US officials’ fury at Biden Gaza policy means mood in State Department now worse than during the Iraq War

Exclusive: Charles Blaha, former director of the State Department's Office of Security and Human Rights, tells The Independent he has ‘never seen this much dissent’

Richard Hall
Senior US correspondent
Friday 05 April 2024 18:22 BST
The Independent's Andrew Feinberg challenges John Kirby on deaths of foreign aid workers

The mood among staff in the State Department is worse than during the disastrous US invasion of Iraq, according to a former staffer, as the fallout from the killing of seven international aid workers by Israel continues.

“I have never seen this much dissent,” Charles Blaha, former director of the State Department’s Office of Security and Human Rights, told The Independent, amid growing disquiet over president Joe Biden’s policy on Gaza.

“I was in the State Department for 32 years, including during the Iraq War, and I have never seen this much unhappiness. It was even worse than Iraq. So yeah, people are concerned,” Mr Blaha, who maintains contact with current staffers, said.

Mr Biden has come under increasing pressure over his longstanding and unconditional support for Israel nearly six months into the devastating war in Gaza, which has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians.

The killing of seven international aid workers, including an American citizen, by three precision Israeli airstrikes, caused an uproar around the world and brought a renewed spotlight on Mr Biden’s insistence on continuing arms deliveries. Their deaths brought the number of aid workers killed in the conflict to more than 220, according to the United Nations.

On the same day of the deadly strike, the Biden administration approved the transfer of thousands of bombs to Israel, and is currently weighing an $18bn (£14.2bn) sale that includes fighter jets and other equipment.

“There is a real disconnect between the analysis and policy recommendations of State Department personnel relating to Gaza and Israel-Palestine generally and decisions ultimately being made by the White House”

Brian Finucane, former legal adviser at the State Department

Despite the internal opposition in the State Department, there have only been two public resignations linked to the war. One of those two, Josh Paul, told The Independent that an increasing number of people are expressing their concerns privately.

“I’ve certainly heard from a lot of people in the department in recent weeks, at an increasing clip, who are just deeply upset, I can say horrified by the way the department is working and moving forward on arms transfers in the context of what we’re seeing in Gaza,” he said.

“My impression is that there are a number of people who are trying to push things in a better direction. There are also probably a larger number of people who are just saying ‘I’m not going to touch this stuff’,” he added.

Mr Paul said he was aware of at least seven internal dissent memos regarding the Biden administration’s Gaza policy.

The channel for the dissent memos was created during the Vietnam War for State Department staff to express criticism and disagreements without fear of retribution.

A State Department spokesperson said Mr Blinken “welcomes people utilizing the dissent channel.”

“He takes it seriously, and it causes him to reflect on his own thinking in terms of policymaking and what he proposes to the President,” the spokesperson added.

Brian Finucane, who worked for a decade in the Office of the Legal Adviser at the State Department advising on issues related to the laws of war, arms transfers and war crimes, told The Independent that there was a huge gap between the department’s rank-and-file and the messaging coming from the White House.

Josh Paul, who resigned over the war between Israel and Hamas, speaks during a demonstration calling for a ceasefire in front of the White House in December (AFP)

“Based on my conversations since October with people at the department, there is a real disconnect between the analysis and policy recommendations of State Department personnel relating to Gaza and Israel-Palestine generally and decisions ultimately being made by the White House,” he said.

“The president is the ultimate decider and on Gaza he’s been largely immune to the facts of this disastrous conflict, at least with respect to actual US policy as opposed to rhetoric,” Mr Finucane added.

Mr Paul resigned as director of the State Department’s bureau of political-military affairs in October, citing “an unprecedented unwillingness to consider the humanitarian consequences of our policy decisions”.

“The absence of a willingness to hold that debate when it comes to Israel is not proof of our commitment to Israel’s security. Rather, it is proof of our commitment to a policy that, the record shows, is a dead end — and proof of our willingness to abandon our values and turn a blind eye to the suffering of millions in Gaza when it is politically expedient,” he said.

Annelle Sheline became the second person to resign, leaving her post at the Near Eastern section of the bureau of democracy, human rights and labour in March, saying she no longer wanted to be affiliated with this administration” because it was ignoring US laws by continuing to arm Israel.

Ms Sheline said in an interview following her resignation that she initially planned to leave quietly, but spoke out after being encouraged to do so by her colleagues.

“There were certainly many people inside the State Department who are so distraught by what’s happening,” Ms Sheline told The National.

Secretary of state Antony Blinken responded to an initial flurry of dissent cables over the war in Gaza back in November, writing in a letter to staff to acknowledge the sentiment.

“I know that for many of you, the suffering caused by this crisis is taking a profound personal toll,” Mr Blinken said in the letter obtained by Reuters.

Palestinian children play amongst the rubble in Rafah (AFP)

“The anguish that comes with seeing the daily images of babies, children, elderly people, women, and other civilians suffering in this crisis is wrenching. I feel it myself,” he said.

Mr Blaha, who retired last year, said he had been asked by several people whether he would have resigned if he was still in his post.

“My only answer has been, I’m really glad I’m not in that position,” he said.

Mr Biden told prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday that future US policy towards Israel will be determined by whether its government takes action to protect aid workers and civilians in Gaza.

The warning came in their first telephone conversation since Israel Defense Force drones fired three missiles into a World Central Kitchen aid convoy.

In a readout of the call, the White House said Mr Biden told the Israeli leader that the strike on aid workers and the “overall humanitarian situation” in Gaza were both “unacceptable” and “made clear” to Mr Netanyahu that US policy will hinge on whether his government can “announce and implement a series of specific, concrete, and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers”.

The Israeli army announced on Friday that its internal investigation into the incident had concluded.

While admitting that a “grave mistake” was made, the Israeli military continued to claim innocence over the attack – insisting that the WCK workers were “misidentified” as Hamas militants. Two military officers have been dismissed from their positions following the findings, the military said.

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