Last month the New York Times reported that 51 US state department officials had signed an internal memo sharply critical of the Obama administration’s policy on Syria and urged the United States to carry out military strikes against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. This memo was filed on the state department’s “Dissent Channel” and called for a “a judicious use of standoff and air weapons” that would imply a radical shift in the Obama administration’s approach to the civil war in Syria.
The invoking of the Dissent Channel triggers memories of the famous “Blood Telegram” sent on this channel by 20 US officials and diplomats at the US consulate-general in Dacca (as it was then called) questioning the flawed Nixon-Kissinger policy of ignoring the genocide of Bengalis by the Pakistan Army in March 1971.
The origins of the innovative Dissent Channel are interesting. The state department created this channel during the Vietnam War as a forum of insiders with serious policy differences to register their viewpoint with the top echelons of the state department. The clear understanding being that this would be treated as a genuine disagreement by concerned diplomat(s) and there would be no disciplinary action or covert reprisal against the dissenter(s).
According to the US Foreign Service Association website, the Dissent Channel is “a serious policy channel reserved only for consideration of responsible dissenting and alternative views on substantive foreign policy issues that cannot be communicated through regular operating channels and procedures”. The policy planning staff of the department is responsible for management of the channel and the distribution of communications to all concerned, including the secretary of state. A substantive reply is expected to be sent in 30 to 60 working days to the dissenters.
The US Foreign Affairs Manual clearly mandates that those utilising the Dissent Channel will not be subjected to reprisal or disciplinary action. Admirably, it mandates that “anyone engaging in retaliation or divulging the source or content of dissent channel correspondence will be subject to disciplinary action”.
The first time this dissent channel was used was on April 6, 1971 when US consul-general in Dacca, Archer Blood, along with 20 other US diplomats and staff in what was then East Pakistan, sent a confidential cable to the state department conveying “strong dissent” from a US policy that was “morally bankrupt” and “failing to denounce suppression of democracy and... atrocities”. It also called the wanton slaughter of innocent Bengalis a “genocide”.
This cable quickly leaked and became famous as the “Blood Telegram”. Alas, it did not succeed in even a marginal change of policy and only enraged both Henry Kissinger, then President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, and secretary of state William Rogers. By late April, Archer Blood was “advised” to request a transfer back to Washington, an unceremonious exit from his post as consul-general.
Since then the channel has been used numerous times. For instance, in the 1990s, some US Foreign Service officers had written a 30-page dissent note on the then Clinton administration’s Balkan policy.
How is dissent conveyed in the formulation of Indian foreign policy? Looking back, the two monumental failures of our foreign policy establishment have been the policy towards Sri Lanka in the mid-1980s and the Quixotic bid for non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council in 1996. In Sri Lanka, Indian policy swung from attempts to buy out LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran to sending the IPKF to wipe out the LTTE with President Junius Jayewardene silently sniggering in the background. It was reported that there were serious policy differences between the then high commissioner in Colombo and his deputy. It is believed the deputy high commissioner did use official channels to convey his dissenting views to South Block.
Similarly, the decision in 1995-96 to take Japan head-on for a direct contest for the Asian seat in the Security Council led to a humiliating defeat when India could get only 40 votes against 142 by Japan. It is not known if any bright spark in our Foreign Service had dared to question this poor policy choice that defied any objective analysis of the relative clout of friends and purse of India against that of Japan.
Would an official “Dissent Channel” in the MEA’s policy planning division lead to a more serious consideration of options in policy deliberations? In the MEA work culture, discussion on any issue is confined to area-specific silos but does allow free discussion among top echelons. But this is in the policy formulation stage. Once the policy is seen to have received the PMO’s blessings, there is little room for any formal dissent by MEA mandarins. Heads of mission and consulates are wary of upsetting those in charge at headquarters and are generally guarded in their reports.
The creation of a formal “Dissent Channel” is unlikely to encourage senior Indian diplomats to air contrarian views because of two good reasons: any policy proposal needs a godfather in the MEA or PMO to be considered seriously. Overworked senior officials don’t have the time to read even official telegrams and dispatches from our missions overseas. And, a position against the prevalent policy is bound to invite the establishment’s displeasure, whatever be the pious assurances of any dissent channel. A good candidate for in-house dissent at present is the government’s dogged pursuit of acquiring nuclear power reactors from Westinghouse in spite of its unproven technology and high costs due to an exaggerated sense of gratitude towards the American establishment.
However, India can boast of a robust forum where official policy is critically examined and mercilessly criticised. India’s mass media does offer a platform to former ambassadors and security chiefs to offer objective and candid advice to policymakers through newspapers, TV channels and numerous websites. They bring with them “insider” knowledge and experience and are generally not averse to ruffling official feathers! And there is such a deluge of knowledgeable advice that policymakers may find it impossible to sift through the comments and separate the grain from the chaff!