Most elected Democrats are marching in lockstep when it comes to Israel. That’s not necessarily true of American diplomats and foreign-policy experts. One, Josh Paul, publicly resigned from the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs last month over the prospect of additional arms sales to Israel. In a letter he published, Paul wrote that in his 11 years at the department he had made “more moral compromises than I can recall,” but with the U.S. government’s current course and the “provision of lethal arms to Israel,” he had “reached the end of that bargain.”
“I would say I’ve certainly had my frustrations over the years, but I’ve always felt that I could contribute to outcomes that were better than they would’ve been had I not been a part of the process, and that’s kept me there,” Paul explained to me over the phone. During the Trump administration, with its support for Saudi Arabia and its role in the Yemen civil war, Paul drafted a resignation letter and kept it in the drawer of his desk. He never signed it because “I always felt that I was contributing in ways that were mitigating some of the worst outcomes, delaying some of the worst outcomes, or at the very least, helping to line up a healthy debate in Congress,” he said. Now the situation has changed. In the absence of debate in the administration and in Congress, “I felt that there was no good I could do, and therefore had to resign and take the debate to the public sphere,” he added.
Paul’s resignation isn’t the only sign of revolt at the State Department. Politico reported on Monday that a group of staffers slammed the administration’s approach to the Israel-Hamas war in a memo that recommended the U.S. support a cease-fire. “We must publicly criticize Israel’s violations of international norms such as failure to limit offensive operations to legitimate military targets,” the memo said. Though it’s unclear how many staffers signed the memo, or whether it was submitted to the department’s formal Dissent Channel, discontent is real and it seems to be spreading. Officials previously told HuffPost their managers have said they “should not expect to influence U.S. policy on Israel-Palestine regardless of their national-security chops.” The experience had disillusioned them, HuffPost reported. One official criticized State’s “hollow moves,” which “fail to acknowledge the complicity of our decisions and policy in the relentless suffering of Gazans.”
Since Paul’s resignation, he said he’s heard not just from State Department officials but from congressional staff and Defense Department employees. They’re taking a line similar to that of protesters, who have filled the streets in cities across the country over the U.S. government’s embrace of Israel as the latter inflicts massive civilian casualties in Gaza. “An immense amount of pain, frankly, of frustration, of disempowerment, and of disappointment and just a sense that there are important policy decisions being made that people strongly disagree with, that they have historically been a part of, and are being told not to push back on, and to just let go,” he said. Dissenters like Paul argue that the U.S. government’s blank-check support for Israel risks its relationships with other countries in the region and threatens its esteem as great powers like China compete with the U.S. for global influence. They’re right to worry. As the U.S. proceeds to back Israel despite horrific civilian casualties in Gaza, it damages itself, and shreds a reputation already worn thin.
Although the U.S. makes much of itself as a beacon for democracy and human rights, it consistently undermines those claims at home and abroad. The American government has long been complicit in the Israeli occupation and abuse of Palestinians. The consequences are obvious now, as over 10,000 people in Gaza lie dead — victims of both airstrikes and an older cycle of dehumanization. The U.S. is selective in its concern for the dead, or for human rights, and democracy at all. The Biden administration recently welcomed India’s anti-democratic prime minister, Narendra Modi, with a state visit. Biden promised accountability after Saudi officials murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, but it is nowhere to be seen. Go back even further, and the history of U.S. foreign policy is replete with criminal wars, anti-democratic coups, and assassinations.
Our status as a haven for human rights has always been dubious, a self-serving mythology that massages the ego while covering up real horror. Our closest allies can hardly boast of better behavior, even as they claim their own commitments to democracy. Such claims rest on selective memory, forms of national amnesia that ignore the bad while emphasizing only the most superficial good. In the U.S., there are few reckonings for our actions overseas, and little accountability for bad actors. Ghouls like John Yoo can author torture memos and enjoy a comfortable sinecure thereafter. Luminaries fêted Henry Kissinger for his recent 100th birthday. The U.S. rehabilitates its own worst and expects the world to acquiesce.
What, then, does America mean to the world now? People still risk their lives to come here, but the overall portrait is one of imperial decline. Though the election of Joe Biden repaired some reputational damage from the Trump years, our elderly president polls badly at home while he props up abusive regimes overseas. Congress looks little better. One party cannot govern, while the other mostly fails to check Biden’s worst foreign-policy impulses. The U.S. has extended a national culture of impunity to its friends, including Israel, and the subjugated pay the price, which is violence.
In such times, dissent takes on new importance. It serves both a pragmatic and moral function. Dissenters can remind the U.S. of the promises it makes not just to its own people but to the world. Should the powerful listen, they seize an opportunity. There is time, still, for the U.S. to do the right thing: to stabilize the damage it has inflicted on the oppressed and itself, to regain an edge over its competitors on the global stage. Paul pointed to the recent congressional testimony of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said “our greatest advantage is our alliances and partnerships.”
“I think that’s exactly wrong,” Paul said. “I think our greatest advantage is our values, and if we advance arms sales, for example, to allies and partners who have bad human-rights records, who are going to misuse them to result in civilian casualties, we are actually going to be undermining ourselves in the long term in this strategic competition.” Breaking with the past requires courage. The world deserves that much from us.