The Unquiet Americans

Three longtime Foreign Service officers who quit their jobs over U.S. policy in Iraq are part of a State Department tradition.

Dear Mr. Secretary: I am writing you to submit my resignation from the Foreign Service of the United States."

With that first sentence of a scathing letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell in February, John Brady Kiesling threw his 20-year government career out the window.

Kiesling, a 45-year-old Foreign Service officer at the U.S. embassy in Athens, had been unraveling for months. He was forgetting to perform mundane daily tasks. He had trouble getting out of bed every morning. Kiesling was fighting his conscience, and he was losing.

As the political counselor of the embassy, Kiesling had to explain and promote U.S. policies to journalists, government officials and anyone whom the State Department wanted to influence. In Athens, that included Greek diplomats and their European counterparts, since Greece held the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union. For months before his resignation, Kiesling tried to convince an increasingly skeptical audience that it was a good idea for the United States to invade Iraq.

It was a tough sell. Kiesling found the Bush administration's rationale for invasion unsupportable. He believed senior leaders incorrectly linked the al Qaeda terror network to Iraq, and thus risked dissolving the global backing for the U.S.-led war on terrorism that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Harder still was convincing U.S. allies that the Bush administration's position was defensible, Kiesling says. The Sept. 11 attacks "gave us a license to be stupid," he says. America's friends, appalled by the attacks, could accept the U.S. pursuit of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and terrorists elsewhere in the world, but not an invasion of another country by the United States, he thought.

But after Bush's Sept. 12, 2002, speech to the United Nations General Assembly, in which he demanded action against the Iraqi regime, many of the people Kiesling tried to persuade stopped believing him.

Foreign diplomats had fumed at U.S. officials' refusal to support international agreements such as the Kyoto pollution reduction treaty and the pact forming the International Criminal Court. Now, important U.S. allies were stridently opposed to the prospect of an invasion of Iraq by a U.S.-led coalition.

Nevertheless, Kiesling was expected to continue defending U.S. foreign policy. As a Foreign Service officer, supporting policies he sometimes disagreed with was part of his job. Foreign Service officers are trained to adhere to policy, not to make it.

In late February, with war in Iraq imminent, Kiesling decided the diplomat's life was no longer the one he wanted.

"Until this administration, it had been possible to believe that by upholding the policies of my president I was also upholding the interests of the American people and the world," he wrote to Powell. "I believe it no longer."

He wasn't alone. Within days, two of Kiesling's colleagues made public their resignations from the Foreign Service. The actions caused a stir, but they were part of a long history of dissent at the State Department.


Two days after Kiesling dispatched his letter to Powell, a friend sent a copy to The New York Times. The text circulated through the Internet, and within a few days, the letter had been posted to hundreds of anti-war Web sites. Kiesling, a contemplative man who had majored in classics in college, had become an icon of a raucous protest movement.

With a 19-year-old daughter in college and no job prospects, Kiesling hoped his letter would engender the sympathies of like-minded academics and land him a teaching post. But it first provoked a different result.

Before Kiesling's letter made its way to the Times, it swept through the diplomatic grapevine. A copy came by e-mail to John Brown, a 22-year Foreign Service officer teaching at Georgetown University in Washington. Brown, 54, also was distraught over the administration's actions. He sat down at his computer, and for four days agonized over his own letter. U.S. efforts to secure a U.N. Security Council resolution on invading Iraq clearly were failing. So, on March 10, Brown e-mailed his resignation to Powell, simultaneously releasing it to the media. He cited Kiesling's resignation in the first sentence, and then listed reasons why he thought the president had failed to make the case for war.

Half a world away, at the U.S. embassy in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, Ann Wright, 57, a 15-year Foreign Service officer and colonel in the Army Reserve, had debated resigning for weeks. Then she read Kiesling's letter. On March 19, she quit her post as second-in-command of the embassy in Ulan Bator, citing her opposition not only to the war, but to what she saw as the bungling of the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. She also blasted "unnecessary curtailments of civil rights" in the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks. Wright sent her letter hours before the first strikes on Baghdad.

Some current and former Foreign Service officers say the resignations of Kiesling, Brown and Wright reflect widespread opposition at the State Department to the Bush administration's handling of foreign policy, and specifically the conflict with Iraq. Brown calls it "an undercurrent of dissatisfaction."

The three dissenters say they have received hundreds of laudatory e-mails from diplomatic colleagues, many of whom wrote that they feared speaking publicly. Those who know the former diplomats describe them as modest, patient, serious and not prone to acting rashly. If these career diplomats were troubled enough to quit, "It tells me something is wrong," says one of Wright's former colleagues.

"There's no question that people who work at the State Department have been increasingly depressed by the failure of State to play the deciding role in the major foreign policy decisions that are taken by the Bush administration," says Chris Nelson, the author and publisher of The Nelson Report, an influential daily e-mail newsletter circulated to foreign policy insiders. But, he adds, diplomats now perceive a "deliberate, in-your-face . . . wrecking attempt" by the administration to dismantle international alliances and organizations. "You add it all up, and people are worried."

Foreign Service officers dislike nothing so much as being excluded from decision-making. Rebellion within their ranks is nothing new. For years, the State Department has welcomed and encouraged dissenting opinions, to the point of institutionalizing their expression through a formal "dissent channel" that lets diplomats abroad communicate directly and privately with senior leaders about their policy objections. The channel was a means of protest Kiesling knew well.


Kiesling had his first taste of dissent in 1993. He was working as the Romania desk officer in Washington, when he and 11 colleagues wrote to then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher, arguing that U.S. diplomacy had failed to save Bosnian Muslims from Serbian genocide. The 12 used the dissent channel to press for military intervention, and won an award for their efforts from the American Foreign Service Association, the Foreign Service officers' professional organization.

The crisis in the Balkans brought a rash of resignations. In August 1992, George Kenney, the Yugoslavia desk officer at headquarters in Washington, lambasted the first Bush administration for failing to stop Serbian ethnic cleansing. He quit publicly. The administration had refrained from intervening militarily in the conflict.

Kenney left his job on principle, but also so he could influence policy, he says. As the Yugoslavia desk officer, he had drafted talking points for the State Department public affairs office in Washington and had built a powerful web of media contacts. Within a month after he resigned, Kenney's story had been featured in major print publications and on broadcast news media. Kenney also had written a controversial opinion column in The New York Times calling for action in Yugoslavia.

Over the next year, three more Balkans specialists quit to protest the Clinton administration's continuation of the nonintervention policy. In a 1993 Times interview, one of them, Jon Western, said opposition to policy on the former Yugoslavia wasn't confined to Balkans specialists like him. "I have met one, possibly two people, in the department below the level of assistant secretary who believe in the policy," said Western, who had covered the Yugoslavia crisis since its inception and described himself at the time as "thoroughly demoralized and depressed."

The resignations, as well as dissent channel communications, were "extremely controversial" at the department, says a former Foreign Service officer with Balkans expertise who asked to remain anonymous. "It was extremely hard-hitting" among top State Department officials. And while the resignations and letters of protest didn't immediately affect policy, the military intervention the dissenters advocated did come a few years later, after worldwide opinion was swayed by further carnage, most notably the shelling of a Sarajevo marketplace that killed dozens of civilians.

For Kenney and others, the dissent channel didn't have the impact of resignation because it is kept largely out of public view. Indeed, it was instituted in the early 1970s partly as a way of keeping disagreement internalized. "We cannot operate the government or the department if dissent is taken to the press," former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in a 1973 message to diplomatic and consular posts.

The content of State Department dissent and the profile of dissenters vary widely. Most of those who resigned over the Balkans policy, for example, were in their early to mid-30s and just beginning their careers. They arguably had less to lose than the three who resigned over Iraq.

Wright and Brown will receive federal pensions, but they hadn't planned to retire at this point in their careers. Kiesling won't receive benefits until 2020, at age 62. He estimates his annuity will be about a third of what he was paid at the time he resigned.

The Balkans dissenters favored military action, and they quickly became public advocates for it. But the Iraq group speaks of the future with pessimism. Brown wrote to Powell that, "the president's disregard for views in other nations, borne out by his neglect of public diplomacy, is giving birth to an anti-American century." Each Iraq dissenter tells of reaching an internal breaking point, largely brought on by disenchantment. "I just could not fathom why we would risk going to war right at this instant . . . leaving in tatters the organizations [especially the United Nations] that we helped build," says Wright.

Still, like their predecessors, the Iraq dissenters each resigned publicly in a deliberate attempt to attract media attention to their positions, and thus to try to influence policy. They have welcomed opportunities to speak to reporters, and have been featured in numerous print and broadcast reports. Kiesling also has given lectures at colleges and universities.


Foreign policy expert Nelson believes that a "crisis of depression" has gripped the State Department. "There's a loss of confidence right now in the rational conduct of foreign policy as [Foreign Service] officers have understood it as professionals. And that just really worries the hell out of them," says Nelson, who has spent 30 years in diplomatic circles in Washington as a congressional staffer and a policy consultant.

Brown speaks of the Bush administration's "failure to imagine what other people might think" and calls today's policy-makers "absolutely parochial in [their] assumptions." He says the administration's position is, "if they don't think like us, there's something wrong with them, or they're evil."

Foreign Service officers are supposed to inform American leaders about foreign governments' perceptions of U.S. policies and actions. They regularly draft impassioned communiqués to Washington about the official mood abroad and how U.S. policy should address it. Whether those reports are diluted or even suppressed by managers apparently varies by embassy. Politically appointed ambassadors are more likely to soften communiqués to Washington, according to current and former officers. But in less glamorous posts or where ambassadors have come up through the ranks of the Foreign Service, opinion is more free flowing and unchecked, they say.

The dissent channel is intended to keep policy opposition from being watered down. But Kenney, the Yugoslav expert who resigned in 1992, says that while he served, the channel was "moribund." People weren't afraid to use it, he says, "they just thought it was a waste of time."

Bruce Laingen, the former chargé d'affaires at the U.S. embassy in Iran who was held hostage from 1979 to 1981, says the evidence of "risk-taking" in dissents has diminished in recent years. Referring to awards given for noteworthy dissents, like the one Kiesling received from the American Foreign Service Association, Laingen says recent nominations "have not been all that exciting."

It's difficult to know whether recent resignations have gained any more notice among State Department leaders than have dissents. Department spokespeople only will acknowledge that State has received the letters of resignation. A spokesman for the director general of the Foreign Service says of the text of the letters, "whatever it says speaks for itself."

The official response to Kiesling's letter thanked him for his service and reiterated the Bush administration's official talking points on Iraq, Kiesling says.

Wright believes that she and her colleagues at least got Powell's attention. "I have no doubts that he's concerned that all three of us have felt we need to resign," she says. "He's an excellent leader." Her comments reflect Foreign Service officers' widespread admiration for the secretary's managerial ability.

In the end, Kiesling, Brown and Wright proved to be the only public Iraq dissenters in the thousands-strong diplomatic corps. While others clearly disagreed with the administration's policy, they didn't find it so indefensible they were willing to sacrifice their jobs.

"I think a lot of people are sympathetic" to the dissenters' beliefs, says Robert Keeley, the former U.S. ambassador to Greece and a friend of Kiesling's. "But [the Foreign Service] is a difficult career to get into. . . . You make a lifetime commitment. To dump your career. . . after 20 years is a major, major step."


The dissenters have been criticized for quitting during a national crisis. After reading Kiesling's letter on an online bulletin board, one woman responded, "I only hope that Kiesling remains in Greece or some other socialist country. The last thing we need in this great country is another self-hating anti-American on our soil."

Kiesling's resignation has attracted by far the most attention, perhaps because he was the first to speak out. He says the reality of his new life as a dissident "comes in waves." At one moment, he's a poster boy of the protest movement, and in the next, he's just unemployed. "People want heroes," he says. "I certainly don't see myself as a hero. . . . I'm like the canary in the mine shaft."

Had events taken a different turn, Kiesling probably would have stayed in the Foreign Service, but not happily. He was destined for a management position that he didn't want. "We value management more than we value diplomacy" in the Foreign Service, he says. The idea of paying his dues as a senior embassy manager overseeing dozens of employees "didn't suit me that well," he adds.

The dissenters spent their final days at work busying themselves with administrative and personal tasks. Wright completed annual performance reviews for the embassy's employees and packed for a move to Hawaii. Brown fielded e-mails and phone calls from friends. He plans to spend his time after government writing a book he has long contemplated.

Kiesling left Athens on a somber note. On his last day, he invited his embassy colleagues to a farewell gathering at the Temple of Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and divine justice. According to Greek mythology, Nemesis, whose name means righteous anger, punishes mortals who transgress divine limits. Joined by about 30 colleagues, Kiesling poured a glass of wine onto the ground as an offering, and then he said a prayer. He asked for salvation for the United States, from its "hubris" and "arrogance."

The libation echoed a passage from Kiesling's resignation letter. "Why does our president condone the swaggering and contemptuous approach to our friends and allies this administration is fostering, including among its most senior officials. Has 'oderint dum metuant' really become our motto?"

The phrase is attributed to Lucuis Accius, a Roman poet, and is thought to have been a favorite saying of the notorious Roman emperor Caligula, who ordered that statues of himself be placed in his enemies' temples. The phrase translates to: "Let them hate, so long as they fear."

To read the Iraq dissenters' resignation letters, go to
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