On January 30, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer delivered a thinly veiled threat to the State Department officials who drafted a dissent memo against President Donald Trump’s executive order halting the refugee program and barring citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. “Those career bureaucrats have a problem with it? They should either get with the program or they can go,” Spicer said, just days after the White House purged several senior officials who held administrative positions in the State Department. With these words, the Trump regime escalated its attack on the federal agencies that dare to disagree with its fiats.
The five-page memo, which was signed by some 1,000 Foreign Service officers and submitted to Acting Secretary of State Tom Shannon yesterday, is a classic expression of the liberal internationalism that has characterized the State Department since the end of World War II. It blends a pragmatic defense of the US national interest with a principled argument on behalf of American values. “A policy which closes our doors to over 200 million legitimate travelers in the hopes of preventing a small number of travelers who intend to harm Americans from using the visa system to enter the United States will not achieve its aim of making our country safer,” the memo reads. “Moreover, such a policy runs counter to core American values of nondiscrimination, fair play, and extending a warm welcome to foreign visitors and immigrants.”
In many respects, the memo is extraordinary. With approximately 1,000 signatures, it is by far the biggest dissent message in the history of the State Department. The second-biggest dissent message in the department, written in response to Obama’s Syria policy, had 51 signatories. It is also part of a growing trend in which State Department dissenters have leaked their internal memos to the press. The first State Department officer to do so was Brady Kiesling, who resigned from the department in protest of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
At the same time, the massive protest against Trump’s executive order belongs to a long tradition of dissent in the diplomatic establishment. I wrote about the culture of dissent in the State Department in my book, The Dissent Paper: The Voices of Diplomats in the Cold War and Beyond. So embedded is the culture of dissent among career diplomats that the State Department has an official Dissent Channel. Created in 1971 during the Vietnam War, this mechanism allows rank-and-file Foreign Service officers to express their disagreements with the reigning policy directly to senior policymakers. The secretary of state is obliged to read and respond to all Dissent Channel messages within 90 days. To this day, the Dissent Channel has no parallel in other agencies of the federal government. It is a unique experiment in the management of bureaucratic dissent.