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THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL

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SEPTEMBER 2017

45

Rice wrote in her memoirs that members of the Service “did

sometimes appear less than enthusiastic about the president’s

policies”—but public dissent was rare.

The Temper of the Times

Certainly the temper of the times had something to do with

the relative lack of dissent. The street and campus protests, the

civil unrest and the violent political movements of the Viet-

nam era were absent. No senior official resigned as a matter

of principle, as Under Secretary of State George Ball had done

over Vietnam in 1966. Dissent was a lonely business, with no

leader and no mass following. It held little attraction.

In the past 18 months, State Department dissents have twice

become public and earned headlines. In both cases, social media

encouraged mass participation, and mass participation makes

confidentiality hard to maintain. A July 2016 Dissent Channel

memo on Syria, signed by more than 50 State Department officers,

called for “a more militarily assertive U.S. role.”The memo leaked

in draft to the press, which published it without the signatures.

More dramatically, State Department officers reportedly num-

bering more than 1,000 signed a Dissent Channel message at the

end of January 2017, protesting the new administration’s executive

order, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into

the United States,” commonly called the travel ban.

The New York

Times

published a version of the memo, without signatures, and

said it had circulated “like a chain letter—or a viral video.” White

House spokesman Sean Spicer delivered the administration’s

reaction: “Those career bureaucrats have a problemwith it?They

should either get with the program, or they can go.”

Technology makes the collection of large numbers of sig-

natures possible, but dissent messages change their character

when signed by a crowd and publicized. The leaking of these

memos, even before they were delivered, shifted their audience

from the senior officers to whom they were ostensibly addressed

to the public at large. The memos became political statements,

valued chiefly for their bulk (1,000 signatures!) and used as

ammunition in partisan warfare. A memo signed by 1,000 peo-

ple, or even 50, is sure to leak, as texts are shared online. Without

confidentiality and discretion, there can be no trust.

State Department diplomats concerned about the politi-

cization of their profession should be wary. The times are

ferociously, vituperatively partisan. Challenging administra-

tion policy in public means entering the political arena, where

public servants are ill-equipped to play, and where they will

almost surely lose. For the good of the Service as an institution,

dissent must remain confidential.

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