An Iraq War Dissent
In 2001 Ann Wright served as the first political officer in the newly reopened U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Two years later she was one of three diplomats to publicly resign from the Foreign Service due to disagreements with the Bush Administration’s foreign policy on Iraq and other issues. Prior to her resignation Wright had a long career as an Army colonel and later Deputy Chief of Mission in Sierra Leone and Mongolia. She received the Department’s Award for Heroism as Charge d’Affaires during the evacuation of Sierra Leone in 1997 and attained the rank of Colonel during her 26 years in the military. In a 2003 interview with Stu Kennedy, shortly after her resignation, she discusses the reasons behind her departure and shares her letter of resignation addressed to Secretary of State Colin Powell.
You can also read about the Blood Telegram dissent cable to the Department on U.S. policy in East Bangladesh and Ali Khedery’s disagreement with Iraq policy. You can also read about Wright’s experience in Somalia during the UN intervention there.
“I thought, ‘What in the world are we doing?'”
Q: Could you explain your resignation from the Foreign Service?
WRIGHT: It is kind of an odd thing. Over the years I had been working along in some very controversial programs with the State Department and with the military. I had been involved in a lot of conflictive situations. While I was in Mongolia I read and observed the rapidly growing U.S. focus on Iraq. I remembered sitting in Kabul (Wright in Afghanistan in photo at left) on the night of the State of the Union address in January 2002.
When President Bush said the phrase “axis of evil – Iraq, Iran, and North Korea,” those of us sitting there in Kabul, our backs stiffened, and you could hear a pin drop. Everybody was amazed. That was not what we wanted to hear sitting at ground zero in Kabul at the U.S. embassy. When you’re talking about an “axis of evil” — you know, the blatant, the harshness of right in your face sort of statements just kind of grabbed me.
We had barely gotten into Afghanistan and the focus already was moving from Afghanistan. The strong rhetoric against Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction was starting up. When I went to Mongolia I didn’t realize that we had already started moving troops into the Middle East. I lost the thread on where the Congressional debate was about potential military actions in the region. I think it was just before Christmas when I read an article that said we already had like 130,000 U.S. military troops in the Middle East. I thought, “What in the world are we doing?”
The talk about weapons of mass destruction was certainly a concern but I never had thought it was of imminent concern to the national security of the United States. To me there were much more troublesome areas in the world than Iraq. I thought the lack of Bush administration effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was more dangerous than Iraq. Seeing the Israelis running over the villages January and February and seeing those horrible images of Israel just knocking down entire neighborhoods was incredible. The Palestinians were continuing their suicide bombings and the Israelis were responding by destroying villages. And the U.S. was doing nothing from what I could see to calm the waters.
I also thought the lack of administration effort in North Korea was dangerous. The administration said it needed to do a policy review. Two years passed and no review had been done. The North Koreans were becoming more and more strident in demanding dialogue with the United States. Why don’t we at least talk with them? We all knew the regime was despicable, but at least by dialogue we have a chance to influence it.
To me those were the flashpoints and not Iraq. Iraq had continued to terrorize its own population. But they had used weapons of mass destruction; they had not invaded another country.
So when the administration was more and more strident in its talk of going to war to eliminate the weapons of mass destruction, I kept hoping that the administration would get a UN Security Council authorization before undertaking military operations. The danger for the U.S. to do a unilateral operation was so high. The probability of terrorist attacks against the U.S. as a result of unilateral action to me was just so high that I just could not fathom why we would be talking in those terms. I kept hoping that we would continue efforts with the UN Security Council and that we would be able to present sufficient evidence that military operations were necessary in Iraq to convince me, much less other countries.
It was very hard to present Washington’s view to the government of Mongolia and convince them that there was a need for military operations at this time. The need, from all accounts, from virtually everybody except the U.S. and the British, was the need to allow the UN to do more inspections. For the administration not to give more time for the inspections was not appropriate. But when the administration had moved all those troops into the region, and to continue to move more in even though there was no agreement in the Security Council, meant to me that war was on its way. You can’t move all those troops in at that time of year and not go ahead and use them. If you back down then the right wing of the Republican Party goes after the administration big time.
Q: Were you picking up the feeling that there was a battle in the administration between essentially the State Department and the Pentagon, with the White House sort of siding more with the Pentagon?
WRIGHT: Yes. You could pick up little hints of it but, at that time, there wasn’t that much publicity about the split between the two. But in my heart I just couldn’t believe that all the friends that I had that were working in the European bureau, or in the NEA [Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs] bureau, that they could be, in good conscience, the ones pushing this.
“The type of evidence to me was not convincing at all”
You had to be careful, and still have to be careful, of what you send on the State Department e-mail system. I mean for good reasons. I would send cryptic e-mails to friends to say essentially, “What is going on? What is happening?” you’d get very nondescript e-mails back, and from people that generally are a little more forthcoming. In fact, after I resigned some of the comments to my resignation that came in as State Department e-mails essentially said, “I will not write more on this system.”
[Through private email] I got enough of a description that I could tell that there was a lot of angst going on in the Department. The e-mails had nothing specifically outlining exactly what the traumas were in the interagency process, but you could read between the lines. I went back to Washington after my resignation to take the retirement seminar. Even though I had resigned, I was still eligible because I had put in enough years to get a retirement. I went back with great trepidation. Quite honestly, I didn’t know what to expect, but I found a big, warm welcome waiting for me and for the fact that I had resigned.
I had written various drafts of my resignation letter starting probably in February, particularly after Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations. The type of evidence that the administration had on weapons of mass destruction to me was not convincing at all. That’s when I started polishing up my resignation letter. I decided that if what Powell described was all the administration could come up with and it wasn’t enough to convince me, then I, in good conscience, could not try to convince other governments of the administration’s correctness.
About that time, [Foreign Service Officer] Brady Kiesling resigned. When his resignation letter came out I looked at my drafts of my letters and thought surely we’re not going to go to war. Surely we’re going to keep working within the UN system. We’re going to keep flowing in troops as military pressure but we’re not going to use them. We’re going to keep after the UN Security Council and let the inspectors have more time to try to find the weapons of mass destruction.
And at the time the administration’s rhetoric was truly on weapons of mass destruction; this whole thing about regime change was not what the administration was talking about. If the administration would have allowed more time for the UN inspectors to operate I would not have sent in my letter of resignation then. I did send in a dissent channel cable that outlined my concerns about what was happening, but I held my letter of resignation hoping that we would continue to work through the Security Council.
At a certain point -– after three months or so -– I left, the inspectors would have found weapons. If Saddam would have again refused inspectors access, then to me that refusal would have sufficient for going back to the international community and getting a decision that action needed to be taken. I probably would not have had as much heartburn on the military operations, although I still would’ve thought the use of weapons of mass destruction was not imminent. Going ahead with war right then without the UN Security Council authorization, to me was a very dangerous thing for us to do, for our own national security.
Q: Had there been other aspects of our foreign policy with this new administration –not just the Iraq thing – which had been a concern?
WRIGHT: Yes, the lack of effort on the Israel-Palestine question, the lack of effort on North Korea, and then the curtailment of civil rights and civil liberties following September 11. The numbers of people that we have kept incarcerated as having possible ties to terrorist groups in the United States, without opportunity for legal counsel to me is very disturbing.
The classification of those being held in Guantanamo to me is an outright blatant violation of international law. They are prisoners of war, they are not detainees, and the fig leaf that we are hiding behind is something that will be used against us in the future as we go to other conflicts and other people hold our soldiers. From the military perspective you want to classify people as prisoners of war because it gives them the best protections, and you’re on the high moral ground if any of your folks get captured during military operations. The international norm is to call people prisoners of war.
“Are you sure you want to give up a career on this one?”
But when we, the biggest power on earth, start crumbling these long-held traditions, then we are going on a downward slope that is something that I don’t think America is about. It’s not my America anyway. There was a lot of discussion among many of our officers as we would get in the pitiful little daily press guidance of how to explain what the U.S. policy is. We would look at them and say, “How in the world does this explain what we are doing?”
We didn’t believe this stuff. How can we possibly use this with the Mongolian government without being embarrassed? Of course, you go ahead with it but we were all just shaking our heads at what was going on. We all were concerned about representing these policies. So there was a lot of discussion.
But when I started saying, “I’m starting to feel so strongly about this that I’m drafting up some resignation material,” then people said, “Well, you know that’s a big step. Are you sure you want to go quite that far? Are you sure you want to give up a career on this one?”
As we would keep talking about it, then several said, “You know, I wish I was kind of further along in my career.” For me at least I had been long enough in Federal service that, although I had to check on this – I had to make sure that if I resigned, does that mean I give up my retirement? – and I still would’ve done it, but fortunately I could resign and that would trigger an immediate retirement.
Q: Did anything officially happen about your letter of resignation?
WRIGHT: First, I did get a response cable to my dissent cable, although it came after I had resigned. It was nothing more really than just a combination of about three days’ worth of press guidance. It contained nothing that convinced me of any greater credibility of the policies.
Following my letter of resignation, Secretary of State Powell himself, or a member of his staff, was kind enough to send a short cable back to me. I thought that was very nice of him, considering how busy he was. Essentially he said he was sorry that I disagreed with policies to the extent that I felt that I had to resign, but he understood the need for it if that’s the way I felt. He thanked me for my service in the Foreign Service and in the military. So I thought that was very nice.
I found out later in Washington from some officers that had a hand in drafting the Secretary’s cable, the first version was written by some staffers who gave perfunctory thanks but good riddance message. Powell himself, apparently edited it to something that was respectful and nice, considering the criticism my letter contained.
From the hour that my resignation letter hit Washington, I started receiving e-mails from people in the Foreign Service. As the letter was e-mailed to people outside the Foreign Service, within two weeks I had over four hundred e-mails. They were so poignant. I started extracting parts of them and put them together in a big document that I’ve emailed back to the secretary of state’s office. I thought they would be interested in knowing what the comments were that I had received. I did not receive one single negative e-mail, probably because the people that think I was stupid to resign don’t want to waste an e-mail on me.
It’s very disturbing. I can’t believe that our country is now being represented by these policies. I just came back from a quick vacation trip to Europe. In Italy peace signs were hanging from lots of windows, in every village that we went into. The numbers of people that are aghast at what the administration had done and what they believe America now stands for are huge. But I’m now no longer in Federal service. For the first time in my adult life, I have the opportunity to participate in a political campaign. I intend to work for the Democratic candidate because I don’t think America should continue to be what we have become. I will certainly work to try to change things.
Ann Wright’s Letter of Resignation
U.S. Embassy Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
March 19, 2003
Secretary of State Colin Powell
U.S. Department of State Washington, DC 20521
Dear Secretary Powell:
When I last saw you in Kabul in January, 2002 you arrived to officially open the U.S. Embassy that I had helped reestablish in December 2001 as the first political officer. At that time I could not have imagined that I would be writing a year later to resign from the Foreign Service because of U.S. policies. All my adult life I have been in service to the United States. I have been a diplomat for fifteen years and the Deputy Chief of Mission in our Embassies in Sierra Leone, Micronesia, Afghanistan (briefly) and Mongolia. I have also had assignments in Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Grenada and Nicaragua. I received the State Department’s Award for Heroism as Charge d’Affaires during the evacuation of Sierra Leone in 1997. I was 26 years in the U.S. Army/Army Reserves and participated in civil reconstruction projects after military operations in Grenada, Panama and Somalia. I attained the rank of Colonel during my military service.
This is the only time in my many years serving America that I have felt I cannot represent the policies of an Administration of the United States. I disagree with the Administration’s policies on Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, North Korea and curtailment of civil liberties in the U.S. itself. I believe the Administration’s policies are making the world a more dangerous, not a safer, place. I feel obligated morally and professionally to set out my very deep and firm concerns on these policies and to resign from government service as I cannot defend or implement them. I hope you will bear with my explanation of why I must resign. After thirty years of service to my country, my decision to resign is a huge step and I want to be clear in my reasons why I must do so.
I disagree with the Administration’s policies on Iraq
I wrote this letter five weeks ago and held it hoping that the Administration would not go to war against Iraq at this time without United Nations Security Council agreement. I strongly believe that going to war now will make the world more dangerous, not safer. There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein is a despicable dictator and has done incredible damage to the Iraqi people and others of the region. I totally support the international community’s demand that Saddam’s regime destroy weapons of mass destruction.
However, I believe we should not use U.S. military force without UNSC agreement to ensure compliance. In our press for military action now, we have created deep chasms in the international community and in important international organizations. Our policies have alienated many of our allies and created ill will in much of the world. Countries of the world supported America’s action in Afghanistan as a response to the September 11 al Qaida attacks on America. Since then, America has lost the incredible sympathy of most of the world because of our policy toward Iraq.
Much of the world considers our statements about Iraq as arrogant, untruthful and masking a hidden agenda. Leaders of moderate Moslem/Arab countries warn us about predicable outrage and anger of the youth of their countries if America enters an Arab country with the purpose of attacking Moslems/Arabs, not defending them. Attacking the Saddam regime in Iraq now is very different than expelling the same regime from Kuwait, as we did ten years ago. I strongly believe the probable response of many Arabs of the region and Moslems of the world if the U.S. enters Iraq without UNSC agreement will result in actions extraordinarily dangerous to America and Americans. Military action now without UNSC agreement is much more dangerous for America and the world than allowing the UN weapons inspections to proceed and subsequently taking UNSC authorized action if warranted.
I firmly believe the probability of Saddam using weapons of mass destruction is low, as he knows that using those weapons will trigger an immediate, strong and justified international response. There will be no question of action against Saddam in that case. I strongly disagree with the use of a “preemptive attack” against Iraq and believe that this preemptive attack policy will be used against us and provide justification for individuals and groups to “preemptively attack” America and American citizens.
The international military build-up is providing pressure on the regime that is resulting in a slow, but steady disclosure of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). We should give the weapons inspectors time to do their job. We should not give extremist Muslims/Arabs a further cause to hate America, or give moderate Muslims a reason to join the extremists. Additionally, we must reevaluate keeping our military forces in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia. Their presence on the Islamic “holy soil” of Saudi Arabia will be an anti-American rally cry for Muslims as long as the U.S. military remains and a strong reason, in their opinion, for actions against the U.S. government and American citizens.
Although I strongly believe the time in not yet right for military action in Iraq, as a soldier who has been in several military operations, I hope General Franks, U.S. and Coalition forces can accomplish the missions they will be ordered do without loss of civilian or military life and without destruction of the Iraqi peoples’ homes and livelihood. I strongly urge the Department of State to attempt again to stop the policy that is leading us to military action in Iraq without UNSC agreement. Timing is everything and this is not yet the time for military action.
I disagree with the Administration’s lack of effort in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Likewise, I cannot support the lack of effort by the Administration to use its influence to resurrect the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. As Palestinian suicide bombers kill Israelis and Israeli military operations kill Palestinians and destroy Palestinian towns and cities, the Administration has done little to end the violence. We must exert our considerable financial influence on the Israelis to stop destroying cities and on the Palestinians to curb its youth suicide bombers. I hope the Administration’s long-needed “Roadmap for Peace” will have the human resources and political capital needed to finally make some progress toward peace.
I disagree with the Administration’s lack of policy on North Korea
Additionally, I cannot support the Administration’s position on North Korea. With weapons, bombs and missiles, the risks that North Korea poses are too great to ignore. I strongly believe the Administration’s lack of substantive discussion, dialogue and engagement over the last two years has jeopardized security on the peninsula and the region. The situation with North Korea is dangerous for us to continue to neglect.
I disagree with the Administration’s policies on Unnecessary Curtailment of Rights in America
Further, I cannot support the Administration’s unnecessary curtailment of civil rights following September 11. The investigation of those suspected of ties with terrorist organizations is critical but the legal system of America for 200 years has been based on standards that provide protections for persons during the investigation period. Solitary confinement without access to legal counsel cuts the heart out of the legal foundation on which our country stands. Additionally, I believe the Administration’s secrecy in the judicial process has created an atmosphere of fear to speak out against the gutting of the protections on which America was built and the protections we encourage other countries to provide to their citizens.
I have served my country for almost thirty years in the some of the most isolated and dangerous parts of the world. I want to continue to serve America. However, I do not believe in the policies of this Administration and cannot defend or implement them. It is with heavy heart that I must end my service to America and therefore resign due to the Administration’s policies.
Mr. Secretary, to end on a personal note, under your leadership, we have made great progress in improving the organization and administration of the Foreign Service and the Department of State. I want to thank you for your extraordinary efforts to that end. I hate to leave the Foreign Service, and I wish you and our colleagues well.
Mary A. Wright,
Deputy Chief of Mission
U.S. Embassy Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia