THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
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
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.