About three weeks ago there was a flurry of e-mail activity circulating far and wide: a letter of resignation from a senior Foreign Service officer in the American Embassy in Athens. The letter was from John Brady Kiesling to Secretary of State Powell. In it Mr. Kiesling submitted his resignation from the Foreign Service effective March 7.
Resignations over a point of principle are of course not new, although they are infrequent. Some, historically, have been quite dramatic; some have even become the subject matter of literature, stage and film. One thinks of King Henry II and Archbishop Thomas Becket and, over 350 years later, Sir Thomas More and King Henry VIII.
The resignation of Mr. Kiesling from the Foreign Service reflects an agonizing choice. This is far more than a decision to walk away from an undesirable job. It is rather a decision to walk away from a lifework, from a calling, from something which, once left, is not again attainable.
In the first place, the Foreign Service is fiendishly difficult to get into; far, far more difficult than getting into the Civil Service. Every year some 20,000 or more aspiring candidates take the Foreign Service exam. Fewer than 200 are chosen. It is a structured and highly disciplined form of public service in which one goes where one is told, one expects to move frequently, to work long and often difficult hours, and sometimes even to be physically at risk. The list of challenges is quite long.
Therefore when Mr. Kiesling wrote to Secretary Powell that he resigned with a heavy heart, it is to be believed. The letter goes onto say, Human nature is what it is, and I was rewarded and promoted for understanding human nature. But 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. I believe it no longer. He then calls the Secretary’s attention to this: The sacrifice of global interests to domestic politics is nothing new. Still, we have not seen such systematic distortion of intelligence, such systematic manipulation of American opinion, since the war in Vietnam.
This, dear friends, is strong stuff. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely to have any impact whatsoever on the course of events. The president almost certainly will not have seen the letter, and it is quite possible that Secretary Powell will not have seen it.
Mr. Kiesling, by this act, walks away from a high ranking job for which he has spent a lifetime preparing. Others, in large numbers, have taken to the streets. One of the most disturbing aspects of this moment in American life is to see and hear some of the most ardent supporters of the current administration publicly casting doubt on the patriotism of those who believe the current direction is wrong.
That is petty, it is self-centered and politically self-interested, and it is wrong. It is also un-American. If and when the voices of dissent are silenced or so marginalized as to no longer matter, that is when American democracy is in deep, deep trouble.
This is Olin Robison.
Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.