In early July 2002 I went to see Condoleezza Rice, President George W. Bush's National Security Advisor, in her West Wing office. I was meeting Condi in my capacity as director of policy planning, the State Department's internal think tank. But we were longtime friends, dating back to our work together for the first President Bush more than a decade before, and our get-togethers were not part of any formal interagency process.
As usual, I prepared on a yellow pad a list of the half-dozen or so issues I wanted to discuss during what normally was a 30- or 45-minute meeting. At the top of my list was Iraq. For several weeks, those on my staff who dealt with Iraq and other Middle East issues had been reporting back that they sensed a shift in tone within the government. Their counterparts working at the Pentagon, the National Security Council (NSC) and the vice president's office who favored going to war with Iraq were sending signals that things were going their way. I did not share this enthusiasm for going to war, believing that we had other viable options and fearing that any conflict would be much tougher than the advocates predicted. I was also concerned that an invasion would take an enormous toll on the rest of American foreign policy at the precise moment in history that the United States enjoyed a rare opportunity to exert extraordinary influence.
I began my meeting with Condi by noting that the administration seemed to be building momentum toward going to war with Iraq and that I harbored serious doubts about doing so. I reminded her that I knew something about this issue given my role in the previous Bush administration, where I had served as the president's senior Middle East advisor on the NSC staff. And I asked her directly, "Are you really sure you want to make Iraq the centerpiece of the administration's foreign policy?"
I was about to follow up with other questions when Condi cut me off. "You can save your breath, Richard. The president has already made up his mind on Iraq." The way she said it made clear he had decided to go to war.
I was taken aback. Policy had gone much further than I had realized—and feared. But, for several reasons, I did not argue just then. As in previous conversations when I'd voiced my views on Iraq, Condi's response made it clear that any more conversation at that point would be a waste of time. It is always important to pick your moments to make an unwelcome case, and this did not appear to be a promising one. I figured as well that there would be additional opportunities to argue my stance, if not with Condi, then with others in a position to make a difference.
Another factor in my uncharacteristic reticence was the fact that my own opposition to going to war with Iraq was muted. At a recent dinner with two close friends, I had said I was 60–40 against initiating a war. My opposition was not stronger because of my assumption (derived from the available intelligence) that Iraq possessed both biological and chemical weapons. I also believed that if we went to war we would go about it in a way reminiscent of how we had waged the previous war with Iraq—that is, only with considerable international and domestic backing and only with enough troops and sensible plans. Had I known then what I know now, namely, that there were no weapons of mass destruction and that the intervention would be carried out with a marked absence of good judgment and competence, I would have been inalterably opposed. Still, even then, I leaned against proceeding.
I am hardly the first U.S. official ever to be in a position of disagreeing with his bosses, and I will not be the last. Dissent is as American as cherry pie. This country was born of dissent (the Revolutionary War), defined by it (the Civil War) and changed profoundly by it. The labor, suffrage and civil-rights movements, as well as the anti-Vietnam protests, were all transformative American experiences. Dissent has been hailed as noble and necessary by our leaders. None other than President Dwight Eisenhower said that Americans should "never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion." Former senator J. William Fulbright declared, "In a democracy, dissent is an act of faith."
This is all well and good, but in my experience, dissent tends to be more honored in the abstract than in practice. Joseph Heller captures this reality all too well in his wicked 1979 political novel "Good as Gold," in which Ralph, a presidential aide, tells a job applicant, "This President doesn't want yes-men. What we want are independent men of integrity who will agree with all our decisions after we make them."
Dissent is difficult. It can constitute a real dilemma for the person who disagrees. On one hand, you owe it to your conscience and to your bosses to tell them what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. Speaking truth to power is actually a form of loyalty. It is the best and at times only way to make sure that government (or any organization) lives up to its potential. No matter how good the advice, however, there will be times when it is resented or rejected. It may be rebuffed on the merits, or because of politics or personalities. Sometimes, smart people just see things differently. It doesn't matter.
What should you do when you are ignored or overruled? One option is to continue to challenge the prevailing wisdom or preference. Of course you risk being shut out or ignored. The making of policy in government or any organization has something in common with football. Activity is concentrated near the line of scrimmage. It makes little sense to position yourself in the far end zone if you want to be a factor. Much the same holds for policy. If all the interest and attention is focused on one set of questions, it is usually of little or no value to place yourself totally outside the debate and raise concerns that are judged to be irrelevant or questions that are deemed to be settled.
For me this dilemma was anything but an abstraction. The decision to attack Iraq was arguably the defining decision of George W. Bush's presidency. I thought then and I think now that this was a war of choice. And I thought it was the wrong choice.
One option that to me was not an option was to leak or to undermine the policy. This is not dissent but disloyalty. Another option was to continue to argue against the war after the decision had been all but made. I did some of this but not a lot. While it may have made me and other skeptics feel better to do more, that would have reduced any influence we might have had on planning for the war and its aftermath. There are times you have to let go and move on, and this was one of them. In this case, moving on meant focusing on involving the Congress and the United Nations in the decision making and planning for the war. I calculated I could still influence important aspects of the policy if not its core.
There is a danger in this. It is easy to rationalize when in reality you've become little more than an enabler. One way to avoid this danger is to resign. Leaving is in many ways the most dramatic form of dissent. Putting aside personal reasons (health, finances, family) there are two potentially valid, policy-related reasons for resigning. (Neither of these, by the way, reflects the peculiarly British tradition of resigning when something goes wrong on your watch. Whatever happened may not have been your fault, and even if it was, you may still be able to do more good than harm by staying.)
One reason to resign is because you disagree fundamentally on a major issue. Several people resigned from the NSC staff over the Nixon administration's May 1970 decision to expand the Vietnam War into Cambodia. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance resigned in 1980 over President Jimmy Carter's decision to use force to try to free the American hostages being held in Iran. Several relatively junior foreign-service officers resigned over the lack of a robust American response to Serbian brutality in Bosnia in the 1990s.
Iraq obviously constituted a major issue, and although I disagreed with the thrust of U.S. policy, I did not resign. My reasoning was straightforward: As I said, I was 60–40 against going to war. No organization could function if people left every time they lost out on a 60–40 decision. Had I known that Iraq no longer possessed weapons of mass destruction, it would have become 90–10 against, and I would have left had President George W. Bush gone ahead all the same. But this was not the situation as I understood it.
In time I left anyway. In part it was because of the attractiveness of becoming president of the Council on Foreign Relations, arguably this country's leading independent organization devoted to the study of foreign policy. But I was open to leaving. This relates to the second set of grounds for resigning, namely, a pattern of decisions that makes clear that you have little in common with your colleagues. I was losing far more arguments than I was winning, not just on Iraq, but on Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, climate change, the Israeli-Arab conflict and the International Criminal Court. I was someone who favored diplomacy and collective efforts. The administration was at best suspicious of such approaches and often flat-out opposed them.
Adding to the frustration was the fact that I was frequently called upon to defend policies that I opposed. Cordell Hull, FDR's secretary of state, described himself to a friend as "tired of being relied upon in public and ignored in private." I empathized all too well. On many occasions I had to rebut to outsiders precisely the arguments I myself had put forward inside the government. That this occurs on occasion is inevitable and part of what any professional must expect to deal with. But when it becomes the norm it is time to consider whether what you are doing makes sense.
This only adds to the dilemma. Walking away from government was hard. It was what I had trained to do. I'd worked hard to get where I was. Government service at its best can be interesting, it can be heady and it can matter. There are few things more exciting and fulfilling in life than participating in and even contributing to history.
Those looking for hard and fast rules on dissent should be prepared to be disappointed. Sometimes it is better to confront, other times it makes more sense to work around. Sometimes it is better to leave, other times to stay. When it comes to dissent, there is no right answer, much less one that's right for all situations. That's what makes it a dilemma.