Foreign Service Dissent Award Snubs Most Vocal Foreign Service Dissenter of the Year

The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the professional association of the United States Foreign Service presents an annual set of awards for “intellectual courage and creative dissent.

It has four dissent awards:

  • F. Allen “Tex” Harris Award for a Foreign Service Specialist
  • W. Averell Harriman Award for a junior officer (FS 7-FS 4)
  • William R. Rivkin Award for a mid-level officer, (FS 3-FS 1)
  • Christian A. Herter Award for a member of the Senior Foreign Service (FE OC-FE CA)

Here is AFSA’s Criteria for its Dissent Awards:

The 2012 Dissent Awards via AFSA (excerpt):

This year’s AFSA awards for intellectual courage, initiative and integrity in the context of constructive dissent will be presented to the following Foreign Service employees, who challenged the system despite the possible consequences.  The winner will receive a small globe with their name and a framed certificate.

The winner of the 2012 William R. Rivkin Award for constructive dissent by a mid-level Foreign Service officer is Joshua Polacheck. Mr. Polacheck consistently and over some time made well-reasoned arguments against the U.S. security posture as it related to U.S. embassies, consulates and missions abroad. He submitted a highly cogent dissent channel cable, raising concerns that “consistently erring on the side of caution” when it comes to security choices sends “a message of distrust to the people of our host nations” and makes it difficult to roll back enhanced security measures should the need arise. Mr. Polacheck came to this conclusion after serving in Iraq, Pakistan and Lebanon. The judges were impressed with his willingness to raise a well-argued concern on an issue that often complicates U.S. policy and the carrying out of diplomatic and development work abroad.

The AFSA Awards and Plaques Committee did not select any winners this year for AFSA’s other dissent awards: The F. Allen “Tex” Harris Award for Foreign Service specialists, the W. Averell Harriman Award for constructive dissent by an entry-level Foreign Service officer, or the Christian A. Herter Award for Senior Foreign Service members.

So there — this year, there are no winners for three of AFSA’s four dissent awards.  The only one with a declared winner is the Rivkin Award for a mid-level officer (FS 3-FS 1). The award is named after William Rivkin, a US Army officer and former US Ambassador to Luxembourg and Senegal, who is also the father Charles H. Rivkin, the current US Ambassador to France.

We understand that two nominations were submitted for the Rivkin Award for FSO Peter Van Buren, but since he did not get the award, AFSA’s panel must think that he did not “go out on a limb” enough, or “stick his neck out in a way” that involves some risk.  Which is kind of sorta funny since the last we heard, Van Buren’s neck is definitely on the chopping block.  Revenge of the chickens for writing about chicken crap.  But seriously, he sure did challenge the system from within by not resigning, didn’t he?

The word backstage is that folks were reportedly “not happy” about the Van Buren nominations since the nominee did not follow proper channels, or dissent was not constructive, or something along those lines.  Our guesstimate is that “challenging the system from within” does not really mean that you are within the system when you’re doing the challenging, it simply means that that you’re challenging the system with proper punctuation marks observed without offending too many folks and not rattling too many cages.

Or wait — maybe if he quit … and wasn’t so loud, and did not give so many interviews, and did not call people names,  you think, they might have given him the award for demonstrating nicely and quietly, “the intellectual courage to challenge the system from within, to question the status quo and take a stand, no matter the sensitivity of the issue or the consequences of their actions.”  

The book was done nicely though, it wasn’t distasteful or anything, and it wasn’t in ALL CAPS, so he wasn’t really shouting.

Oh, let’s sleep on this. Maybe tomorrow we’ll wake up and find that Fulbright’s quote is really a joke gone bad.

Here we thought dissent is a dying tradition in the Foreign Service … ahnd, it might just be.

Why? Well, we didn’t hear too much non-official dissent around here, and if AFSA’s candidates’ pool  is running empty, it could only mean that not too many people are using the official Dissent Channel. Or whoever used it in the recent past were deemed not worthy of these awards.

But — before you jump into wrongheaded conclusions, be reminded that not too very long ago, Ambassador Alfred Atherton, then Director General of the Foreign Service, was quoted saying: “it is possible that the decline in the use of the dissent channel you’ve cited represents the success of the system …rather than a deliberate effort to squelch differing views.”

And we don’t think he was kidding then when he said what he said.

Just to be clear, AFSA is a dues-collecting non-government membership organization. It sure can set its own criteria for its awards, the dissent awards included. But perhaps, it should amplify its own rules for rewarding dissent — that it’s only good for the nice form not the long form, hair on fire kind. These awards are for the special kind of dissent, the “constructive kind only” — the ones that do not topple the chairs.  So contrary to Fulbright’s words, the test of dissent’s value is really in its taste?

“For over forty years AFSA has sponsored a program to recognize and encourage constructive dissent and risk-taking in the Foreign Service. This is unique within the U.S. Government. The Director General of the Foreign Service is a co-sponsor of the annual ceremony where the dissent awards are conferred. AFSA is proud to have upheld the tradition of constructive dissent for these many years, and we look forward to our ongoing role in recognizing those who have the courage to buck the system to stand up for their beliefs.”

Hey, stop laughing over there!

Oh, where were we? So this is just as well. Imagine if Van Buren got the dissent award? The Director General of the Foreign Service whose office is pursuing Mr. Van Buren’s dismissal would have been in a twilightzoney spot of handing an award to the State Department’s top ranking FSO-non grata. Of course, that pix would have been something to pin on Pinterest.

Anyway, this got us thinking — which can sometimes get problematic.

If dissent is one important index of political integrity within the Foreign Service, what does it mean, that 1) the tide pool is so shallow AFSA could only find one winner in this year’s awards and 2) that it has ignored the most vocal Foreign Service dissenter of the year?

We don’t know the answer but it is disturbing that bucking the system and standing for one’s beliefs have asterisks.

Domani Spero

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11 responses

  1. Some points on this issue that should be noted. No one is claiming that AFSA’s dissent program is all encompassing, merely that it is one effort by one organization to make a contribution to openness and free dialogue. Accept or reject it for what it is, not for its failure to be everything.

    Secondly, much of the comment demonstrates the long-standing confusion in many people’s minds between AFSA’s program and the Department’s dissent program. They are not the same and do not apply the same criteria.

    Finally, for all their faults and imperfections, both programs are unique (can two programs be unique?) in the Federal Government. How about some credit for at least trying to hold up the flag and some support for the effort, instead of carping because the flag is tattered?

  2. This is why in 34 years in the Foreign Service I never joined AFSA. It was and is a bad joke. The dissent channel is also a bad joke, as I know from personal experience. Dissent is not kept confidential and is spread quickly; you would be surprised how many people end up reading your dissent and, frankly, getting even . . .

    • Diplomad – Frankly, I think that if State is really serious about its Dissent Channel, it should have an annual round up of dissent received and the corresponding policies it changed. That protects the dissenter, and it educates the American public about the political integrity of our diplomats. Perhaps then, we would learn what our folks on the ground really think about our continuing massive presence in Iraq, about that civilian surge in Afghanistan, our crazy bad engagement with Pakistan, etc. etc.

      But we both know that this is not going to happen. The Dissent Channel has an internal, organizational function — one can let off steam in a cable and think somebody is listening. Just because they’re listening does not mean that they heard you.

        • I’m sorry to hear that Diplomad. I still think sunshine is the best disinfectant. If everyone knew about it, they would have to think twice as hard about retaliation. That’s my theory, in any case.

  3. One of the principal, immutable requirements for an AFSA award for Constructive Dissent (the ONLY organization in the Federal Government that has such a program) is that the struggle take place entirely ‘within the system’. No turning to the media, or the Congress or any other outside organization. Dissenters must work exclusively inside the Department to change the internal policy or management issue with which they disagree. While those that decide to go public may indeed make a valuable contribution, and more power to them, but they are not eligible for AFSA dissent awards.

    • Ambassador Peck,
      Thank you for your note, you are thought of fondly in our house. I appreciate your elaboration on the awards and trying to understand why this is so, particularly in an organization as risk-averse as the State Department. I don’t know that keeping dissent in-house necessarily serves all of us well in the end.

      I wish I have time to do FOIA requests for the dissent registered after the Reagan years. But most particularly the last ten tumultuous years. That should give us an idea how much of these official dissent actually led to a change in our policies.

  4. No disrespect intended to Mr. Polacheck, but “raising concerns that “consistently erring on the side of caution” when it comes to security choices sends “a message of distrust to the people of our host nations” and makes it difficult to roll back enhanced security measures should the need arise” is such an utterly vanilla and safely-inside-the-mainstream opinion (within the State Department) that it is laughable this merited a “dissent channel” cable, let alone an award.

    The folks responsible for ensuring the security of our diplomatic facilities regularly fight the pendulum swing against robust physical security measures. It is only when a Beirut embassy bombing, or the dual attacks on embassies Nairobi and Dar-El-Salaam occur that the hue and cry goes forth and hundreds of millions of dollars are appropriated by Congress.