Saturday, May 30, 2020

Elizabeth Shackelford's "The Dissent Channel"

Elizabeth Shackelford was a career diplomat in the U.S. State Department until December 2017, when she resigned in protest of the Trump administration. During her tenure with the Foreign Service, Shackelford served in the U.S. embassies in Warsaw, Poland, South Sudan, Somalia, and Washington, D.C. For her work in South Sudan during the outbreak of civil war, Shackelford received the Barbara Watson Award for Consular Excellence, the State Department’s highest honor for consular work.

Her resignation letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, first shared by Foreign Policy, went viral. Since her departure, Shackelford has continued to raise awareness about the consequences of our troubled diplomacy in the press, in academic and community groups, and through other public commentary.

As an independent consultant, Shackelford focuses on human rights advocacy, conflict mitigation, political affairs, and democratic processes. Born and raised in Mississippi, she now lives in Rochester, VT.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Ambassador Page was on another call, Blackberry to her ear. She nodded me inside, so I walked past her, took a seat at the formal dining-room table – part of the State Department’s standard-issue Drexel Heritage Queen Anne collection – and exhaled. A matching china cabinet stood on the other side of the room. In contrast to the formality of the furniture were piles of paper, books, a purse – things anyone would drop on a table when coming through the door. This was the first time I thought of the place as the ambassador’s private home, though it wouldn’t be for much longer. During that night, her residence would transform into mission control for all embassy operations.

I connected the ambassador with Riek at about 2:45 a.m. Over the next half hour or so, most of the core embassy personnel responsible for managing a crisis – the emergency action committee – gathered around the ambassador’s dining-room table to compare what we’d heard and plan our next steps in the uncertainty of an unfolding crisis. At this stage, information was still sketchy, trickling in in dribs and drabs. We were in the dark, struggling to separate truth from rumor. The ambassador and Bob, our security chief, agreed to keep the embassy closed and the residence on lockdown until 10 a.m., by which point we hoped to have more information. With little else we could do at that moment, someone mentioned everyone ought to get some sleep before morning, so we adjourned and agreed to meet up again at 7 a.m.

The city was dark as I limped back to my container. I had one more task before I could lie down. Since we’d changed our security protocols, we owed it to the American people in the area to let them know. The “no double standard” rule required it. I called the Operations Center, or “Ops,” the State Department’s twenty-four-hour communications and crisis-management center back in Washington. The jingle was burned into my memory during Foreign Service orientation three years back: “When a crisis hits, and you don’t know what to do, call 647-1512.” I was our consular officer, and we needed Washington’s clearance to send a security message to American citizens here.
This is page 99 from start to finish, and it teases the tension and urgency of the book’s underlying narrative story remarkably well. This passage is from the night South Sudan’s civil war began. I might have directed a reader to page 96 instead, the start to the chapter “A War Begins.” I’d been fielding late night phone calls, including from the ousted vice president of South Sudan, Riek Machar, who would the next day be accused by the president of attempting a coup (spoiler alert: he had not attempted a coup).

The tragedy and suspense of the war story and how U.S. Embassy staff responded to it make up the core of the book, and this page puts the reader right in the thick of it. What this page fails to capture is the overarching message the book offers about U.S. foreign policy. Interspersed throughout the book are chapters that pull back from the main narrative storyline to put the foreign policy failures I was witnessing in South Sudan into the bigger context of U.S. foreign policy tendencies and history. For me, U.S. mistakes in South Sudan were emblematic of the shortcomings of a foreign policy driven by inertia and short-term political goals rather than principles and long-term strategies. I use the book to make that case, though anyone drawn in by the suspenseful story previewed on page 99 would not be disappointed by the rest.
Follow Elizabeth Shackelford on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue