The Syria Dissent Channel Message Means The System Is Working

The State Department Syria memo isn't some dangerous sign of insurrection. It's an essential instrument for sparking essential debate.

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 9:  Jehad Sibai waves flags during a rally in support of possible U.S. military action in Syria, on Capitol Hill, on September 9, 2013 in Washington, DC. U.S. President Barack Obama will address the American people on Syria from the White House on Tuesday.  (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 9: Jehad Sibai waves flags during a rally in support of possible U.S. military action in Syria, on Capitol Hill, on September 9, 2013 in Washington, DC. U.S. President Barack Obama will address the American people on Syria from the White House on Tuesday. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

On Thursday night, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and other outlets, reported that 51 State Department officials had signed a Dissent Channel memo calling for strengthened military efforts in Syria. The news aroused old memories for me. While serving as a foreign service officer in Iraq in 2008 and 2009, I transmitted my own Dissent Channel cable on the Embassy’s political strategy, so I understand what the Syria memo authors might be feeling right now: hope that their arguments are compelling and result in a change of policy; a vague unease that their actions could be perceived as disloyal or irresponsible; and anxiety about the possible consequences for their reputations and careers.

Just as other professions tend to have a personality archetype — think confident and aggressive Wall Street traders, or focused and methodical engineers — American diplomats are expected to be serious, precise, dependable, and self-effacing. There are exceptions, of course. Dick Holbrooke, a brash self-promoter who yelled and swore, was a smart and successful diplomat and exquisitely calibrated to bash Balkan heads during the Dayton peace talks. But most foreign policy professionals at State — whether foreign or civil service, career officer or political appointee — conform to the norm: hard-working, conscientious, and low-profile.

That is not to suggest that foreign policymaking is a pillow fight. The department is organized so as to foster argumentation; disputes over policy, as a result, can become vituperative and personal. State Department officials care deeply because the stakes are huge, whether they be the current geo-strategic, counter-terror-related, and humanitarian consequences of our efforts in Syria or, as in my case, whether the United States should have been rushing headlong toward national elections in Iraq before addressing the structural problems of the Iraqi state.

The Dissent Channel is different from normal policy tussles. According to regulations, a Dissent Channel message must be circulated to the Secretary and other senior officials and receive a formal response from the Department’s Office of Policy Planning (S/P, for short) within two months. In my case, I do not recall any formal substantive response from S/P, but was instead assured that my views had been raised and considered at a National Security Council meeting.

Death by suffocation is unlikely to be the fate of the Syria memo, both because of the press attention it garnered following its leak and because the large number of signatories is so noteworthy. (I had one co-signer, although support for the substance among my fellow reporting officers was broader.) Although no assistant secretary or higher level officials have signed, the recommendations are rumored to mirror Secretary of State John Kerry’s views. It may well be that this memo is less about dissent at Foggy Bottom than about a dispute between State and the White House. Its release may also be a way of forcing the issue into the presidential campaign — a potential template for a more forward-leaning Syria policy in a hypothetical Clinton administration, for example.

After weighing the advantages of seeking allies outside the government against what I saw as a civil servant’s fiduciary duty to safeguard internal policy deliberations, I chose not to leak my memo to the press, and obeyed Dissent Channel rules. I can imagine circumstances, however — where the policy issue is gravely important, the public is unaware, and senior officials are quashing internal debate, for example – in which I might decide differently.

I suspect that most officers contemplate a Dissent Channel message at some point in their careers. It is a difficult and emotional decision, however, and fear of retaliation is widespread. While there are formal “whistleblower”-type protections built into the Dissent Channel regulations, the State Department personnel system is so subjective, and an unblemished reputation is so essential to promotion and good assignments, that the potential for stealthy retaliation is significant. A Dissent Channel message could be deemed an abrogation of the responsibility to serve the U.S. government loyally and implement decisions made further up in the chain of command. I recently counseled an officer considering whether to send a Dissent Channel cable, and part of my advice was that she consider carefully whether this is the issue of her career, because an officer who uses the Dissent Channel more than once can be caricatured as obstreperous or disloyal.

I was fortunate not to suffer harmful consequences by dissenting. I was somewhat inoculated because my criticisms of U.S. policy were widely shared and supported in the political section of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, and because my cable did not hit the press. This meant that emotions and volumes stayed at a lower level. (One anecdotal indication that the debate on this Syria Dissent could be more rancorous: a commenter on the New York Times story suggested that the authors of the memo be tried for “war crimes.”) Although letting colleagues know I had decided to dissent was intimidating, even the two meetings I had with more senior officers who tried to talk me out of sending the cable were professional and content-focused (and I remain respectful of and friendly with both of those people today).

In some instances, Dissent Channel messages have resulted in dramatic changes in policy. One oft-cited example is a Dissent Channel message from the early 1990’s that called for a more robust U.S. response to Serbian atrocities. (One of the co-authors, a former boss and current friend, was just named Ambassador, so he clearly suffered no permanent harm.) I’m not certain the Syria memo will have equivalent impact in this Administration, since it seeks to reopen an issue that has been reportedly already exhaustively discussed and decided within the White House.

Looking back, I regret that my own cable had such limited effect on our Iraq policy. Washington did rush Iraq headlong into elections and then backed President Nuri al-Maliki, someone most of us knew at the time would be a disaster — both for Iraqi and U.S. interests. I wonder whether I could have been a scrappier bureaucratic fighter. Or whether I could have made a better case for my proposed alternative. Perhaps not. Long afterwards, someone in S/P consoled me that there was merit in my cable but not enough to stop “the train moving down the tracks.”

It’s no surprise that the State Department has many of the same problems that afflict other large organizations. But the Syria Dissent Channel message is a sign the system is working. The opportunity for mid-level officers to make their views known on the most important and controversial issues — directly to senior department officials — is an essential backstop. The Dissent Channel is no guarantee against bad foreign policy, just against the adoption of bad policies without deliberation of the alternatives.

Photo Credit: Drew Angerer / Stringer


During a 25-five year foreign service career, Joseph Cassidy served overseas in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and South America, and in Washington at the U.S. State Department and National Security Council." He is a 2016-2017 Fellow at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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