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Frost at Foggy Bottom | The Nation

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Frost at Foggy Bottom

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Is the government's foreign policy apparatus a casualty of war? The recent resignations of two career State Department officials, who left to protest George W. Bush's push for war, raised the possibility that the White House's Iraq policy was fomenting disquiet and unease in the ranks of the diplomatic corps. Two departing a service of 9,500 people do not a mutiny make. In the early 1990s, five State Department officials resigned in disgust over a lackadaisical US policy in Bosnia. But the actions of these two diplomats--John Brady Kiesling and John Brown--reflect the concerns of many current and former Foreign Service officers who fear that Bush has undermined and weakened Foggy Bottom's professionals at a time when they are badly needed. "Most Foreign Service officers and State Department people disagree with the war," says one longtime State Department official who has been associated with the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau (which covers the Middle East). "We're very demoralized."

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David Corn
David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation. He has written...

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Kiesling--who in his twenty years as a Foreign Service officer served in Israel, Morocco, Greece and elsewhere--quit first, firing off a long and impassioned letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell on February 27. "The policies we are now asked to advance are incompatible not only with American values but also with American interests," he wrote. In interviews he maintained, "Not one of my colleagues is comfortable with our policy." But, he added, "everyone is moving ahead with it as good and loyal."

Kiesling did set an irresistible example for Brown, a twenty-two-year Foreign Service veteran who had served in London, Prague, Belgrade and Moscow. On March 10, Brown, who did not know Kiesling, wrote Powell, "The United States is becoming associated with the unjustified use of force. The president's disregard for views in other nations...is giving birth to an anti-American century." In an interview with The Nation, Brown recalls that he "sat in front of my computer screen for four days" before drafting his letter. "In talking with my colleagues," he says, "I sense a deep undercurrent of concern. What are we doing? What will be the consequences? What does the rest of the world think of this? I haven't heard anyone tell me this is great and they're gung-ho."

But as of this writing no one else has followed Brown and Kiesling. "I don't think there is going to be a lot of open dissent," Brown says. "Being a team player is very important, and I'm all for it. You do your bit and you do it well. In the past twenty years, I've had my reservations about policy, but I had made a commitment to the Foreign Service. This time I had to do something."

What's holding the troops at State together, one fifteen-year veteran associated with the Middle East desk says, "is seeing how Powell struggled to be a voice of moderation in this Administration." But didn't he eventually go over to the other side? "He did his best," this official notes. "And now he's trying to keep a check on some of the loony ideas coming out of the Defense Department. People are glad he's still on board. He's loyal to the people of the department, he respects their expertise. People here know it's not the seventh floor of the State Department that needs convincing. They do feel down, but they also believe you have to rally around and hold the line on the craziness." One former diplomat in close touch with Foreign Service officers observes, "There probably is less stridency and less inclination to vigorously protest. This generation is more quiescent in this regard."

In addition to being upset about Bush policy on Iraq, State Department officers gripe about their agency becoming irrelevant, particularly on Middle East policy. One past Foreign Service official who served in the Middle East bureau and continues to work with officers there notes, "There has been a huge drop in the morale of those folks working in our embassies in the Middle East. I think they feel that nothing is getting through substantively, that the Administration is not on 'receive' mode but just wants to give instructions on matters that it may not understand as well as folks in the field." Current and former State officials point to what happened to Ronald Schlicher, a career diplomat who had been Consul General in Jerusalem until the White House yanked him and reassigned him as ambassador to Tunisia. "The reporting out of Jerusalem," says one department official, "was truthful and accurate. But it did not suit the White House view because it included information indicating Israel was not 100 percent right."

There are other reasons for concern at Foggy Bottom. Over at the National Security Council, Iran/contra convict Elliott Abrams, who now oversees Middle East policy there from a Sharonista perspective, appears to have mounted a purge in February, when three NSC staffers identified with a more evenhanded approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were forced out. More recently, Richard Haass, State's director of policy planning, announced his resignation amid speculation that he was unhappy with Abrams and the Administration's handling of the rift with European leaders. In late February, according to a scoop in the Los Angeles Times, the State Department's analysts produced a classified report expressing doubt that installing a new government in Iraq will encourage the spread of democracy in the region. If some sort of democracy did arise in Iraq--a prospect the report deemed unlikely--it could well lead to an Islamist-controlled government opposed to Washington. Since the report directly countered the White House line, it could be expected to have no impact on policy. Then there's the matter of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who in his daily press briefings often acts as if he is Secretary of State.

Bush has shoved aside the State Department--and all the expertise and experience its officers can offer--at a moment when international challenges are mounting. It's one of the immeasurable costs of this war.

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