In part because Biden has done the right thing — it’s good organizational management to hear out serious dissenters and not demonize them — the current collision between a professional culture of discretion and a social media culture of publicity makes for a weird and opaque sort of news, goosing everyone’s suspicions and not doing much to enlighten.
If you’re inclined to view the Washington bureaucracy as a hotbed of disloyalists, your fears are confirmed. And if you’re inclined to see the Biden administration as riding roughshod over the pros in the name of politics, those fears are confirmed, too.
The odd, semi-public nature of the Israel-Hamas war internal disagreement has been a long time coming. During the Trump years, a series of florid, morally driven resignation letters from diplomats and career public servants became public. Some 1,000 State Department employees also signed a formal dissent cable against the ban on travel from seven Muslim countries.
It’s the sort of crowd that would have been impossible when the dissent channel was first established 50 years ago, at a time when you pretty much had to be in the same place to organize such a memo — meaning smaller cohorts of signatories and less likelihood of going public. (Not that it always kept things mum: The original dissent cable, the famous 1971 “Blood Telegram” from a small group of U.S. diplomats who objected to American support for a brutal Pakistani military crackdown at their post in what is now Bangladesh, eventually made it into the press, enraging Richard Nixon.)
Nowadays, meanwhile, internal critics can be one leak (or one tweet) away from being household names — a status that provides a platform to call out wrongheaded policies, but also enables opponents to deride critics as publicity seekers.
One of the big Foreign Service resignations of the Trump era was John Feeley, a 30-year diplomat then serving as ambassador to Panama. After Charlottesville, he determined that he could not serve under the then president. “I signed an oath to serve faithfully the president and his administration in an apolitical fashion, even when I might not agree with certain policies,” he wrote in a resignation letter. “My instructors made clear that if I believed I could not do that, I would be honor bound to resign. That time has come.”
The letter made huge news when it became public. But Feeley hadn’t meant for it to become an event. “I resigned, intending to go out quietly,” he told me. But the letter was leaked, he says, by political appointees who wanted to show the world “that there was a deep state at State.” Even though a lot of the ensuing coverage treated him as a hero, the episode had a nasty edge about it.
Feeley didn’t quit over a specific policy disagreement, and only spoke out once his letter had leaked and he was a private citizen. He said this week that when it comes to folks still on the job, keeping dissent in the family is the best way to make an impact. “It has all the effectiveness of a fart in a hurricane,” he said of Yacoub’s social media posts. “When you’re doing what she did, which is openly advocating against policy, and you still collect a paycheck.”
Paul, who posted his resignation letter last month in response to the American policy on the Israel-Hamas war, said he was nonetheless surprised at how far and how fast it spread. (He’d posted it on LinkedIn, “which is not exactly known for going viral.”) When it landed, the outreach was immediate, an “overwhelming response from colleagues from around the world, both inside the State Department and across government, including on the Hill and Department of Defense and elsewhere. … They just said that they support the stance I’ve taken. They are finding this issue immensely difficult to deal with in terms of its emotional toll, in terms of their disagreement with policies that have been pursued both by the administration and by Congress. And, in some cases just reaching out asking for counseling.”