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Fog Over Foggy Bottom

The foreign policy establishment challenges Trump

Welcome to This American Carnage, your weekly slice of life from the country of Trump

On Monday, news broke of a fresh bureaucratic uprising—this time through a memo posted to the State Department’s Dissent Channel expressing the dissatisfaction of nearly 1000 employees with Donald Trump’s executive order implementing a de facto Muslim ban.

The channel was founded in 1971 under Richard Nixon, two years before the New York Times broke the story about the U.S. bombings of Cambodia. As collective protests within the department had become a mainstay during the Vietnam era—the most prominent act of internal dissent was carried out by former Under Secretary of State George Ball—Nixon’s foremost concern was the voice of these dissenters making its way into the mainstream media. Memos from the channel were to be handled by the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, who would distribute them to senior officials and provide a substantive reply within thirty to sixty working days.

“One effect of the Dissent Channel was to ensure that diplomatic dissent writing would not be leaked to the public,” wrote Hannah Gurman in her book The Dissent Papers: The Voices of Diplomats in the Cold War and Beyond. In effect, it was a steam valve for the increasingly bureaucratized foreign-policy world, an outlet that effectively streamlined the policymaking process rather than changing it.

Aside from this week’s memo on the president’s executive order to “suspend entry [of foreign aliens from seven countries] into the United States, as immigrants and nonimmigrants,” the channel was most recently used to voice support for a somewhat surprising policy, considering the channel’s generally anti-war history: a no-fly zone in Syria. In June 2016, a memo signed by fifty-one career foreign services officers called for a stronger military response in the country. (This, it’s worth noting, came at a time when most political analysts were assured Hillary Clinton would seize the White House in November—and it was a policy she had repeatedly endorsed despite the Obama administration’s aversion to it.) Compared to the internal response to Trump’s executive order, the mere fifty-one signatures the memo received seems pitiful, but it wasn’t seen as such at the time.

Unlike the no-fly zone memo, the one in response to Trump’s executive order displays a sort of frightened urgency—a frantic response from foreign policy professionals watching the world around them crumble. Their objections—including that the ban will sour relations with the six countries listed, that it will “increase anti-American sentiment,” that it will have an “immediate and clear humanitarian impact,” among others—aren’t novel. Nor, for that matter, are the appeals to American “values” and norms, or the talking points regarding damage to our standing in the international community and our national security. Most of these objections had also found their way into a letter from some hundred-plus former foreign policy professionals, which included such signatories as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, former CIA director Michael Hayden, and many others.

The document, though, does make a point to cede some ground to Trump and agrees, at least vaguely, with his assertion that the “vetting” process ought to be improved.

Combined with a mass firing of senior State Department officials and the Trump administration’s almost Nixonian distaste for dissent, it’s hard to say whether this show of solidarity will have much, if any, effect. But Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, offered at least one substantive reaction: he proclaimed that “they should either get with the program or they can go.”