Can Dissent Diplomacy Help Syria? – A G Noorani

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With cheeks painted in the colors of Syria's flag, 13-year-old displaced Syrian girl Malek Al Rifai stands in front of a US flag while taking part in a protest in front of the United Nations building in New York.   Reuters/Adrees Latif
With cheeks painted in the colors of Syria’s flag, 13-year-old displaced Syrian girl Malek Al Rifai stands in front of a US flag while taking part in a protest in front of the United Nations building in New York. Reuters/Adrees Latif

The ‘dissent channel’ was established in the 1960s during the Vietnam War to ensure that the seniors in the department were made familiar with alternative policy choices. The US Foreign Service Association’s website says that 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.”

A G NOORANI

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]N June, more than 50 officials of the US State Department signed an internal memo to say that regime change in Syria was the only way to defeat the militant Islamic State group. The State Department was not a bit put out. Instead, it responded positively. Its spokesman John Kirby said: “We are aware of a dissent channel cable written by a group of State Department employees regarding the situation in Syria. We are reviewing the cable now, which came up very recently. This is an important vehicle that the secretary as well as the department institutionally, values and respects.”

The ‘dissent channel’ was established in the 1960s during the Vietnam War to ensure that the seniors in the department were made familiar with alternative policy choices.

The US Foreign Service Association’s website says that 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 the management of the channel and the distribution of communications to all concerned, including the secretary of state. A substantive reply must be sent in 30 to 60 working days to the writer.


Prime ministers who hold strong views on foreign affairs prefer to lay down the line.


The US Foreign Affairs Manual clearly mandates that those utilizing the dissent channel will not be subjected to reprisal or disciplinary action: “that anyone engaging in retaliation or divulging the source or content of dissent channel correspondence will be subject to disciplinary action.”

Is such a mechanism possible elsewhere? In India, for example? According to Skand Tayal, a respected former Indian ambassador, it is not. “In the Ministry of External Affairs (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 prime minister’s office blessings, there is little room for any formal dissent by MEA mandarins.”

The tradition was set in the early days of independence. Prime ministers who hold strong views on foreign affairs prefer to lay down the line and expect compliance. An American scholar, Walter F. Ilchman of the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in 1966, on the basis of interviews with former members of the Indian Foreign Service, that there was a “tendency for men in the field to write what the prime minister wished to hear.”

Nehru was familiar with world affairs; but his insights were limited. In truth he was no expert on foreign policy or diplomacy. The MEA’s first secretary-general, Sir Girja Shankar Bajpai, was well versed in both. He repeatedly offered his resignation to Nehru. Frustrated at Nehru’s indifference, he resorted to an unusual course. He sent a letter to prime minister Nehru over the signature of deputy prime minister Vallabhbhai Patel.

This is the genesis of the famous and overrated letter of Nov 7, 1950, in which he painted an alarmist view of the situation on the northern boundary with China. It has since become a weapon in the hands of Nehru baiters. It is overrated because while it mentioned the McMahon Line as one of the matters to be resolved with the People’s Republic of China, it completely ignored the Aksai Chin in the Ladakh province of Jammu & Kashmir which came under China’s control shortly thereafter.

Sir Girja was more astute on the Peace Treaty with Japan. Both he and Nehru’s sister Mrs Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, then ambassador to the US, advised Nehru to sign it. He refused. A few years later the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev told Nehru that the Soviet Union had made a mistake in not signing it.

Two Sovi­et ambassadors to the US freely voiced their disagreement with Moscow’s line. One was Maxim Litvinov, who became foreign minister, and the other was Anatoly Dobrynin.

The US’ rule against non-punishment for use of the dissent channel is of recent vintage. Garry J. Bass’s classic The Blood Telegram: India’s Secret War in East Pakistan, records a case of vindictive treatment. The US consul general in Dhaka, Archer Blood, was for “a united Pakistan” but the killings shook him and his staff. “They wanted to send in a dissent cable”. They were unsure if Blood would sign. He did and it became the “first formal dissent cable”. Retribution was swift. The cable was sent on April 6, 1971. By the end of the month Blood was “advised” to return; never to be made ambassador.

There is, however, an institution in South Asia which facilitates the expression of dissent. It is the envoys’ conference at which ambassadors meet for a tour d’horizon. Fresh ideas crop up. In the final analysis, it is for the politicians in power to heed or ignore sound professional advice.–Courtesy Dawn

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