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In Defense of Dissent

Recently 51 Foreign Service

officers serving in the State

Department and abroad

signed a dissent memoran-

dum criticizing the Obama

administration’s Syria policy

and calling for a more robust

military response for both

strategic and humanitar-

ian reasons. The dissenters

and their views are already

referred to as “Dissent 51.”

The public reaction has

been generally favorable.

Even those strongly dis-

agreeing with the dissent-

ers reluctantly lauded their

courage. They were right

to do so. Since 1970 some

dissenters have prospered;

others have seen their

careers wither. All have done

their duty.

Dissent as a duty flows

from the Foreign Service

officer’s oath of office. We

swear “to support and

defend the Constitution

of the United States.” Our

loyalty must be first and

foremost to the national

interest, and that means we

must give political leader-

ships our best analysis and

advice, whether such is

welcome or not.

With respect to Syria,

some commentators

criticized the fact that the

dissent was made public.

Others were dismissive,

claiming that the State

Department’s “Dissent

Channel” never makes a dif-

ference to foreign policy.

Here is my take based

on the personal experience

of having used the Dis-

sent Channel to attempt to

change our Cyprus policy

in 1974, over 25 years as a

judge on the panel select-

ing winners of the William R.

Rivkin Award for “construc-

tive dissent,” and on the

study incident to lecturing

entering FSOs on “Advocacy

and Dissent” since 1988.

On the issue of making

dissenting views public, the

choice is neither easy nor

clear. If career diplomats

take their dissenting views

to the media and Congress,

it is “leaking,” bordering on

disloyalty. If the adminis-

tration argues its views to

the media and Congress on

background, it is “strategic

communications.” I chose to

keep my dissent in house,

and have been haunted by

that decision since.

My dissent failed to

change policy. As a result,

the Greek military junta

staged a coup on Cyprus

that overthrew President

Makarios, which led to the

Turkish invasion of Cyprus,

which led to an attack on

our embassy in Nicosia in

which my friend and col-

league, Ambassador Roger

Davies (among others), was


If I had “gone public,” it

might well have generated

a policy change blocking

the Greek colonels’ coup on

Cyprus, which would have

erased the Turkish pretext

for invading the Island,

which would have allowed

Roger Davies to raise his

children. The decision on

“outing the dissent” is nei-

ther easy to make, nor easy

to live with.

The claim that the Dis-

sent Channel never matters

is historically inaccurate and

shallow. The six major dis-

sents since establishment

of the Dissent Channel con-

tradict the cynicism. In the

late 1960s and early 1970s,

dissent against the policy in

Vietnam was wide-spread

among career officers.

Without a Dissent Channel,

several resigned. Within a

decade the views of the dis-

senters had been vindicated

by events on the ground.

In 1970-1971 more than

20 FSOs at the consulate

general in East Pakistan

(now Bangladesh) and in the

department sent a Dissent

Channel message criticizing

U.S. inaction in the face of

a murderous onslaught by

the West Pakistan Army.


Blood Telegram

(Knopf Dou-

bleday, 2013) gives an excel-

lent account of this perhaps

unavoidable tragedy; Archer

Blood was consul general in

Dhaka at the time.

In 1974 dissent over

Cyprus policy failed. Histori-

cal articles and books have

since made it clear that

the responsible FSOs cor-

rectly analyzed the situa-

tion and proposed specific

actions that might well have

forestalled the crisis and

avoided the subsequent

policy and human disasters.

Views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the AFSA Retiree VP.


| (202) 338-4045




In the mid-1990s, more

than a dozen FSOs dealing

with the disintegration of

Yugoslavia sent a dissent

memorandum arguing for

a robust military response

to Serbian ethnic cleansing.

Secretary of State Warren

Christopher met with the

dissidents and within a short

period U.S, policy changed

dramatically. President Clin-

ton ordered action against

the Serbs, including the

bombing of Belgrade for 79

straight days. Their return

to the negotiating table gave

the entire region a second

chance. (The talks leading

to the Dayton Accords were

led on the U.S. side by the

late Ambassador Richard

Holbrooke, an FSO who had

resigned over Vietnam.)

Iraq and Afghanistan

have witnessed much dis-

sent, formal and informal,

involving serving FSOs and

their retired colleagues.

These debates continue,

to the great benefit of the

national interest.

Dissent at the State

Department has a long and

honorable record, which is

why Secretary John F. Kerry

is respectful of the process.

Many among the political

leaderships, the media,

historians and informed citi-

zens are equally respectful.

It is for us to honor our

past, and the brave and loyal

colleagues who have joined

the honor roll over Syria. We

salute you, “Dissent 51.”