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Diplomatic Dissent in the State Department

July 8, 2012

I’m very excited to be hosting this evening’s FireDogLake Book Salon, featuring New York University’s Hannah Gurman.  I hope that some of you will be able to tune in for the discussion, and participate if so moved.  To access the conversation, which will begin at 5:00pm ET, click here.

By way of introduction to what’s on the menu tonight, I thought I’d share some background and brief observations on Hannah’s fine new book, The Dissent Papers, and the subject she grapples with throughout–diplomatic dissent in the State Department.

Bureaucrats are rarely celebrated for their aesthetic sensibilities. Indeed, the modern machinery of state seems to suffocate the creative spirit by design. Scolding a subordinate who favored flowery language and winding prose in his political analysis, Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson didn’t mince words. “The task of a public service officer seeking to explain and gain support for a major policy is not that of a writer of a doctoral thesis. Qualification must give way to simplicity of statement, nicety and nuance to bluntness, almost brutality, in carrying home a point.”

That subordinate was George Kennan, author of the famous “Long Telegram,” and archetype of the freethinking diplomat who refuses to go along with a program they know to be wrong. Kennan’s approach to diplomacy put the process of writing squarely at the center of his efforts at influencing foreign policy. Despite his reputation for using three words where one would suffice, Kennan’s portfolio demonstrates his faith that language, when tailored to fit a targeted audience, had the potential to persuade presidents of ideas embedded within the process.

Kennan serves as springboard and guiding light of sorts for Hannah Gurman’s new book on dissent within the State Department since the end of World War Two. The Dissent Papers, the title of which plays off the famous documents leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971, has a more ambitious objective than its namesake. “While the Pentagon Papers tells the story of US foreign policy in Vietnam primarily through documents that reflected the status quo, [Gurman’s] analysis of the dissent papers tells the story of US foreign policy since the end of the Second World War that critiqued the reigning logic.” Those who produced these memos and analysis, “writerly diplomats” according to Gurman, were not frontline foot soldiers in the application of Washington policy preferences as much as they were “in-house authors of dissent.”

Like the diplomats she profiles, Gurman is a masterful writer. The Dissent Papers elegantly weaves together the recent history of insider opposition to official state policy by anchoring its narrative in four richly-researched case studies that roughly follow the contours of the modern State Department’s evolution. Gurman looks at how dissenting diplomats negotiated the bureaucratic battles with superiors to have their voices heard and, more importantly, built into the policy posture of the United States with regard to its friends and adversaries. These fights proved difficult and sometimes dangerous.

Diplomats refusing to go along with the party line risked personal and professional ruin. While Kennan emerged relatively intact, though unhappy, from his stint at State, some of his colleagues faced more difficult circumstances.  John Service and John Davies, two enterprising diplomats in China during the rise of Mao, were hauled in front of the United States Senate by Joseph McCarthy for supposed communist sympathies. Each had questioned American policy supporting Chiang Kai-shek after extensive time in the field with ordinary Chinese and those in power alike. And each, though ultimately cleared of wrongdoing, would never professionally advance to a level commensurate with their formidable talents.

Others, like George Ball, attempted to strike a more complicated balance. Ball staunchly supported in public American foreign policies he just as vehemently opposed in private. As Lyndon Johnson weighed the costs and consequences of escalation in Vietnam, Ball walked point on internal efforts to sway the president against ramping up the war in Southeast Asia, though dutifully sold the administration’s stance in the media when asked. Ball’s arguments against the logic of escalation proved correct in the final analysis, but he was unable to persuade Johnson of their worth. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and the military establishment closed ranks to cut off any influence Ball may have been enjoying over the president, and ultimately succeeded in pushing the dissenting diplomat out of his post.

A third approach adopted by foreign service officers, largely in reaction to the “dissent channel” established during the Nixon administration, was to go public with their dissatisfaction. A recent crop of diplomats including, most famously, Joe Wilson and John Brady Kiesling, have issued their dissent since the invasion of Iraq within the special channel designed for this purpose while simultaneously going to the media and publicly airing their dissatisfaction. In so doing, they have muddied the distinction between insiders and outsiders, becoming both at once in expressing their disgust with the status quo.

At the heart of all these strategies are questions about the degree to which competing views on critical questions of national interest should be made available to the public. The diplomats considered in Gurman’s study each grappled in their own way with the problem of transparency, ultimately gravitating to one of two views—the first, which “emphasized the end of the policymaking process”; the second, which privileged “the process itself.”

Yet even as each of the officers discussed above arrived at their own conclusions concerning the best approach to expressing dissent, the evolutionary arc of the State Department has landed firmly on the side of ends over means. Responding to news that WikiLeaks was about to drop a massive cache of State Department embassy cables, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was unambiguous about her feeling that the contents could be discarded outright. “I want to make clear,” said Clinton, “that out foreign policy is not set through these messages, but here in Washington. Our policy is a matter of record, as reflected in our statements and our actions around the world.”

Kennan and his colleagues would be disappointed. The bureaucratization and insider politics of American foreign policy have largely succeeded in suffocating the creative spark and independent thinking that animates the best diplomatic writing in the public record, as the reams of dreadfully dull WikiLeaked cables attest. But peppered throughout that same mountain of embassy reports are rare examples of writing—such as the cable reporting field findings on human trafficking in Mauritania or that which recorded interviews with Algerian youth desperate to escape to Europe—which reflect the legacy of Kennan, Service, Davies and Ball. And in this there’s hope, it seems, that today’s foreign service continues to embrace the notion—even if only in pockets, and quietly—that diplomatic writing, as Gurman rightly suggests, “is valuable precisely because it enhances the field of knowledge and scope of debate over foreign relations.”

A brief note on the book. The Dissent Papers is that rare treat of scholarship that reflects careful research and close attention to lively, elegant prose. I recommend it highly to all interested readers.  If this evening’s exchange is only half as rich as the book itself, we’ll all still walk away having been deeply enriched.

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