Morbid Symptoms / November 1, 2023

Memo to Biden Admistration Policy Dissidents: Don’t Mourn. Resign.

The best thing staffers frustrated by the president’s policy in the Israel-Gaza war can do is quit.

Jeet Heer
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) hugs US President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport on October 18, 2023. (Brendan Smialowski / Getty)

Working in the American national security state is never an easy job for people with ethical scruples—but it has become all the more difficult lately. The Biden administration has given nearly full-throttle support to Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza, which in its first few days took hundreds of civilian lives. This support has been only mildly tempered by rhetorical provisos warning Israel about obeying international law and cautioning against the risks of a ground invasion. But these words are just lip service to human rights. They stand in stark contrast to the administration’s deeds: protecting Israel from international condemnation in the United Nations and ramping up military aid.

Many who work in the Biden administration, particularly in the State Department, are experiencing a crisis of conscience comparable to the one endured during the George W. Bush era. By only weakly criticizing Israel while giving it a de facto blank check, the United States is undermining all its claims on behalf of human rights and the so-called liberal international order.

On October 17, senior State Department official Josh Paul resigned from his post. In his resignation letter, Paul described Hamas’s actions as a “monstrosity of monstrosities” but argued that “the response Israel is taking, and with it the American support both for that response, and for the status quo of the occupation, will only lead to more and deeper suffering for both the Israeli and the Palestinian people.”

Paul is not alone in his fear that the Biden administration is planting the seeds of future violence—including the possibility of the United States’ direct engagement in another Middle Eastern war. Paul later told The New York Times that he received many private messages in response to his resignation saying, in effect, “We feel similarly and understand.”

On October 18, HuffPost reported that “several U.S. officials” have complained off the record that “it has become difficult to have a full debate within [Biden’s] administration about what’s happening in Israel-Palestine—and in particular that people who want to talk about Israeli restraint or humanitarian protections for Palestinians feel stifled.” Government officials with a Muslim background feel particularly silenced.

One career civil servant told HuffPost: “I’m trying to educate people about Palestine through social media, but I’m worried I’ll lose my security clearance for criticizing the president or blaming the U.S. for civilian massacre. I feel like there’s no place for me in America anymore, and I’m on thin ice with my clearance because of my heritage and because I care about my people dying.”

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This sentiment was echoed by a staffer in the administration: “There is a sense that the administration’s policy decisions show stunning disregard for innocent Palestinians—and that same dehumanization is also reflected in how staff are being treated.”

People of conscience in the administration and civil service have several options. They can continue leaking their discontent. If they see evidence of the government supporting war crimes, they can become whistleblowers.

But the final option they should consider is simply to follow the path of Josh Paul and resign.

A mass of resignations by government officials and White House staffers might prompt a real political debate on the Biden administration’s morally compromised and reckless policies.

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Unlike other advanced democracies, the United States does not have a robust tradition of public officials resigning in protest. In 1915, William Jennings Bryan resigned as secretary of state in objection to Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy, which Bryan rightly believed was leading the United States into the First World War. In 1973, when Richard Nixon wanted to fire the special prosecutor Archibald Cox in order to shut down the investigation into the Watergate scandal, Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned. In 2018, James Mattis resigned as secretary of defense in protest over Donald Trump’s Syria policy.

But we remember these resignations precisely because they are so rare. By contrast, countless government officials have gone along with ethically dubious policies for a host of reasons: job security and the fear of losing future employment opportunities, political partisanship, and the desire to be a team player.

In 1975, in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate, the political scientists Edward Weisband and Thomas M. Franck published a study titled Resignation in Protest. They noted that the United States has a political culture “that fosters conformity rather than conviction, group loyalty rather than individual accountability, that borrows its terminology from the language of corporate athletics—in which a man’s willingness to ‘play ball’ is his true measure—rather than from moral ethics.”

In 1946, Dean Acheson, soon to be named secretary of state, said that “the most exclusive club in America” is “the club of men in public life who have resigned in a cause of conscience.” At the time, Acheson could think of only two members of that club.

It’s an exclusive club precisely because of the incentive structure created by official Washington. Those who resign from the Biden administration in protest will face ostracism from the political elite and undying enmity from their former colleagues. Their job prospects will be blighted. Conversely, those who go along with immoral policies will continue to flourish, as the McNamaras, the Kissingers, and indeed the Tony Blinkens have continued to prosper after supporting criminal wars.

The price of resignation is high. Yet consider the price of not resigning—doing nothing to halt a human rights catastrophe or prevent the United States from being caught in another war in the Middle East. Given these stakes, resignation in protest is the only honorable course.

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Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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