. I hope that the President and the Congress would agree on doing that. And it would be a way, Vice President Harris was just there, to build on this, show how interested we are and for those countries there, South Korea, Japan, others that are so important and long-term allies, it would be helpful to them as well. Henderson: What do you make of the Vice President's visit to that region? Was it the right timing? Quinn: I don't know if Kabul hadn't happened, so I'm sure this was a trip that was long planned and people were looking forward to it, and I think when she left that Afghanistan hadn't quite fallen apart. So probably wish it might have come at a better time. Yepsen: We've got less than a minute. Are Iowa educational institutions and schools doing enough to prepare our kids for the world of the future? Quinn: Well, the parts that I know, at Iowa State and Iowa, programs that have an international aspect to it, I think so. I ran an Iowa Youth Institute reaching into high schools -- Yepsen: How about our high schools? Are they doing a good job? Could we do more? Quinn: Yeah, well, we can do more but I think to that extent of identifying young students interested in the world, interested in international agriculture, I think there's a lot to be proud of but certainly we can do more and the stars in the youth program are all, 70% young women. Yepsen: Ambassador, we've run out of time. Thank you very much for being with us today, we appreciate it. Quinn: Thanks for having me. And congratulations again. Yepsen: Thank you, sir. Yepsen: And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and Noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen, thanks for joining us today. (music) Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at