The Real Debate Over Israel Is Taking Place Behind Closed Doors

T. Belman.This article is the opposite of what I thought it was. It highlights the opposition to Biden’s “decision to aggressively back Israel’s war against Hamas.” While Israel complains Biden is screwing us, many in the US administration are complining he is doing too much for Israel.

It’s a much better discussion than the one taking place in public.


Consider the fallout from my colleague Nahal Toosi’s report this week about State Department staffers signing a formal dissent cable. The political reaction was a pretty good Rorschach test of America’s ideological divide.

On the far left, the dissenters were heroes, bravely speaking out against an immoral American position. On the far right, they were deep-state scoundrels, an example of the bureaucratic sabotage that will be rooted out in a second Donald Trump presidency.

Reached for comment, officials merely referred to a spokesman’s old statements about how dissent is part of the process and higher-ups welcome opinions from staff. It wasn’t so different from the official reaction to the slew of other recent reports about staff fury over the Gaza war in various institutions of political Washington: No nastygrams or firings, but no concessions, either.

It’s a posture that’s well in keeping with the standard, responsible Washington view on what’s supposed to happen when the worker bees disagree with the bosses on a matter of policy. They deserve to get their say, but don’t have to get their way.

But now, a month into the biggest foreign policy divide since the rise of social media, Slack and other newfangled tools that empower unhappy underlings, it’s not clear whether sticking to the process is enough — either for the folks who agree with the dissenters, or the ones who think a president should toss them out on their ears.

Here’s the short version of the longstanding Beltway moral consensus on speaking out: Resigning on principle is admirable. Sticking around and subverting a policy from within is bad. Disagreeing as part of the process is noble. Making a spectacle of yourself while you’re still on the payroll is tawdry.

By that standard, there’s a rough Washington hierarchy of the highest-profile federal-paycheck dissents against the administration’s decision to aggressively back Israel’s war against Hamas:

The resignation of Josh Paul, the State Department official who quit last month to protest a policy “that I believe to be shortsighted, destructive, unjust, and contradictory to the very values that we publicly espouse” — good. He decided he couldn’t support a policy, and dealt with the consequences, including losing his paycheck.

The dissent-channel memo POLITICO reported this week, in which numerous Department staffers declared that “when Israel supports settler violence and illegal land seizures or employs excessive use of force against Palestinians, we must communicate publicly that this goes against our American values so that Israel does not act with impunity” — also good. The whole point of the dissent process is to allow professionals to register differences of opinion without being punished, something that can help a bureaucracy avoid mistakes born of group-think.

The open letter from hundreds of Jewish and Muslim Capitol Hill staffers who cited “the Palestinian civilians who are enduring catastrophic suffering at the hands of the Israeli government” and called for a cease-fire — not so good. The signatories, who as congressional employees can be sacked for speaking out, didn’t actually attach their own names, which lent it a pusillanimous air. Even more important from the credentials-obsessed Beltway establishment point of view, it made it unclear whether these were bona fide experts or just folks whose jobs gave them the chance to tweak their employers.

The Axios scoop this week about junior State Department official Sylvia Yacoub, who emailed colleagues in search of signatures for a dissent cable but also used her personal X account to assail Biden as “complicit in genocide” and Vice President Kamala Harris as “embarrassingly out of touch” — lousy. The social-media political broadsides look unprofessional, undercutting the disagreement with administration policy. (After Axios contacted her, Yacoub, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, made her tweets private.)

The common denominator of all these judgments is the notion that principled policy complaints should involve private conversations between professionals.

That’s an idea that was much more suited to an age before technology allowed dissenters to gather in-house support via bulk texts and forwarded emails — and before their protests were able to quickly become part of a roiling social-media conversation involving the general public as well as the bigwigs who make policy.

In part because Biden has done the right thing — it’s good organizational management to hear out serious dissenters and not demonize them — the current collision between a professional culture of discretion and a social media culture of publicity makes for a weird and opaque sort of news, goosing everyone’s suspicions and not doing much to enlighten.

If you’re inclined to view the Washington bureaucracy as a hotbed of disloyalists, your fears are confirmed. And if you’re inclined to see the Biden administration as riding roughshod over the pros in the name of politics, those fears are confirmed, too.

The odd, semi-public nature of the Israel-Hamas war internal disagreement has been a long time coming. During the Trump years, a series of florid, morally driven resignation letters from diplomats and career public servants became public. Some 1,000 State Department employees also signed a formal dissent cable against the ban on travel from seven Muslim countries.

It’s the sort of crowd that would have been impossible when the dissent channel was first established 50 years ago, at a time when you pretty much had to be in the same place to organize such a memo — meaning smaller cohorts of signatories and less likelihood of going public. (Not that it always kept things mum: The original dissent cable, the famous 1971 “Blood Telegram” from a small group of U.S. diplomats who objected to American support for a brutal Pakistani military crackdown at their post in what is now Bangladesh, eventually made it into the press, enraging Richard Nixon.)

Nowadays, meanwhile, internal critics can be one leak (or one tweet) away from being household names — a status that provides a platform to call out wrongheaded policies, but also enables opponents to deride critics as publicity seekers.

The letter made huge news when it became public. But Feeley hadn’t meant for it to become an event. “I resigned, intending to go out quietly,” he told me. But the letter was leaked, he says, by political appointees who wanted to show the world “that there was a deep state at State.” Even though a lot of the ensuing coverage treated him as a hero, the episode had a nasty edge about it.

Feeley didn’t quit over a specific policy disagreement, and only spoke out once his letter had leaked and he was a private citizen. He said this week that when it comes to folks still on the job, keeping dissent in the family is the best way to make an impact. “It has all the effectiveness of a fart in a hurricane,” he said of Yacoub’s social media posts. “When you’re doing what she did, which is openly advocating against policy, and you still collect a paycheck.”

Paul, who posted his resignation letter last month in response to the American policy on the Israel-Hamas war, said he was nonetheless surprised at how far and how fast it spread. (He’d posted it on LinkedIn, “which is not exactly known for going viral.”) When it landed, the outreach was immediate, an “overwhelming response from colleagues from around the world, both inside the State Department and across government, including on the Hill and Department of Defense and elsewhere. … They just said that they support the stance I’ve taken. They are finding this issue immensely difficult to deal with in terms of its emotional toll, in terms of their disagreement with policies that have been pursued both by the administration and by Congress. And, in some cases just reaching out asking for counseling.”

When I asked about how the spotlight shapes the impact of dissent from within the ranks, Paul also talked about the internal reasoning behind the idea of going through proper channels. “I don’t think it is necessarily helpful for public attention to be paid to, specifically, the State Department dissent channel because that is supposed to be an internal forum for dissent. And when it goes public, and when it is politicized, as particularly the Afghan dissent cable was last summer, I think that disincentivizes people from joining the same cables, and I think it also makes the administration take the content of those cables less seriously.”

In a Trump presidency, of course, there might have been another very real consequence both for the folks who speak out publicly and the ones who go through proper channels: The very real possibility of a presidential social media attack on the critics as pro-terrorist or anti-American or otherwise deserving of whatever the trolls could send their way.

That’s not Biden’s move, to his credit. But in reading Paul’s resignation or the dissent cable, I wonder whether it would be better for the administration to actually engage with the sorts of criticism being leveled by its own staff.

Right now, the most attention-getting skepticism about the administration’s full embrace of the Israel-Hamas war comes from people who accuse Biden of genocide — and takes place against a backdrop where a fair number of activists have tiptoed toward excusing Hamas. By contrast, the internal dissenters who have made news this month were appalled by Hamas’ brutality and largely focused on America’s own national interests, values and credibility, the sort of hard-headed conversations that are largely missing in the social media fray. It’s not to say that they’re right, just that it might be more edifying for the country than the one-sided exchange between team Biden and a crowd of angry sloganeers.

“I mean, obviously, I’m biased — I spent 30 years in the organization,” Feeley said. “But they’re really good debates. … One of the things I think that you can say about people who, one, join the Department of State and two, who dissent, is that they tend to be people who are very comfortable living in a world of gray. They can hold two opposing thoughts at the same time. And they can see the validity in both of them. And you know, at the end of the day, sometimes you can’t do both of them. So you gotta come down on one side, and that’s where some of the nastiest fights take place.”

November 12, 2023 | 1 Comment »

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  1. Bizarre that Politico thinks that the ‘deep state: bureaucrats are the conscience of the U.S.government. Even more bizarre is their belief that the Biden administration has :fully embraced” Israel’s war against Hamas, when even a cursory reading of their own bosses’ own demands for a “cease-fire” by Israel, “humanitarian aid” to Hamas, including a three-hour daily window: to allow U,S, resupplies of Hamas, American supply of fuel to Hamas, etc. should make them a ware that the State Department is carrying out the very policies that the deep-state bureaucrats advocate. Saying ‘yes” to all the demands of the deep-staters is not enough to get them on board U.S. policies toward Israel and Hamas.