Wanted: Patron Saint for Dissenting Diplomats

Retired Ambassador Edward Marks recently wrote about communication and dissent in the February 2009 issue of the Foreign Service Journal:

“The dissent awards program, now in its 40th year, is unique in the U.S. government—yet few know about it outside our own community. When I described the program to military colleagues at the U.S. Pacific Command a few years ago, they were astonished, remarking that there was no chance such a program could exist among Defense Department employees or probably any other federal agency. The dissent program counters every cliché about “striped-pants diplomats” and deserves to be much better known.”

He suggested that AFSA seek out “patrons” for the dissent program proposing that if the incumbent Secretary of State is not interested, past secretaries might be or the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, might help give it the appropriate prominence it deserves. The ranking member of the SFRC as patron may not be a bad idea, except that I am reminded of my late buddy, Jesse Helms; then it’s not such a good idea. The Secretary of State as patron, not necessarily Hillary — reminds me of something else.

Almost 40 years ago this year, Archer Blood was our top diplomat in Bangladesh. He was the Consul General to Dhaka, East Pakistan and was famous for sending the strongly-worded dissent telegram protesting against the atrocities committed in the Bangladesh Liberation War. [See Dissent From U.S. Policy Toward East Pakistan Cable (PDF); Selective Genocide Cable (PDF)]

Below is the transcript of the conversation between then Secretary of State William P. Rogers (55th) and the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs, Henry Kissinger (who later became our 56th Secretary of State) on that dissent telegram from our diplomats in Dhaka.

Washington, April 6, 1971, 9:35 a.m.
(extracted from the FRUS, South Asia Crisis, 1971, pp 45-48)

~ ~ ~

R: I wanted to talk about that goddam message from our people in Dacca. Did you see it?

K: No.

R: It’s miserable. They bitched about our policy and have given it lots of distribution so it will probably leak. It’s inexcusable.

K: And it will probably get to Ted Kennedy.

R: I am sure it will.

K: Somebody gives him cables. I have had him call me about them.

R: It’s a terrible telegram. Couldn’t be worse—says we failed to defend American lives and are morally bankrupt.

K: Blood did that?

R: Quite a few of them signed it. You know we are doing everything we can about it. Trying to get the telegrams back as many as we can. We are going to get a message back to them.

K: I am going in these [next] two days to keep it from the President until he has given his speech.

R: If you can keep it from him I will appreciate it. In the first place I think we have made a good choice.

K: The Chinese haven’t said anything.

R: They talk about condemning atrocities. There are pictures of the East Pakistanis murdering people.

K: Yes. There was one of an East Pakistani holding a head. Do you remember when they said there were 1000 bodies and they had the graves and then we couldn’t find 20?

R: To me it is outrageous they would send this.

K: Unless it hits the wires I will hold it. I will not forward it.

R: We should get our answers out at the same time the stories come out.

K: I will not pass it on.

~ ~ ~

Ted Kennedy and the wires, there you go. There are guardians and there are guardians.

This happened a long time ago, 38 years this April to be exact. Mr. Blood received the Christian A. Herter Award in 1971 (one of the AFSA dissent awards) for “extraordinary accomplishment involving initiative, integrity, intellectual courage and creative dissent,” but his career suffered. “I paid a price for my dissent. But I had no choice,” he told The Post in 1982. “The line between right and wrong was just too clear-cut” (WaPo, 2004)

Although Blood was scheduled for another 18 month tour in Dhaka, President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recalled him from that position and reassigned him to Personnel — since his opposition went against their hopes of using the support of West Pakistan for diplomatic openings to China and to counter the power of the Soviet Union.

When Archer Blood passed away in 2004, Joe Galloway wrote:

When Archer K. Blood died last month, in retirement in Colorado, there was family, a few old friends and an entire nation to mourn his passing, but the nation that grieved for him was not his own. It was Bangladesh […] His death made headlines in Bangladesh, the nation that emerged in 1971 as Blood predicted. A delegation of Bengalis attended his memorial service in Fort Collins, Colorado. His wife, Margaret, has been swamped with mail from Bangladesh.

The Foreign Affairs Manual (
2 FAM 072) states that “The value of the Dissent Channel depends not only on its unimpeded availability but also on its appropriate use. It is a serious policy channel reserved only for consideration of responsible dissenting and alternative views on substantive foreign policy issues that cannot be communicated in a full and timely manner through regular operating channels or procedures (e.g., when the inability to resolve concrete differences of opinion on substantive foreign policy issues has prevented such views from being reported).”

No, I think the real value of the dissent channel is how seriously the message is responsibly considered up in the 7th Floor. But I don’t expect the DOS lawyers to include that in the Foreign Affairs Manual.

I supposed somebody would point out that this was from another era, and our current diplomats are not penalized like Mr. Blood for their dissenting views.

But as late as 2005, AFSA indicated that its annual dissent awards are in danger of becoming a thing of the past and feared that constructive dissent may be disappearing from the landscape of the Foreign Service. These awards, according to Steve Kashkett, were created to encourage those willing to speak out forthrightly, in appropriate channels, to express alternative points of view on policy matters, have attracted a dwindling number of nominees over the past few years. To put this in perspective, he points to the numbers: “In 1977, the Executive Secretariat logged in some 32 Dissent Channel messages. By contrast, in 2005, you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of Foreign Service professionals who have sent in a Dissent Channel message.”

You think the numbers will get better in the next four years?

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