Resign or Remain: Some Diplomats Face a Taxing Dilemma

There is always tension between trying to affect change in a bureaucracy quietly and resigning publicly to protest a policy.


Anthony Lake (left), who resigned from the Foreign Service during the Vietnam War, later became President Bill Clinton's first national security adviser. AP file photo.

U.S. diplomats are often tasked with implementing policies they don’t personally support. In most cases, their opposition has to do with a policy’s effectiveness and chance of success. At times, however, the problem is much bigger. What do diplomats do when they feel they work for an administration whose policies they believe to be both ineffective and ethically or morally wrong?

For several Foreign Service officers who disagreed with the Vietnam War half a century ago, Washington’s early failure to stop the war in Bosnia in the 1990s, the 2003 invasion of Iraq or Donald Trump’s unilateralism, the answer was to resign. That was also the case last October with Josh Paul, not a Foreign Service officer, but a member of the Civil Service, which staffs domestic positions at the State Department. Paul left in protest of the Biden administration’s support for Israel’s current assault on Hamas in Gaza, after spending 11 years in the department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, whose responsibilities include vetting U.S. arms transfers to foreign countries.

Paul’s specific objection was to Israel’s use of U.S.-supplied weapons to inflict large numbers of civilian deaths in Gaza. His decision raises questions about the effectiveness of such a resignation in changing policy and alternatives to quitting. As public as Paul’s protest was, with significant media attention, it hasn’t stopped U.S. military assistance to Israel so far, even if the administration has called on Israel to reduce civilian casualties. In fact, some of the funding for these weapons is related to commitments made in connection with the 1978 Camp David Accords and the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. Egypt also receives U.S. military aid tied to these agreements.

There is always tension between trying to affect change in a bureaucracy by working inside the system and resigning publicly to elicit support for such change. A decision often comes down to an individual’s moral judgment. As government employees, diplomats are expected to carry out the president’s policies. But as citizens of a democracy, they also have a right to their own opinions. Most diplomats disagree with official policy at some point in their careers. Very few, however, conclude that their objections are so serious as to justify quitting a profession they love.

During 35 years in the Foreign Service, I felt fortunate that, while often implementing policies I found misguided or ineffective, I was never directly involved in an issue I thought was morally wrong. I worked as an attorney in the State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser, supporting the 1993 Oslo Accords, when there was true hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians — until a right-wing Israeli extremist assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. During the creation of the Palestinian Authority, there were sharp disagreements among U.S. policymakers about whether Yasser Arafat and his compatriots could be trusted to govern the Palestinian people or were simply rebranded terrorists. But statesmen must make decisions one way or another, often at personal risk.

What makes a big difference for career employees is whether an administration welcomes or discourages dissenting opinions. During the Vietnam War, both the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon administrations did the latter. Diplomatic reporting from the field that disagreed with official policy or didn’t paint a rosy picture of what was happening was suppressed. The inability to raise a contrary view not only fueled the frustration of dedicated diplomats, but also harmed the decision-making of the U.S. leadership by giving it a distorted view of reality. Among the Foreign Service officers who resigned over Nixon’s 1970 invasion of Cambodia was Anthony Lake, who would later become President Bill Clinton’s national security adviser.

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Around that time, 250 Foreign Service officers and other State Department employees sent a letter to Secretary of State William P. Rogers with concerns about the U.S. bombing campaign in Cambodia. This and other public and private disagreements led to the creation in 1971 of the department’s so-called dissent channel to provide a method for employees to express concerns and offer recommendations to their leadership. This was later formalized in the department’s Foreign Affairs Manual, which included protections from retaliation or reprisal for those using the channel. Even with those protections, some officers still see a risk to their careers and refrain from utilizing the channel.

The first dissent-channel message came soon after its inception, when Archer K. Blood, the U.S. consul general in then-East Pakistan, which would soon become independent Bangladesh, and 20 other officers called on the Nixon administration to condemn atrocities being carried out by the Pakistani military. Since then, the channel has been used more than 400 times. On a few occasions, the criticism led to change, mostly in internal State Department regulations and processes, rather than in high-stakes policies. But even when messages through the channel made no direct impact, they still provided constructive criticism and a mechanism for employees to feel heard.

Some diplomats don’t believe that the dissent channel is enough to register their disagreement with official policies or actions. When Lake and two others resigned in 1970, they felt that their presence in the Nixon administration no longer offered an opportunity to have a positive impact. In 1993, three officers — Stephen Walker, the State Department’s Croatia desk officer, Marshall Freeman Harris, Bosnia desk officer, and Jon Western from the Bureau of Intelligence and Research — all resigned over the Clinton administration’s policy in Bosnia. Lake was working at the White House at the time. Eventually, following persistent domestic and international pressure, the administration did get involved and brokered the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war in 1995.

While Walker’s, Harris’ and Western’s resignations contributed to the factors that led to change in policy, that is rarely the case overall. When Foreign Service officers John Brady Kiesling, Ann Wright and John Brown left the service to protest the 2003 Iraq war, nothing changed. That was also the case with Matthew Hoh, who quit over U.S. policy in Afghanistan in 2009.

After Josh Paul resigned in October, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that he had received at least three dissent-channel messages criticizing the Biden administration’s policy in the current Israel-Hamas war. He also claimed to be listening to them. Although they haven’t prompted a policy change, at least Blinken has encouraged disagreement and dissent from career professionals. In contrast, the Trump administration made clear that it cared little about what diplomats thought.