How does one ethically hold a post of responsibility in a presidential administration whose destructive and immoral program one fundamentally rejects?
TO stay or to go? As a retired ambassador, I cannot advise my former colleagues who continue serving our country as diplomats and foreign affairs officials on this question. I know they face more profound challenges than ever before in balancing personal moral integrity in the short term with longer term devotion to the institutions and interests of our country. Not to mention the practical material consequences of losing a job amid family hopes and obligations.
After the first week of the Trump administration, however, I feel compelled to say this: I have never been so ashamed of American foreign policy as I have been in the past few days.
On the whole, the United States has been a force for good in the world throughout my lifetime. We, at times, made grave moral errors and did tremendous harm in the past. The invasion of Iraq is only the most egregious example from my years with the State Department.
Like any senior diplomat, I occasionally executed instructions that were morally dubious. One particular instance, from my service in Berlin under George W. Bush, attracted widespread media attention via WikiLeaks. Yet even in the darkest days of neocon hubris, I was sustained by the fact that our aims sprang from America’s prouder traditions, however misconstrued.
Today, America steps forth not as a sometimes misguided champion of values or proponent of enlightened self-interest. Trump’s America proclaims itself an unabashedly immoral actor, its policy openly selfish, subordinating principle to fear and greed, and destroying the foundation on which international cooperation rests. We strut as a bully in the world but cower timorously at home. This is a deeply inhumane and brutish foreign policy posture, likely to cause untold human suffering and disaster.
Some say we need to give the president and his team more time, but the new administration’s rush to cause harm counsels against much patience. Others argue for fighting the Trump administration’s destructive impulses from the inside, but that approach is rife with problems.
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For the State Department to protect and advance the interests of the American people, there must be room for constructive dissent within the department’s ranks. It was the leaked draft of a Dissent Channel memo challenging Trump’s ill-considered travel ban that led White House spokesman Sean Spicer to declare department “bureaucrats” should “either get with the program or go.”
Spicer’s remarks were inappropriate. It would do great disservice to the administration and the American people if the cautionary views of experienced professionals were disregarded or even punished.
Taken more broadly, however, Spicer has a point. How does one ethically hold a post of responsibility in an administration whose destructive and immoral program one fundamentally rejects? My children are grown, and I retired in 2015 after 31 years as an American diplomat. I do not face the dilemma that many of my former colleagues now confront. But I like to believe that, were I in their position, I would have the moral courage to go — and join the resistance on the outside.