A New York Times article recently by Mark Landler reports on a letter signed and sent by 51 State Department officers urging the U.S. Government to use military action against the Syrian government and its president, Bashar Al-Assad, to force him to “stop ... violations of a cease-fire in the country’s five-year-old civil war.” The letter was sent in the State Department’s “dissent channel,” but also was leaked to the press.
Several people have asked me what the “dissent channel” in the State Department is, and the significance of 51 Department employees sending the letter.
As defined in the Foreign Affairs Manual, the dissent channel is a way for Foreign Service Officers to “bring dissenting or alternative views on substantive foreign policy issues ... to the attention of the Secretary of State and other senior State Department officials in a manner which protects the author from any penalty, reprisal, or recrimination.” As might be supposed, it dates from the Vietnam War, when officers on the ground and close to the action felt powerless to influence what they saw as flawed policy.
In 28 years working in the Foreign Service, including the Department of State and U.S. Information Agency, I knew of the dissent channel being used maybe a handful of times, but never knew it to have influenced U.S. policy. Not to say it didn’t, only that it’s not an automatic trigger to changing policy from the bottom up.
I also can’t recall it ever having been used by so large a group of Foreign Service Officers. One lone voice, perhaps, or a small group of FSOs working in a specific country and wanting to signal to the Secretary their concern about policy there. To have a dissent channel message signed by 51 Foreign Service Officers, including our last ambassador to Syria, signals “deep rifts and lingering frustration within the administration over how to deal with a war that has killed more than 400,000 people,” according to the Times’ report. In addition to the large number of dead, of course, millions of Syrians have fled to Europe and the U.S. to escape the fighting at home.
One of the cautions with forcing regime change in a country like Syria is we can’t know in advance who replaces the ousted leadership. Hillary Clinton’s proud boast about Libyan president Muammer Gaddafi “we came, we saw, he died” is an outstanding example of regime change that went badly wrong. Libya is now a failed state: a country with a weak central government and several strong tribal leaders vying for primacy. Secretary John Kerry doesn’t want to repeat that in Syria, nor does his boss, President Obama.
The problem is, as pointed out in the recent dissent letter, the current situation is bad and getting worse, causing enormous suffering.
Two noteworthy features of this message were the large number of signers and the fact it was leaked to the New York Times. Leaking puts this letter in an entirely different category and appears to be a sort of end run around the administration. Keeping policy disagreements inside the system allows different views to be aired without becoming a sideshow. The drafters of this letter apparently thought their views were not getting fair consideration, so they tried to get more voices involved.
Given our President’s history of avoiding difficult decisions I don’t think much will come of this. I fully expect many more lives will be lost and the chaos will spill into neighboring countries. Regrettable for sure, but understandable after our bad experience in Libya.
Fred LaSor is a retired Foreign Service Officer living in the Carson Valley.