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A former State Dept. official explains why he resigned over U.S. arms sent to Israel

Josh Paul resigned from the State Department on Wednesday, citing his objection to continued U.S. arms transfers to Israel.
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Josh Paul resigned from the State Department on Wednesday, citing his objection to continued U.S. arms transfers to Israel.

Updated October 19, 2023 at 4:02 PM ET

A State Department official has resigned from the bureau that oversees arms transfers to foreign nations, citing his objection to continued U.S. military assistance to Israel as its retaliatory bombardment and blockade of Gaza exacerbate a humanitarian crisis there.

Josh Paul was the director of congressional and public affairs at the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. In a two-page letter posted on LinkedIn, he said he had made a promise to himself when he joined over a decade ago that he would stay "as long as I felt the harm I might do could be outweighed by the good I could do."

"I am leaving today because I believe that in our current course with regards to the continued — indeed, expanded and expedited — provision of lethal arms to Israel — I have reached the end of that bargain," he wrote.

Paul tendered his resignation on Wednesday, the same day that President Biden visited Israel in a public show of support. The president pledged his commitment to its security and promised a congressional request for more defense funding, even as he urged Israelis not to be consumed by their rage and directed $100 million in humanitarian aid for Palestinians.

Paul wrote in his letter that he was heartened to see the administration's efforts to temper Israel's response, including its advocacy for the provision of relief, supplies and safe passage for civilians in Gaza.

But he said he could not work in support of a set of major policy decisions — including "rushing more arms to one side of the conflict" — that he believes to be "shortsighted, destructive, unjust, and contradictory to the very values that we publicly espouse."

The State Department declined to comment on personnel matters.

In an interview with Morning Edition's Michel Martin, Paul strongly denounced Hamas' attack on Israel and affirmed Israel's right to defend itself. But he said there are "ways to do that that don't involve dislocating a million Palestinians, that don't involve the death of thousands of civilians."

"We never seem to ask, well, what about the Palestinian right? Not to face incursions in their villages, not to be bombed from the air," he added. "So I think looking at this on equal terms, we have to talk about both sides."

Paul said he doesn't expect his departure to lead to an immediate change in policy — an assessment several experts also made to NPR. But he said he hoped to accomplish two things: remove himself from a debate that he found difficult, and show others in the government "that it's OK and possible to stand up."

Paul said he's received a huge outpouring of support after posting his resignation letter — which has since been reposted more than 1,000 times — and hopes his colleagues grappling with similar feelings take that to heart.

"And I hope they see that and that it speaks to them to do the right thing as well, which I know so many of them will," he said.

Paul says this is different from previous moral conundrums

Paul noted in his letter that while his work dealt with many countries, he was particularly well-versed in Middle East issues: He wrote his master's thesis on Israeli counterterrorism and civil rights, spent time working with the Palestinian Authority and Israel Defense Forces while serving for the U.S. Security in Ramallah and has "deep personal ties" to both sides of the conflict.

He wrote that he's "made more moral compromises than I can recall" over his last 11 years in the job. He told NPR that he used his position to fight many times for what he believed to be right, including debates over arms transfers to "a number of unsavory regimes." But this time is different, he says.

"The difference here is that in all of those cases — when those within the department and the interagency with human rights concerns had done all the shaping they could — you knew the next step was for the sale to go to Congress where it would be held, debated, even voted against," he explained. "But with Israel, it's a blank check from Congress. There's no appetite for debate. There's no real debate internal to the administration. And then there's no one to hand the debate off to."

While there is some disagreement on the far left when it comes to support for Israel, Congress as a whole is unlikely to be divided when it comes to supporting Israel, at least in the short term.

Paul said the first thing he'd like the Biden administration to do is "simply follow their own public commitments."

He explains that the administration's new conventional arms transfer policy, enacted earlier this year, explicitly states that no transfers will be authorized under which the U.S. assesses that "it is more likely than not that the arms to be transferred will be used by the recipient to commit, facilitate the recipients' commission of, or to aggravate risks that the recipient will commit: genocide; crimes against humanity; grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949."

Those include attacks directed against civilians and other serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law, including acts of violence against children.

"So I think for us to look at the current situation and say the answer is as many bombs as Israel asks for, knowing that their use will lead in a direction exactly opposite to our stated policy goals ... it's disappointing, to say the least," Paul said.

Resignation is one option for government officials who disagree with U.S. policy

Experts on diplomacy told NPR that while it's too soon to see what if any ripple effects Paul resignation will have, it's unlikely to impact U.S. policy.

Ronald Neumann, the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, says there are two things a State Department employee can do when they disagree with a U.S. policy: resign or ask to be moved to another job.

"Often people have to deal with exactly what Josh Paul mentioned in his letter, which is balancing the good they might do by staying in a position or by remaining in a policy fight against having to carry out policy they don't agree with," he adds.

He says such resignations happen periodically. For example: The U.S. ambassador to Panama stepped down in 2018, citing irreconcilable differences with former President Donald Trump, and several State Department officials resigned over objections to the U.S.' Bosnia policy in the 1990s.

"I do not know that any of such resignations have ever had an effect on the department writ large or that they have a major effect on policy," Neumann says, adding that he's not surprised Paul has received support from many coworkers but doesn't expect it to lead to much.

The State Department is the rare cabinet agency with an official internal mechanism that allows employees to voice concerns about U.S. policy, Neumann points out.

It's called the Dissent Channel, and was born out of the Vietnam War. Employees can express policy disagreements in classified messages that go to the secretary of state, without fear of retaliation.

"It's important for that active policy discussion and dissent that people do respect their professional obligation to either keep dissent inside the organization or to do what Mr. Paul has done and resign and take it outside," Neumann said, adding that it's important for people to be able to draw their own line.

Dissent cables don't guarantee changes in policy, though some have happened. A 1992 memo about U.S. inaction towards genocide in Bosnia, for example, is widely credited with helping bring about the U.S.-brokered peace accords there.

The channel usually gets four to five such cables each year, but saw surges at times during the Obama and Trump administrations.

Tom Yazdgerdi, the president of the American Foreign Service Association, told NPR over email that the union hasn't seen any signs that foreign service members are contemplating resigning over the U.S. response to the Israel-Hamas war.

He says there's been more concern about the safety and security of family members of diplomatic personnel working in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Beirut — and the State Department has addressed it by providing authorized departure to eligible individuals and employees.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Rachel Treisman
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.