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The Dissent Channel
American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age
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In 2017, Elizabeth Shackelford wrote a pointed resignation letter to her then boss, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. She had watched as the State Department was gutted, and now she urged him to stem the bleeding by showing leadership and commitment to his diplomats and the country. If he couldn’t do that, she said, “I humbly recommend that you follow me out the door.”
With that, she sat down to write her story and share an urgent message.
In The Dissent Channel, former diplomat Elizabeth Shackelford shows that this is not a new problem. Her experience in 2013 during the precarious rise and devastating fall of the world’s newest country, South Sudan, exposes a foreign policy driven more by inertia than principles, to suit short-term political needs over long-term strategies.
Through her story, Shackelford makes policy and politics come alive. And in navigating both American bureaucracy and the fraught history and present of South Sudan, she conveys an urgent message about the devolving state of US foreign policy.
IN 1971, THE US DEPARTMENT OF STATE ESTABLISHED THE Dissent Channel, an official avenue for expressing dissent within the department. Disappointment and disgust with our foreign policy during the Vietnam War had led to hundreds of resignations, revealing unprecedented levels of professional discontent. With the White House shaping foreign policy decisions to influence narrow political goals and domestic policy ends, career diplomats felt helpless, watching a barrage of far-reaching consequences unfold. But the administration had no intention of changing its direction. The Dissent Channel was the bureaucratic solution. The Foreign Affairs Manual outlines its purpose and process:
It is Department of State policy that all U.S. citizen employees, foreign and domestic, be able to express dissenting or alternative views on substantive issues of policy, in a manner which ensures serious, high-level review and response.
It is considered an option of last resort, to be used after all other “routine channels” have been attempted.
In an institution staffed with polite professionals tasked with minimizing conflict and managing discord (we’re diplomats, after all), its use is rare. As it is a carefully guarded internal tool, its public discussion is even rarer. If you’ve heard of it at all, it was probably from the leaked dissent cable in 2017 opposing the Muslim travel ban, which more than one thousand State Department employees signed. Or in 2016, when a few dozen diplomats signed a dissent urging strikes against the Assad regime in Syria.
Usually, however, dissents are conducted quietly, politely, within the walls of the department, all protocols observed. Diplomats who have filed a dissent can tell themselves they’ve done everything in their power that they could do.
Unfortunately, those dissents are often prescient, laying out in plain language the dangers of a foreign policy driven by inertia, domestic politics, short-term thinking, and overly narrow interpretations of the national interest. Often, these are lessons we’ve learned before. Dissents don’t typically identify problems no one saw coming. They usually identify problems we willfully chose to ignore.
What follows is one story of a problem we ignored, repeatedly and over a long period of time, which the decisions and actions of the US government not only failed to stop, but helped precipitate. It is a story of impunity, of unchecked violence against civilians, of abuses that occurred on our watch by a government we continued to legitimize. It illuminates a long-standing American trend of failing to look at long-term consequences in our foreign policy. I learned firsthand about the consequences of our failure to take a stand for the values of human rights and justice, when doing so could make a difference. This is the story of how America failed the people of a small country and how it did so by failing itself.
This book reflects the author’s best recollections and understanding of the events portrayed. While the author has had the benefit of extensive contemporaneous notes, journals, and correspondence to fact-check and enhance these recollections, others will inevitably have different memories of some of these events. Some names have been changed, some events compressed, and some dialogue re-created, but the author has endeavored at every stage to capture all events as truthfully and accurately as possible.
WITH THE FOURTEEN-HOUR FLIGHT FROM WASHINGTON behind me, I had just a short hop from Addis Ababa to Juba before I’d arrive in my new home. As I sat at the crowded gate awaiting boarding, I overheard the Ethiopian check-in attendant ask a tall, thin man if he had a nationality. The question sounded odd to me, but the man took it in stride. “I am South Sudanese,” he responded, as an obvious matter of fact.
“You only have this Sudanese passport though?” asked the attendant, looking at the rough and aged travel document. “How long have you been away?”
“Four years,” the tall man replied. The attendant reflected on this for a moment and said, “I cannot guarantee they will honor this and allow you in. But welcome home.”
South Sudan: the world’s newest country. Many of my colleagues, friends, and family were shocked that I volunteered for the assignment, even more so that it was my top choice. I was coming out of a prime posting in Europe, which some friends had hoped might steer me away from a fixation on less glamorous places. Having left the development world behind when I joined the Foreign Service, I had options now, and a directed assignment to Europe gave me a first step on a career path winding through pleasant places to live—the kind your friends and family want to visit. No one would be visiting me in Juba. My parents weren’t thrilled with my choice, but they knew me better than anyone. They had tried to dissuade me from a move to South Africa when I was nineteen. When that failed, they simply came to terms with my life choices, and now they expected nothing less.
An unsourced one-page backgrounder provided in my welcome packet began with a description of Juba as a place “where the only time you don’t feel sweaty is 5 minutes after you’ve had a wash (if you have any water to wash with).” The rest of the sheet read:
Climate: Mostly 100 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit
Morning air: rather dusty
Evening air: extremely dusty
Getting Around: Juba has one tarmac road built in 1972 that today consists of a patchwork of potholes. All other roads are built of other potholes, dust and layers of plastic bottles and other rubbish.
Money: Take all money you think you will need with you, since credit cards are not accepted and there are no reliable banks.
Accommodation, Food and Health: Allegedly, Juba is the 2nd most expensive city in the world. Resist the urge to convert prices, otherwise you will not buy anything. Also expect rather erratic pricing. For example, a jar of Nutella will cost you $21, but a pack of 24 cans of Carlsberg will set you back only $18.
If staying in a guest house that provides food, expect ugali and beans for every meal. Other vegetables don’t exist here.
Juba has a hospital. Make sure you go between 11 am and 1 pm during which time you might have a chance of receiving treatment. Don’t count on it though, especially not on Wednesdays. Probably safer not to get sick.
Community: A large variety of soldiers can be seen in Juba. Don’t take photos. Really, don’t.
If you arrange to meet a local, expect them to arrive anytime in the four hours following the time you arranged to meet.
Even among those who worked in hardship posts around the world, Juba had a reputation for being a backwater, but that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm as a new arrival. When I first joined the Foreign Service, my friends in the orientation class and I often discussed dream postings as we waited anxiously for our first directed assignments. I remember a lunch conversation in the Foreign Service Institute cafeteria in September 2010. “If you had your first choice of anywhere, where would you go?” My answer was clear: Juba. I wanted to be in Africa. I wanted to experience diplomacy on the front lines. I wanted to help a post-conflict country find stability and prosperity. I was naive.
I was looking for a real challenge, something unique. Juba was it. When we received the bid list of available postings at the end of that week, I scrolled quickly through the alphabetical names of cities, but no Juba this round. I’d have to wait, but I didn’t give up. I felt fairly confident that much would remain to be done in South Sudan in the years to come. At least I had that right.
Two years later, I was sitting in Warsaw after six months of Polish language training and my first year on assignment when the bid list for my second assignment was released, and there it was: Juba. I assumed it would be competitive and didn’t hold out hope that I’d get my first pick. Like first postings for career US diplomats, the second is also directed: you indicate your top preferences, and the service assigns positions as it sees fit, often with little rhyme or reason. Those fluent in Mandarin might be sent to months of Spanish language training for a border posting in Mexico. It wasn’t for us to question the needs of the service. We served where we were sent.
I received my assignment a few months later: Juba. I had no idea what I was in for.
SOUTH SUDAN WAS born into dire circumstances. It scored bottom of the barrel on nearly every development indicator, and the population was still recovering from literally decades of war. Nation building from square one: the greatest of diplomatic and development challenges, to be sure. South Sudan had just secured its independence in 2011, so not only was it the world’s newest country, but ours was America’s newest embassy too.
South Sudan was my dream assignment, but I knew relatively little about the country’s history at first. I knew the stakes were high—it was at a critical juncture in its national development—and that our team in-country was small. I hoped and expected that—unlike in more high-profile conflict postings such as Afghanistan and Iraq, with dozens of Foreign Service Officers—I’d have significant responsibility and be part of real policy conversations, even as a junior officer. This was exciting but intimidating as well, so I wanted to be as prepared as possible.
In the year leading up to my assignment, I devoured every book and paper I could find on South Sudan. The national narrative I came away with was dominated by the elation of independence in 2011 and hinged on a fairly straightforward tale of good versus evil.
I’d started my research by looking into Sudan under colonialism and the role of the British in drawing the boundary lines for what the country would become at independence in 1956. The country was divided by significant differences between a primarily Muslim north, culturally more Arab influenced and aligned with North Africa, and the East African and Christian south. The north and south were administered separately under British colonial rule until 1946, at which point they were merged into a single administrative unit as the British government prepared the region for self-rule. So the story goes, this did not sit well with southerners concerned about being marginalized and oppressed by their northern leaders in the new republic. By Sudan’s independence in 1956, the new country was already facing civil war.
From 1955 to 2005, Sudan’s population suffered two civil wars separated by an eleven-year cease-fire, from 1972 to 1983. The first war killed approximately five hundred thousand and the second was estimated at as many as two million, mostly civilians. Both civil wars were often described as the southern population seeking greater autonomy and more representation from an oppressive government dominated by the Muslim north in the capital, Khartoum. I would come to learn that the wars were a bit more complicated than that.
The second war ended in 2005 with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). Under this agreement, the south would hold a referendum, after six years of autonomy, to determine whether it would remain part of Sudan or become independent. Dr. John Garang, the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), signed the CPA on behalf of the south. He was considered the founding father of the movement, but had Dr. John lived, the outcome might well have been different. He was a strong proponent of a new united Sudan, in which the minority groups (including the southerners) would have equal rights and would leverage their collective strength into greater political power, but his death in a mysterious helicopter crash, only three weeks after signing the CPA, paved the way for secessionists to take hold of the movement. Dr. John’s deputy Salva Kiir, who inherited the leadership role, was a committed secessionist, and by 2011 secession was a fait accompli.
On July 9, 2011, amid great jubilation and cheering crowds unfazed by the baking sun beating down on the ceremony in the John Garang Mausoleum in Juba, the flag of Sudan was lowered and the flag of this new nation raised, with bands of black, red, and green stretching out from a blue triangle on which was centered a yellow star. The black band represented the people; indeed, the name Sudan, a term recorded since the twelfth century, meant “land of the black people.” The red represented the blood shed by southerners in decades of war. The green, the country’s lush landscape of grasslands, wetlands, and forests. The star stood for unity and sat on a blue background representing the mighty life-giving Nile. The flag’s symbolism was strong and unifying, at least on that day.
Dignitaries from around the world joined this important occasion, including Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir and United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon. A large US delegation sat in the VIP area. US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice headed up the group of Americans and delivered remarks to the overflowing crowd, welcoming the new country to the community of nations and calling it “a day of triumph for all who cherish the right of people everywhere to govern themselves in liberty and law.” She went on to say, “We remain mindful of the challenges that await us. No true friend would offer false comfort… but the republic of South Sudan is being born amid great hopes, the hope that you will guarantee the rights of all citizens, shelter the vulnerable, and bring prosperity to all corners of your land.” To great applause, she stated, “My government will stand with you.… So long as you seek a more perfect union, you will never be alone.” It all sounded just and right and as though we, the United States, were ready to be the guarantors of this justness and rightness.
Nation building was an unpopular concept in 2013, particularly in America following a decade of expensive folly in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was not convinced our foreign interventions weren’t doing more harm than good, but in South Sudan I saw a combination of factors no other damaged, post-conflict country could claim. Despite lacking real strategic importance for the United States, South Sudan garnered an outsize interest from both the White House and Congress, with a corresponding level of US support rarely seen on the African continent (or anywhere of such little international consequence, for that matter). In all my reading, South Sudan’s formation was cast as a Cinderella story of sorts, with the United States playing a key role negotiating the glass slipper. But why?
If this all seemed an overly simplified view of history, that’s because it was. Yet it was the one we chose to guide our intervention. South Sudan had oil, but, contrary to popular conspiracy theory, that wasn’t what was driving US interest. Tireless lobbying efforts by American Evangelicals, who had championed the plight of the southern Christians against Muslim domination from the north since the 1990s, had built strong bipartisan support for the country. The Evangelicals were joined by advocates of democracy and human rights who were keen to end Africa’s longest-running civil war. American investment in the south had spanned more than two decades before independence. With this much interest in the country’s success, backed by nearly $700 million in aid each year, could this be a place where we could get it right? If not here, if not under these circumstances, could we ever?
As I flew into South Sudan for the first time, this was the question on my mind. My view from the plane was mostly blocked by the wing and propeller, but what I saw as we soared over the landscape of this new state looked lush, green, flat, and… empty. This was what I had envisioned, after all: a blank slate, but a fertile one, where democracy was only starting to take shape and the possibilities were endless. What I couldn’t see from cruising altitude were the many obstacles to progress already deeply rooted in the dark, rich soil.
THE SMELL OF burning trash was the first thing I noticed upon disembarking. A South Sudanese fixer with a big smile and an enormous gap between his front teeth picked me up planeside and whisked me through the decrepit VIP lounge, also smelling rather ripe. As we made our way past a line of passengers and a few large couches in the dimly lit lounge and out to the parking lot, past drivers waiting by large SUVs, I noticed something else: I felt small. The South Sudanese were famously tall, particularly the Dinka and Nuer, the country’s two largest ethnic groups. Even women routinely surpassed a height of six feet. But it wasn’t just their stature. No one appeared obese, but the locals were thick, strong, with a presence that seemed to fill up the space around them. The big men on the big couches in the lounge were emblematic, the physical manifestation of a political scene dominated by shows of strength and masculinity. I was slim and, at five feet, five inches, marginally above average height for an American woman. In South Sudan, I immediately felt pocket-size.
We reached James, my new boss, who was waiting in the parking lot outside. He, too, towered above me. By the time I met our similarly statured deputy chief of mission, Mike, a few hours later, I wondered if they had assigned an average-size American here by mistake.
James was an American diplomat right out of central casting. His neat, dark suit contrasted starkly with the sun-bleached dirtscape and ramshackle facilities of the airport. He was clean-cut bordering on preppy, and his dark-rimmed glasses gave him a studious appearance. He looked polite and inoffensive in every possible way, easily the person you would choose to deliver a difficult message respectfully, all protocols observed. James had the skills and reputation to succeed anywhere. He’d proven this with a coveted position in the White House National Security Council a few years prior. But he’d opted to follow his passion and focus on Africa, in some of the most difficult places with the greatest need, starting in the Peace Corps more than a decade and a half ago. He was passionate about using US diplomacy—the most powerful tool he could access—to improve lives. The role of a diplomat, however, wasn’t the same as an activist, and James had worked hard to develop the skills and finesse necessary to balance advocacy with other US priorities. I’d learn quickly that James was a well-meaning boss and a team player, always giving credit where credit was due, never one to grandstand and never one to rock the boat.
We piled into an armored embassy vehicle, and James used the quick drive—less than ten minutes across this glorified village-turned-capital—to update me on the latest local news. As we cruised along the rough but bustling Airport Road, passing nondescript shop fronts and unmarked compounds, I noticed a lot of construction underway. New country, new opportunities. Juba looked like a boomtown of the old Wild West sort. I listened intently to what James had to say.
“Welcome to Juba! It’s been quite a week. We’ve had a curfew of 8 p.m. since President Kiir sacked his VP and entire cabinet last week. That’s the time the evening news comes on local TV, so it’s a precaution in case any new, controversial presidential decrees are announced. It’s stayed pretty quiet, but the city is still tense. I’ll drop you off at the residence, and you should just settle in the rest of today. Rest up. Trust me, you’ll have plenty of time to work.”
We arrived at the American residential compound. It was walled off from the rest of the neighborhood, but the adjacent compounds looked similar from the outside. All I could see gazing down the steep dirt road were more walls on either side. A block down, the road deteriorated so much it effectively disappeared. At the gate, guards opened the hood of the car to search for anything unusual and test for explosive residue, and then they used a long handle with a round mirror attached to the end to search underneath the vehicle. Once we were cleared to disembark inside the compound, James walked me across a gravel parking lot to the front desk before hurrying back to the embassy.
It was the middle of the afternoon on a workday, so the compound, which resembled a low-budget summer camp facility, was empty and quiet but for a couple of cleaners and a manager for the company that provided life-support services. The manager showed me to unit 12A, three shipping containers converted into a small apartment with a compact screened-in porch attached to the front. My new home faced the back wall of the compound. It looked functional and was more spacious than I’d expected, but it felt cold and impersonal inside. Metal walls aren’t particularly homey. I turned off the wall-mounted AC unit—the cold air was shocking in the sultry climate—and sat down on an unnaturally stiff, beige couch. Little did I know, my full-size couch, uncomfortable though it may have been, was the envy of container dwellers far and wide.
Unlike most US missions around the world, our residences in Juba were not fully furnished with the standard-issue expensive but unattractive Drexel Heritage Queen Anne collection, replete with brass fixtures, cheap dark-cherry veneer, and an abundance of overly stylized curlicues. I expected the American-size furniture—shipped worldwide from North Carolina at great taxpayer expense, thanks to the Buy American Act—simply wouldn’t fit in these small spaces. I wasn’t sad not to see it, though I was a bit surprised that each unit looked like it was decorated from items found on street corners outside frat houses after the semester ends. Full-size couches were a hot-ticket item, apparently.
It was time to learn a new job and a new country, get a new routine, and figure out where to get groceries, where to run, and what was both culturally and climate appropriate to wear. I didn’t want to rest the afternoon away; I’d been anticipating this arrival for a year. I was ready to dive into the new gig, so I logged in to the computer in my unit. Blackberries were in short supply in Juba—like everything else, I’d learn—so I wouldn’t be issued one. It was 2013, and I felt like I was the last person alive without a smartphone. I wasn’t yet sure if it was a blessing or a curse, but at least I could read official email at home. A good thing, right?
As James said, it had been an eventful period, so I wanted to catch up on the recent news. I found Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement on South Sudan’s second anniversary of independence, given only a couple of weeks earlier.
I will never forget the moment I shared with the people of South Sudan as the world witnessed the birth of a new nation. I saw long lines of people waiting for hours, reveling in the privilege of voting for their freedom. When I mentioned to some voters the need to be patient and remain in line despite the delays, they said, “We have waited 55 years, we can wait a few more hours.” Today their wait is over and South Sudan is an independent nation. But we all know that much work remains to be done.… We have an obligation to do more to make sure that we’ve helped free people give birth to a lasting and successful nation.
But other news on the country’s second anniversary lacked Secretary Kerry’s optimistic sheen. A July 9 Guardian article reported on the situation: “As South Sudan began to confront the challenge of running a country without enough schools, hospitals or roads, the unity that had underpinned the referendum and declaration of independence dissolved. More than 2,000 mothers die for every 100,000 live births and 75 of every 1,000 babies will not survive their first birthday.”
By now, the elation of South Sudan’s independence was beginning to fade in the face of a harsh reality. The patience citizens had displayed while waiting to cast their ballots was waning as it became more evident that the new country had nothing to offer them. Government services were still almost nonexistent. Conflict, corruption, extreme poverty, and violence were rampant. Political leadership squabbled over power, wasting little time addressing the grievances of its people, and President Kiir’s tolerance for any limitations to his own authority was increasingly strained. The SPLA, the ragtag militia previously revered in the independence struggle, had become a predatory national army, with human rights abuses too widespread to attribute to the growing pains of a new government with a rebel force in transition. The SPLA and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) began as the military and political wings of the rebellion, and even the nomenclature revealed that the leadership of this new nation had struggled to remake itself from a rebel movement into a national government.
As the capital and seat of government, Juba was in better shape than the rest of the country, but I would learn it wasn’t doing that well either. Getting by in Juba was expensive because the economy was a mess and nearly everything was imported. The heavy international presence did its part to warp the market, with expats who earned danger pay willing to shell out a lot for very little. Battered fruits and vegetables were costly, brought in overland from Uganda. Gas was expensive and often in short supply. Yet the political leadership sat pretty, squabbling with each other as they lived lavish lifestyles behind the walls of their expansive compounds, robbing the country blind.
The discrepancy wasn’t lost on the local population. Juba sprawled with construction—hotels and new camps to house the development set and the army of white SUVs they rode in on—but for all the international aid, the payoff for the average South Sudanese appeared minimal, if there was any at all. To the South Sudanese population, it seemed the aid bounty could only be benefiting the corrupt, as it wasn’t making their lives any better.
The US government was investing more than any other donor. Washington’s high-level interest continued, but there seemed to be no measure of critical self-reflection: our patience persisted and our course of support was set. Embassy staff on the ground continued to inform Washington of the need for a more cautious optimism, recognizing that results of diplomatic efforts were slow and often partial. But the overall message remained one of hope, which translated to giving the South Sudanese authorities the benefit of the doubt, regardless of the mounting case for skepticism.
- "An honest accounting by a patriot seeking a deliberate national discourse on what actually makes America great."—Kirkus Reviews
- "The Dissent Channel represents an important read for those seeking to reckon with the longer-term shortcomings of American foreign policy, particularly as they concern South Sudan."—Global Policy Journal
- "Her keen and empathetic eye brings into sharp relief the disastrous consequences of derelict foreign policy against the brutal backdrop of a fledgling, war-torn country."—Seven Days VT
- "Shackleford's book is a damning chronicle of the naivety and gullibility of Western governments. Rather than making good on their expressions of concern, they continued to pour money into South Sudan."—Independent Catholic News
- "At a time when many Americans are wondering if a values-based foreign policy is either desirable or feasible, Elizabeth Shackelford offers a passionate and detailed account of the risks of not having one, under the challenging circumstances faced by the Obama Administration in South Sudan. In presenting one side of a complex story, Elizabeth reveals why it is imperative now more than ever that dissenting voices, particularly from those closest to the ground, be heard and answered"—Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO, New America
- "In these norm-shattering times, we urgently need to examine and learn from mistakes of the past. This beautifully written, personal story exposes uncomfortable truths about the costs of America's foreign policy approach and, without cynicism, offers some hope for a better way forward—Yara Bayoumy, National SecurityEditor, The Atlantic
- On Sale
- May 12, 2020
- Page Count
- 304 pages