Discussion with Josh Paul on his decision to resign from the State Department over concerns with the Biden administration's Israel policy, the role of arms transfers in U.S. foreign policy, and the role America plays in the world.
Well, Josh, welcome to the podcast. I know you've had a very busy several weeks, newly out there on the job market, I hear. Yeah, now I do have to say, as somebody who spent 10 years in the army, when I saw your resignation letter, my first thought was like, wow, here's somebody who worked in government and finally did the thing that so many people who work in government wish they would do one day but never do because they're waiting for their 20. At least that's the way it was always in the army. So.
Indeed, yeah, thank you very much for having me.
Yeah, it's actually your 30 in the State Department and I was nowhere near. So as you say, got to figure something else out now.
Perhaps I'm encouraged to do that.
Well, welcome to the private sector for as long as you're here with us. So had a chance to read your resignation letter. And perhaps for those listening for the first time who haven't seen any of the other stuff that you've put out there, you were recently the director of Congressional Public Affairs for the Bureau of Political and Military Affairs at the State Department, which as per most things in the government, the name has nothing to do with what it actually does. Basically you approve all the arms transfers that the U.S. government gives to the rest of the world or the majority of them. Is that correct?
Yeah, I mean the Bureau of Political Military Affairs actually does a lot more than just arms transfers. It also does humanitarian demining around the world, support to peacekeeping training. It negotiates status of forces agreements, which allow US forces to deploy with legal protections to countries around the world. So it's a big bureau that does a lot of things.
Nice. That's actually good to know. I was in Morocco once and we didn't have a status force status of forces agreement with them and then we really had to mine our P's and Q's there. That was that was a fun trip.
Yeah, yeah, don't get drunk and smash up any bars if you don't have a stance of force agreement.
No, no, typically, typically not a good thing. I will say there the king had put out word that a US Special Forces team was coming to town up in Tangier and we were out there first day in town and folks immediately recognized and said, oh, you're the Americans. We were told to leave you alone. So that's good. But yeah, you recently published very publicly on LinkedIn your resignation letter from the bureau based off a set of principal differences you had with the Biden administration and how it's handling.
the support for Israel with this war with Hamas. Could you share what made you finally punch the ticket and back out there?
Yeah, and I'll say it wasn't a sort of spur-of-the-moment decision. It was something I came to after, you know, watching the situation develop after the, you know, horrendous atrocity of October 7th that Hamas carried out against Israeli civilians. But then watching how we were responding to that, certainly through the political-military lens, with Israel, which of course relates to security assistance and to arms transfers, and having worked in the region
and having seen essentially this movie play out multiple times before, knowing that the response would be thousands of civilians dead or would result in thousands of civilians dead, as it indeed has, you know, carried out with US arms and would not lead to any sort of lasting peace or security for, certainly for Palestinians, but also for Israelis. And I think at the end of the day, it was, you know, that sort of recognition of, oh no, we're going to do this all again. US arms.
are going to be used as they never should be to kill many civilians and it's not going to lead to peace. And then when I tried to raise these concerns, there was just no appetite for hearing them, which is extremely unusual.
So there's a lot there to unpack, and I kind of want to start with raising these concerns, because one of the questions I had looking at your situation is what makes this time different? And we can go through other armistice answers that happened while you were associated with the department and see the thought process behind them, but when you mention...
why this was different. I guess what about this go around with Israel seems different to you and what about the lack of debate inside the State Department in particular? How did this feel?
So there are two things. Yeah, I mean two things. So first of all, I think the scope and scale of the conflict that we are now seeing unfolding in Gaza, where there are at this point, numbers are hard to come by, precise numbers, but certainly in the many thousands of civilians dead. And knowing in that context that we would be providing US arms that would be used to kill civilians, I think is...
something that should give any of us who work in government pause and to be fair, I think, gives many people pause. I think a lot of people are concerned about this. And then second, as you say, I mean, this isn't the first, this isn't my first rodeo, right? I mean, there have been numerous controversial arms sales while I've been in this role in the State Department, you know, to regimes that abuse human rights, to regimes that are, you know, incredibly implicated in, you know, gross violations of human rights and actions that have resulted in...
levels of civilian casualties. In all of those cases, the circumstances have at the very least made us pause and think. And not just pause and think, but in some cases work with partners to address the concerns, in some cases delay or suspend arms sales where those concerns existed. Again, what made this different was just the fact that there was no such debate, no interest in having any such debate, no room for such debate.
Okay, if we were to take America's military support for Israel and the civilian casualties that are gonna be incurred because of it, and put that up against all the other potentially controversial areas we could look at arms transfers, when it comes to this one, is it the decision to give arms, or is it the lack of debate prior to? If there had been a robust debate and the same decision was made, would you have stayed on pending the debate?
So my experience is that if there had been a robust debate, it would have resulted in some limitations being placed or some conditions being placed or some caveats. So it's impossible to say, you know, I mean, what the outcome would have been. But certainly the ability to sort of press a pause button and take a considered look at this would have mattered to me.
Okay. What do you, if that debate had happened, what sort of policy changes would you have wanted to see? What are the limiting principles for our support of Israel that you'd want to see in place right now?
Yeah, I mean, so the straightforward answer to that is, you know, nothing that we wouldn't apply to any other country in the world. And I say that both in a statutory sense in terms of the laws and in a policy sense. So for example, you know, because Israel gets grant military assistance from the US, you know, we are funding its arms purchases from us and from itself to a great extent. It is subject to something, you know, many of your listeners will be familiar with called lady vetting.
and the Leahy laws. So there is a different process for Israel than there is for just about every other country in the world. For every other country before a unit or an individual can get training or equipment, it gets vetted for gross violations of human rights. And if someone in that process says we have concerns, it's a red flag and that person or that unit doesn't receive that equipment or that training. In the case of Israel, there is not Leahy vetting for units ahead of sort of provision of equipment or training.
Instead, we give it, we provide the equipment or the training. And then there is this thing called the Israel Leahy Vetting Forum, in which if there are allegations of gross violations of human rights, they are sort of brought into a group within the department of different stakeholders who look at them. The allegations are then taken to Israel, who gets to say, yes, this is real, no, this is not real, we've done something about this, we haven't done anything about it. And then it comes back to the State Department for its final decision.
on whether or not a gross violation of human rights has occurred. And unlike every other country where one person raises a flag and that's it, in this instance, everyone has to agree, has to concur, that there has actually been a gross violation of human rights. And so through that process, it has never actually come to the conclusion that Israel has committed a gross violation of human rights, despite a number of extremely credible allegations. So first of all, let's make Leahy vetting work for Israel the same way it does for everyone else. Second of all, at the policy level, we have this...
thing called the conventional arms transfer policy, which is a presidential level policy issued by every administration since the Reagan administration that provides essentially the framework for how we think about arms transfers. It's you know, while you are reviewing this arms transfer case, and we review about 20,000 of them a year in the Political Military Affairs Bureau, here are the factors you need to take into account. And what makes the Biden administration policy different than all its predecessors is that it actually contains directive language.
when it comes to civilian casualties and human rights violations. It says, the transfer of arms shall not be authorised when it is more likely than not that they shall lead to or aggravate the risks of human rights violations. So again, I would just say if we apply our own policies, that would be a great starting point.
Okay, that's an excellent point. How do you think this compares to other controversial arms transfers? The number one example that pops to mind is us providing support to Saudi Arabia versus Yemen. Because other than American media attention, you can draw a lot of parallels real fast and nobody seemed to have blink an eye about that except for a few columnists in the New York Times that nobody cares about.
I don't think I would say that no one blinked an eye at that, right? I mean, at the point that those sales actually went forward to Congress, which involved the Trump administration invoking a really extremely rarely used authority, emergency arms transfer notification, whereby it sort of told Congress, hey, normally you get to sort of, you know, look at this for 30 days before it goes forward. We're waiving that period. We're doing it right away. And that actually resulted in the Senate. I think it was 27.
joint resolutions of disapproval against those sales, three in the House, and so three that went to the President, all three of which were vetoed by the President, but that was unprecedented. There had never been, prior to that point, joint resolutions of disapproval that were vetoed by the President. So, you know, it did get a high level of scrutiny in Congress in the public eye, and then for years before it reached the public eye in Congress, in the State Department, and in DOD to be fair as well.
where there was a lot of work done looking at, you know, what is the problem set here? Why are these civilian casualties happening? You know, I didn't necessarily agree with the conclusions, but there was a lot of work done on that. What can we do to mitigate this, to reduce this, as well as a diplomatic track, which continues and actually very effectively to this day, to try and resolve the conflict. So I think there was a, you know, just a fundamentally different approach that was taken there than is being taken here.
with Israel in terms of the focus, the efforts, the mitigation steps, the debate. So I think there are significant differences there.
bring up a good point there about different administrations taking different tax to basically get what they want. I can even think all the way back to the Obama administration and we can look at arming rebels in Libya, we can look at arming the Frecian army which basically ended up putting weapons right in the hands of Al Qaeda. So I'm sitting here and I'm sitting kind of cynically, does the State Department or any of the laws or does the State Department's efforts to comply with the laws of Congress ever actually successfully limit
the executive branch from arming whoever the hell they want. Because this seems like a bureaucratic feel-good measure rather than an effective policy tool from the outside looking in.
No, I think it's more than that. And just to offer one caveat to the two examples you just cited, which were, you know, Libyan rebels and the pre-Syrian army, both of those were done through DOD authorities. So for state, the foreign military financing, for example, tool is just for foreign militaries, which non-state actors are not. So that said, I mean, both state and DOD assistance is subject to late vetting, and it does normally
Now that doesn't mean that there is never leakage of weapons on the back end But I can think of numerous examples of units including in close partners Where you know the proposal has been made to hey we need to arm this unit. We need to train this unit It's important for the CT fight for the counterterrorism fight And then you know information has come back and you know the decision has been no We actually can't much as we'd like to because of their involvement in gross violations of human rights
or you know whatever other things it might be. I mean depending on what authority you're talking about there was also of course counter-terrorism vetting, counter-intelligence vetting.
Because right there I'm saying like, well, then if we want to do it and we can't, we just run over to the DOD and get 127 echo funding. And DOD has basically unilaterally decided that it's not subject to the Leahy vetting. So that's what gets back to like, if the president wants to do it, he can, he or she can find a tool to arm wherever they want.
Yeah, I mean theoretically right 127 Echo is a partnered forces authority, so if we do give them arms we're supposed to take them back at the end of that operation or whatever it is. But we can go we can go down that rabbit hole.
Yeah. One quick thing. Yeah. No, we're going to run down that rabble. I'd love to just one quick thing for the folks listening out there who don't live in our world, 127 echo refers to a very minute, uh, stack of us code under title 10, which basically governs the department of defense and it's basically Congress writing in a loop, a loophole to the law to allow special operations command, basically to go work with whoever they want and buy whatever they want. For them.
Yeah, I mean the caveat, the caveat there though, I mean even 127 Echo, right, requires Chief of Mission concurrence, in other words, the ambassador's concurrence. So even though there is a mechanism for state to weigh in, and when state weighs in, at least theoretically, it should be doing so in a holistic way, where it is looking at the human rights considerations, at the regional balance of power, the domestic balance of power, all these things, before those programs go forward. So it's not like, you know, it is offering, you know.
So we're referring to a very obscure piece of US code for those listening.
operating off in a vacuum or at least it shouldn't be. Right.
Shouldn't be but You know running down the rabbit hole just a little bit How often do you see these things successfully get pushed back again based off purely legal reasons or purely values based reasons?
Yeah, that's a great question and that's something the State Department struggles with. And, you know, 127 ECHO is a microcosm. There's of course the much bigger 333. That's again the DOD code section 333 security assistance, which is the major DOD assistance program which has to be concurred on by the State Department. It actually requires joint formulation and concurrence from State. The joint formulation piece rarely, rarely happens. In part because State just doesn't have...
the bandwidth that DOD does to sit in every combatant command and look at every country and start thinking about these things. But on the concurrent side, I mean, the way this often works is that these programs come over to state and, you know, hey, we need your OK on this in two weeks. And, you know, that doesn't necessarily provide state enough time to evaluate. And then when state does push back, it immediately sort of goes up the chain and becomes a call from sect F to sect state of why are you guys holding us back from doing X, Y or Z?
So it's actually in practical terms, I think, very, very difficult for the State Department to really shape DOD security cooperation in I think the way it would like to. And just to sort of add one more thing on that, I mean, this isn't just about sort of, you know, State wanting to have its, you know, hands up, you know, sort of in DOD's business. It really is about trying to make sure that what we are doing across the board, whether it's State or DOD,
or elsewhere is aligned with US foreign policy, and that we are not creating redundancies where we are both doing the same thing at expense to the taxpayer, but also that if DOD is working to build partner counter-terrorism capacity, the unit they're working with is not going to turn around in a year's time and overthrow the government. And so there are foreign policy aspects there, there are regional aspects, so it really does make sense for all the agencies involved in this to work together.
Yeah. Well, you did mention too in your letter about the moral complexities of working in this particular job. And I was just wondering, how do you, I mean, obviously you drew the line here with Israel and Hamas. Um, but on some of these more controversial transfers, like how do you look at something like Saudi Arabia and Yemen, or how do you look at we're still arming Egypt, even though by all reasonable definitions, they basically had a coup in 2013 followed by a massacre of a thousand people and-
If you actually looked at the letter of the law, we shouldn't be doing this. Nothing, I believe that, but most reasonable observers would contend that. So how do you balance that?
Well, I mean, so the letter of... Yeah, yeah, no, no. I think, I think that, sorry, I think that's right. I mean, I think, first of all, just on the letter of the law, so the law requires us to suspend assistance to a country if we determine that a coup is taking place. It doesn't require us to determine that a coup is taking place. So we're following the letter of the law is the argument. Right. You know, this is why you have lawyers, right? So...
Yes. Love a good loophole.
But I think, you know, when it comes to morally complex decisions, I think there are two answers. The first is that, as I was saying, you know, you may not be able to, you may not like the outcome but you have been able to impact it, change it, influence it, shape it in some way shape or form where you feel, okay, you know, as a civil servant, I've done, you know, in many cases more than I could have hoped to have ever done.
The other one is that sometimes these are moral compromises you just have to live with. And I'll give you an example, not a specific one, but especially in the context of strategic competition, we often find ourselves with a situation where a partner is asking for a certain military capability, let's say fighter jets or something like that. And we have concerns about that partner, and we have concerns about their human rights track record and how they might use these. But on the other hand, we know that if we don't supply these fighter jets.
China will. Now, is that by itself a reason to provide fighter jets? No. But once you provide the fighter jets, you also know that you're providing generations worth of training to the pilots and the maintainers. You have the influence over the partner because you can always pull out the maintenance piece and exert leverage that way. You are meeting with the Minister of Defense every year to review the program. So you can raise these concerns about human rights, et cetera, et cetera.
which will not happen if they're getting that from China. So there are certainly instances where even if you don't like the outcome, you can live with it because it's better than the alternative.
Yeah, well, I do definitely appreciate that line of thinking. Um, it's kind of curious though, cause it's impossible to prove the negative. So you're judging yourself against the hypothetical thought experiment that you could never validate. Um, but that is what it is. You don't have an alternative.
Yeah, yeah, I wouldn't say, I wouldn't say, I mean, you can't prove the negative, but you can look at, you know, what that country is doing with units that the US did not arm and who the US will not work with. And you can compare that to, you know, those that they are working with. And you can often see visible differences.
Yeah, with that too, I remember one of the cases I looked at back in the day was us supporting Pakistan back in the Cold War days. And the same idea was like, we're going to provide their military with everything they want. It gets us in, but we're all going to make sure that they have 10 days of what our war gamers deemed to be military capacity for ammunition and fuel so they can never launch an offensive engagement against India. We could argue whether or not long term that's actually worked out for anybody involved. But with that, where have you seen?
our military aid to foreign countries used to actually limit their actions or limit their abuses other than, you know, we have a relationship and the good vibes. I mean, rapport is a powerful tool, but are there tangible examples we can point to where because we armed a nation, we were able to prevent them from doing X, Y, Z, or at least something we can with high confidence assess we probably prevented.
Yeah, I mean, I think an example I would point to, and I don't want to go too far into the weeds and into the details, but one that is in the public sphere that I would point to is Nigeria, actually, where, you know, the Air Force, you know, now flies amongst other platforms, the Super Tucano, the A6, right, A6E. And, you know, prior to the provision of that, and that...
package came with training, professionalization, training on the laws of war, you know, there had been multiple incidents of massive civilian casualties resulting from, you know, their imprecise targeting, their imprecise bombing, lack of attention to rules of war, etc. And so that's an example where I can say that they are more effective and more, you know,
are likely to result in fewer, you know, human casualties, civilian casualties, because we have stepped in and provided that assistance. Now that said, I think Nigeria continues to have a lot of challenges and I think we should all be very concerned about, you know, the risks that Nigeria is facing. That was Niger, I'm talking about Nigeria. Right. So, yeah.
Yeah, well, I mean, just play devil's advocate. Can't you use the same argument against, or argument to support supplying arms and munitions to Israel, or the argument be that we're not using the leverage that we have appropriately?
Right, we're not exactly, it's that we're not using the leverage we have at all, I would say.
Okay. How would you like to see that leverage use? What's the policy path that you would, if you were Biden for a day, what would you go out and say, this is US policy right now?
Well, first of all, I'd say it is not US policy, as the Biden administration has already theoretically said, to provide arms into a situation where they are going to be used to kill civilians. I think, you know, we have approached the peace process such as it is for the last 20 years in one of two ways, either in this framework of security for peace, where the idea being if Israel feels secure, it will then take the steps necessary to, you know, make concessions to the
because it feels safe and that hasn't happened. In fact, the opposite. It's taken this security assistance and has sort of expanded settlements in the West Bank. It's expanded the settlement infrastructure. It's maintained the siege of Gaza. It's, you know, sort of taken these steps that are ultimately counterproductive to the peace process. The other piece is that we've taken a hands-off approach. So we've always said, look, the Israelis know what's best for their security. We're not going to tell them. And I think actually, you know, particularly when you look at this conflict, there has to be a political solution.
There is no military solution. But we have not leveraged our military assistance to say, look, if you want this 3.3 billion a year, or actually 3.8 if you count the 500 million in missile defense stuff in DOD, or plus the 3.5 billion right on the Hill right now, actually 14 billion on the Hill right now, then you have to engage seriously with the Palestinians. You can't keep expanding settlements.
You have to stop undermining the credibility of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, etc, etc So so, you know being willing to be I think, you know, not critical per se but wise and to provide that sort of you know Truth to power is in the right sense, right? Because we're the powerful one in this context But but honesty to a friend in need as it were is something that our security assistance gives us the ability to do and means that
you know, we have to be listened to, but we're not doing it.
You brought up a very excellent point. You need a political resolution to the Palestinian crisis. This is not, short of mass genocide, there's not a military option here. And that's a whole nother conversation about what we're seeing Israel do and what they can actually manage to do militarily. But when we're talking about political solutions, you make peace with your enemies, not with your friends. And when you respect the sovereignty of other nations, you have to accept uncomfortable decisions that they make. And I can think of two examples where we seem to.
gone away from what our stated values are, one of which is pretty easy to see why, the other which not so much. We can start with Hamas being elected in Gaza to be their government. And we never really engaged them. We let Israel put up the wall. We let this whole open air prison blow up. And then also with Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood guy gets elected. We essentially back the coup to throw them out and have a military dictator take over. Different reasons for both, but you see what I'm getting at.
Yeah, I mean, I do. I mean, I wouldn't say that we backed the coup in Egypt. I would just say that we were hands off when we should have been hands on the other side on the Hamas. So, you know, what happened there is that this was under the Bush administration in 2006. And the US called for free and fair elections in the Palestinian territories. Free and fair elections were held. Hamas won, not by a vast amount, but they won.
And then the US position was we're not going to recognize the results of those elections. We're not going to deal with Hamas And I do honestly wonder had we take and this was you know, Secretary Convalescent Rice at the time Had we taken a different approach and said hey, guess what Hamas you've been, you know in opposition for all these years You've been you know, the sort of you know Revolutionaries or rebels or whatever you want to call them Now you've actually got to govern now. You've actually got to you know, keep the streets clean
and pay the teachers, et cetera, et cetera, I do wonder what Hamas would look like today if it had been forced to govern essentially, in a way that, and not to lean back on resistance as its sort of only real rationale for existence, but actual having to deliver to the people. So I think that's important. I also think the values discussion.
is a really important one here, because I do think that we are, as the Biden administration national security strategy says, in the era of strategic competition. And that strategic competition is with Russia, but most importantly, I think it's with People's Republic of China. And in that competition, their position, their template that they offer the world is, hey, you can have all the economic benefits of capitalism with none of the having to deal with, you know, that messiness of democracy.
And this is something I think that's very appealing to authoritarian regimes around the world. And against that, yes, we have our military tool. Yes, we have our alliances and partnerships. But what we really have, what the counter to that template is our values, and it's our democratic values. And I think we really do ourselves harm in the long term when we walk away from those values, when we look like hypocrites, when we're saying, hey, when Russia bonds a hospital or when Russia...
you know, takes out, targets the power grid in Ukraine as winter approaches, and we say that's a war crime, but then when Israel does it, we say, and here are more bombs.
Yeah, it's a very interesting way to look at it. With China especially too, with being an era of strategic competition and Obama tried to pivot to China when he was in, and we still haven't quite gotten there. We keep being sucked back in the Middle East for all sorts of reasons, but yeah.
Well, I mean, sorry, just on that, I mean, you say for all sorts of reasons, but, you know, so the State Department's foreign military financing, which is its main ground assistance, military ground assistance tool, totals about six billion a year. That's what we get appropriated by Congress. Of that, 3.3 billion goes to Egypt, sorry, to Israel, 1.3 billion goes to Egypt, about 800 million goes to Jordan, you know, 200 million to Tunisia. And so very quickly, you're sort of out of money for the rest of the world.
And so we talk about we keep getting sucked back into the Middle East. We're sort of sucking ourselves back in the Middle East because it's not that, you know, the Middle East keeps grabbing us and pulling us in. We haven't pulled our funding out. We haven't we haven't pivoted to Asia. And I think that's part of why we stay anchored to these conflicts that are, you know, perhaps less relevant to strategic competition.
Yeah, and as we get into this conversation about regional priorities and what is the strategic comparative of the United States, you kind of immediately start butting up against this idea of shifting from a unipolar to a multipolar world. Because we're used to operating in the situation where we have liberal hegemony, US is a big boy on the block, everyone else basically treats us like the global hegemony, even if you could debate, we're actually at 51%, whatever. For practical purposes, we are.
Is there a, one of the ideas I struggle with is, is there a way to effectively counter China without also triggering some level of deglobalization? Because when we talk about our values and democratic norms and rule of law, one of the things there would actually be enforcing our trade agreements with China and actually enforcing our international, our rights to intellectual property and stepping in and from a national security perspective, limiting our corporation's ability to freely participate in the Chinese economy.
to insulate ourselves from the Chinese Communist Party and also counter the Belt and Road Initiative. So I wonder if our strategic comparative is countering China. Is there some level of deglobalization we have to accept where it's not the entire globe trading, it's just us and a few allies? And with that, I mean, we don't get our oil from the Middle East. So should the US really pull out and say, hey, Europe, this is your problem now because it's your energy?
Right, and it's China's energy too, right? I mean, China is a massive importer of energy, including from the Middle East. And if they can ever redirect that oil from Russia, that was heading to Europe in the other direction from there too. I mean, right, I think strategic competition comes with costs, you know, both in terms of the money we have to spend on military investment that we could otherwise be spending at home, and in terms of how it compels us to spend money as we're seeing...
you know, in the Middle East right now and in Taiwan, etc., etc. And in terms of how we choose to use the economic leverage we have to de-globalize, to friend shore and to strengthen our own ties, of course, what that does is that, as you say, you know, this sort of US hegemonic era was greatly shaped by our global economic power. And as we sort of de-globalize, as we fragment into these separate...
you know, circles of trade, what we are doing is also losing leverage in our strategic competition because it means that China has to worry less about what US sanctions might mean for it once our economies are further decoupled. But I think, you know, we're still very tightly coupled right now.
Yeah, that's an interesting point. The more it's the uh, what if we both jump off the bridge together theory? So neither one of us is going to jump
Yeah, I mean, I don't have great faith in that. I am deeply concerned, as are most people in government, about where the competition with PRC is going.
Thank you for your attention, China.
Well, and how does that affect our values too? Because we have the PRC perpetuating a genocide with the Uighur Muslims out in Gijang. It's been going on for years and we're still openly trading with an openly genocidal regime. Um, and also too, the other complication there, since you brought up Taiwan, here we are providing arms to somebody that's technically not a nation state. I mean, they're a sovereign nation kind of, but they're not a state, but they are, but they don't.
I mean, where does that fit into the gray area of providing support to state actors? And how does trade with China when they're openly genocidal regime against a Muslim minority affect our values?
Yeah, I mean, so first of all, on the values question, you know, I think one of the challenges we carry as a sovereign state is looking at the world beyond the sovereign level. And what I mean by that is we tend to think, okay, you know, government of, you know, Saudi Arabia or whatever, you are the government of Saudi Arabia, you are the people we have to deal with. And what you say goes.
And actually, I think that's very relevant to what's happening right now. I think that's a mistake. Because what we've seen is that we thought we could, for example, in the Middle East, set aside the Palestinian issue and just, you know, engage in diplomacy and normalize with Saudi Arabia. And, you know, that would, you know, economics and diplomacy would drive everything. And we didn't have to deal with these sort of other smaller, messier issues like the Palestinians. And the answer is, if it had, if MBS, you know, had his way, that would certainly be the case.
But even in Saudi Arabia an autocracy a monarchy an absolute monarchy He still has to pay attention to the will of the people or the feelings of people when it comes to issues like Palestinian rights and Palestinian freedoms, etc and so by just viewing the world through this alliances and partnerships model where the only allies and partners that we're talking about are heads of state heads of government governments Rather than the people and I do feel like you know through communicating our values and I know this sounds like
squishy State Department stuff. But I do think that building people to people ties actually strengthens our own foreign policy and strengthens our own ability to reach into countries and build longer lasting less brittle connections that can withstand some of these, you know, abrupt changes in history that happen. And then, yeah, I mean, look, Taiwan is a complicated question. I've been schooled in the, you know, look, it's one China policy with the...
you know, Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances, it is a complicated one. I think, you know, as a part of our values, we care about democracy. We care about, you know, the right of people to elect their own leaders and to live in a free society, if that's what they want, which I think most people probably do want. And when that comes under threat, we do have a responsibility to stand up for it.
Where do you think the lines are for standing up for it? Because I'm first thing that pops in my head right there is, okay, free Syrian army overthrowing Assad didn't work out, but that was them trying to fight for democracy. Um, I mean, is this one of the things where
To what extent do you think America has lived up to that promise in the past 20 years? Cause I'm thinking like 50 examples in my head right now where that has not been how we've conducted ourselves. Okay. Yeah.
Right, we've done it selectively, right? So we did it for Kosovo, we're doing it for Ukraine big time, but we've been selective in, you know, we didn't do it for Rwanda. So, and obviously that's not, you know, about standing up for democracy, that's about preventing genocide, but, you know, of course we have a really mixed track record, and that's driven by US domestic politics, it's driven by what else is going on in the world, it's driven by
strategic imperatives, how important is this versus that, you know, and I don't think we can be everywhere. I don't think we can be the world's policeman. But there is some truth to what, you know, Madeleine Albright said about us being the indispensable nation in the sense that, you know, just due to the global spread of our power, our global footprint, we tend to find ourselves involved somehow in every conflict, whether we want to or not.
And I don't necessarily mean involved in the conflict itself, but we might be arming one side or we may have investments on the other side. You know, you can take something as obscure as the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, where again we have sort of relations on both sides that we're trying to pursue and how does this relate to Iran, how does this relate to Russia? So it's always a really complex problem set.
Yeah, bring up a lot of great points there. One of the things I'm thinking about is how do we determine where we can effectively advocate for democracy? And I, this is really colored by my experience being one of the last US soldiers in Afghanistan, brand, the crisis response group for regional targeting team North outside of Mazov Sharif saw the whole country fall apart. At least the nine provinces I was sponsored to in real time. And also had a great look at what we were doing there.
And I can honestly say, I'm not sure if we stayed another 20 years, it would have made a difference. So how do you how do you can assess on the front end whether or not you should get involved into what extent you're even capable of making a difference? Because you're right, we can't do everything everywhere. So what are the common sense rules of thumb to do that initial assessment of what's what should we do? And what can we do with limiting risk to all parties involved?
Yeah, I mean, as far as that, yeah.
Yeah, so I mean, I never was in Afghanistan. I did a couple of years in Iraq. And I think those are pretty unique cases, because in both cases, we had sort of gone in and were the, you know, in the beginning, the occupying powers and then sort of the power brokers. That's not typically the case, right? So it's really more
Mm-hmm. Yeah. I view them as the cases where we went the furthest. So if you ever wanted to evaluate what our limits were, we did everything we possibly could.
Well, right, but I think the lesson there is that you cannot impose democracy. You can support the growth of democracy, but democracy is more than just elections. Democracy is civil society, and it has to be a bottom-up process. It's not something that we can come in and say, you know, congratulations, you're a democracy, now act like it. It has to be, you know, supported in a way that builds the legitimacy of the system. And actually, this is a great segue back to...
our assistance to actually the Palestinian side of the equation, right? So we have been, you know, for many years involved and I was, I was did this for a year, involved in training and developing and making professional the Palestinian security forces. And the theory of the case was if the Palestinians can stand up, the Israelis will stand down. And this will lead to a two state solution. This is West Bank. This was 2008, nine.
Is this West Bank or Gaza? OK.
Although it's a mission the US security coordinator that continues to this day
I don't think most people know that. I don't think people are aware at all that we support any, provide any support to the Palestinians.
Yeah, so since 2006, 2007, we have been training and equipping along with a number of European countries, along with Turkey, actually, along with Canada, Palestinian security forces. And again, so the theory is if we can have a strong Palestinian security force, then Israel can rely on them, and then it can get out of the West Bank. It doesn't have to conduct these incursions. You know, of course, the problem there...
and this comes right back to what we were just discussing, is that there's nothing that's more undermining to the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority and of their security forces than being seen to be the Israeli puppets, essentially, the sort of out contracted security guards of Israel. And so we have... Well, right. Yeah. I mean, it's possible and it's been done.
And how do you lay vetting in Palestine?
And you know, there are, there are, or there were at least, and there still are some pretty capable, pretty professional units. But the problem is no one trusts them. They, they, you know, when, when you are, when the Palestinian security forces are the ones lining up between the protesters and the IDF and pushing back against the protesters, you know, what does that do to the image of the Palestinian security forces, the Palestinian authority in the minds of most Palestinians? So, you know, I think
one of the key mechanisms or things we have to think about as we provide security assistance, you know, in whatever context is the legitimacy of the democratic system, the legitimacy of the security forces and how what we're doing supports that, in which case they're in the lead and they're setting the goals or undermines it, in which case, in most cases, we're the ones or someone else are the ones sort of, you know, using them for a purpose.
Yeah. Well, with that too, I mean, Palestine, I think it's one of the third largest stateless nation in the world. I think number one's the Kurds. Number two escapes me. But we kind of locked in the global world order after World War II and had all these great rules about we've got lines on the map and you're not allowed to change them by force. And Israel managed to squeeze in right after that and create some new lines. And then 67 happened and some more lines and okay.
How does the modern international system deal with large stateless nations? Amou could you focus on just Palestine, but the Kurds are an excellent example as well. And they're right next door. In fact, you have Kurds fighting in Palestine right now, but that's a whole other story. How does the international system process stateless nations?
Yeah, I mean...
So I think actually the answer is, and you know, this is the way the system is, or the way the process in the Middle East has been set up to this date has been if these steps are achieved, then we can talk about stated for the Palestinians and those steps being, you know, what is the status of Jerusalem? What about, you know, overflights? What about telecoms? What about borders? You know, and once all these other problems are resolved, then we can get to Palestinian stated. And I think you're exactly right.
You don't really have credibility. You don't really have presence on the international stage if you're not a state. And so I would actually, you know, not that, you know, the Josh plan for Palestinian, for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is actually start with statehood. You know, say, okay, Palestinian Authority, we recognize you. Welcome to the UN. You're now the Palestinian state. Now let's talk about borders. Now let's talk about, you know, the status of Jerusalem. Now let's talk about water rights.
Because you can't really do that as a non-state group. You're not empowered through the international mechanisms that exist You can't come to the table as an equal you come as an occupied entity rather than as you know your own You know state with your own rights under international law. So yeah, I think we've got it exactly backwards up to this point I don't know, you know, I think the Kurdish situation is a different one, right? That's one that stretches across For actually countries if not five
I'm less of an expert on that one, but again, I think it comes down to what mechanisms are available and the limiting factors being the lines already drawn in the sand.
Yeah, so when it comes to that too, the status of international law, I have a very cynical take on international law. I don't actually think it exists because I look at organizations like the UN, they have no sovereignty and look at the Security Council, it has no unity and basically the most powerful nation in the world, the US, gets to do whatever it wants with no limiting principle other than its own domestic politics most of the time. So even if Palestine had access to the international system.
without the sponsorship of some major pipe swinging powers, like Turkey could back them, and then the US would have to say, Israel will not back in you, and then maybe Palestine could get a foot in the door. But realistically, what are their options for becoming a nation, state?
Right, but yeah, no, I hear you. And I do sort of wince a little bit every time Secretary Blinken talks about the International Rules-Based Order or the Rules-Based International Order, because it's, I strongly believe in international, an International Rules-Based Order, but it's the one that we've created and that works, you know, for us. And we sort of take from it where we want to and deal on it where we want to.
But then when there are things like the International Criminal Court or the, you know, the Law of the Sea Treaty or whatever it might be, we sort of say, yeah, thanks. No, we don't want to be bound by that. And there is a bit of hypocrisy in that. And I do think there's also a massive missed opportunity of the 90s of the Clinton era, where in that hegemonic moment, in that post-Cold War moment, had we been willing to honestly take a bit more risk and tie our own hands a little bit more and establish.
you know, more binding international frameworks that were binding on us as well, you know, I think it could have been a very different world today, but I could very well be wrong. It might have been a much more chaotic one. But I think, you know, there is hypocrisy in power by its nature. And, you know, so long as we recognize that, so long as we don't say, no, we're not being hypocritical, you know, you're being, you know, you're biased, you're not understanding it, we're always right.
I think we've got to be at least have some humility in power and recognizing when we are being hypocritical and we are doing things that we would not want others to do.
couple threads popped in my mind while you were going through there. One of the ones that I want to talk around because it ties directly to Palestine and Israel. You mentioned, so we talked about, you know, wielding power, America's role in the international system. Previously, you had mentioned the importance of creating relationships with sovereign nations, but looking beyond sovereignty. So people to people relationships, which is democratic peace theory, democracies don't go to war with each other. It's the best way to secure the world like great.
People that vote don't vote to fight each other when they enter trade wars instead in which we all life like debt more than body counts so great Israel right now Netanyahu there his government is going directly to American evangelicals and Polling on them to petition their congressmen to push for more support for his regime. So right there we've got The government that you resigned over supporting
going right to the American people, people to people relationship, to turn the gears of power. How do you think about that? Is that a consequence of the principled position or is that an abuse of that relationship? And if the American people continue to support it, does that make it valid?
Yeah, no. So first of all, I mean, I think, first of all, if you look at the polling, you know, despite strong support for the Netanyahu government in some quarters, it's by no means universal. In fact, you know, 53%, I think it is, of Americans polled a week ago, opposed providing lethal arms to Israel in this moment, which was striking to me, I think is a real disconnect from where the political class is in the US and certainly where elected officials and Senate confirmed officials are. You know.
Yes, our system is messy and yes, there are roots into it. And I think we do have to be very wary. And we saw this recently, you know, in various, you know, congressional indictments, right, about how other countries might, you know, try to influence our political system. Part of that is on us, right? I mean, we have, you know, a system in which money plays a significant role and can be a warping factor.
through campaign donations, through PACs. And I think that's something that we have to fix. I think it's a problem for all of us. And I don't mean that in the Israel-Palestine context. I mean, whatever your issue is, down to local politics, there is a factor there where the politics that emerge may not reflect the consensus of the people because there is this influence that the money plays in American politics. And that's a uniquely American process in most democracies.
you know, you're not allowed to have a pack. There is equal time on all networks for, you know, candidates of both parties, et cetera, et cetera. At the same time, you know, you have the Netanyahu government there that is, you know, aligning itself where its own interest lies, which may not be in the Israeli interest. And I would argue it's not. And I think one of the things we keep falling for is, you know, whatever Netanyahu says
is in the Israeli interest and you know Nesminyahu is himself again a man facing indictment for corruption.
I think last point I said 83% of Israelis want him to resign as soon as this whole thing is over. Which gives them the huge incentive to drag us out as long as possible, but...
Right, yeah, so, you know, to drag it out as long as possible and to show that he's the strong man, etc., you know, which again, I don't think is in Israel's interest either. So there's a lot of complicated facts in that.
Yeah. Now the other example of this I'm thinking about is China through the Confucius Institutes that they had at multiple American universities and eventually those start actually getting shut down through the political process. So what are the, I guess where do you, this is more of a philosophical question. What is the appropriate nature of people to people relationship amongst nation states and what is subversion and sabotage? And there probably isn't a clear answer for that, but that's one for the ages.
Yeah, I don't think there is a clear answer to that. I don't think there is a clear answer to that. And, you know, I recognize that, you know, I mean, so the US also funds, you know, scholarships overseas and think tanks overseas, and then you have, you know, US corporations and US, you know, wealthy Americans who fund institutions overseas. And I don't think that's necessarily wrong, right? I think...
Part of the answer is that you've got to be willing to have public space for debate. And when that space for debate starts to shrink, I think that's where the warning signs particularly start to ring loud. One example might be Hungary, where a populist right-wing government has really cracked down on any sort of liberal dissent and there isn't space for a lot of freedom. What I'm seeing in America right now actually...
in many ways feels not dissimilar to that in the sense that, you know, I have been feeling free to speak up, but I've heard from a lot of people who say, you know, thank you for raising your voice on this issue, because I will get fired if I say anything. And these are people who work in government. These are people who work in, you know, some accountancy firm in the Midwest or, you know, some tech firm in California. I feel like on the Israel-Palestine stuff and in academia for that matter.
there has been a real squeeze of what can be said and what the space is for public debate. So that's one of the warning signs I would always keep an eye on.
Okay, now that's a great point. We saw the letter from Harvard, then as soon as those kids published it, companies started firing their future employees and it was interesting to watch.
Yeah, for their opinions. I mean, that doesn't sound American to me.
Yeah. No. And the weirdest thing, Candace Owen came out and said, it was one of the ridiculous things that she ever heard, and she's about as right wing as it comes. And she mentioned being a communist in college, and now she's a right wing public intellectual, whatever you want to call it, influencer. Yeah. It's very, God, it's crazy times. So.
A lot of this came, I'm curious what you think about this, because a lot of this rhetoric came with the first Trump run for president. And you've worked for multiple administrations, I'm assuming you started with Obama, you thought you were gonna work for Hillary.
Yeah. Well, no, it started with Bush, Bush II. Yeah, Iraq, 2004-5.
You start with Bush? Okay.
That's right, because you had this job for just over a decade, but you had previous positions in government. OK, well, even better. Having worked for multiple administrations, obviously your politics evolved over time, but where do you draw the line between being a good civil servant and then also supporting administrations where obviously you can't agree with everything? We've been in government over 30-some-odd years.
Yeah, that's a great question. And I think that there is a bit of a difference between civil service and uniformed service. But that said, there are two approaches, I think, and two sort of mindsets for how people approach a career in the civil service. And one is that it is your job to be the best possible cog. Here's the system. There's someone at the top cranking the wheel.
and your job is to just make that wheel turn in whatever direction it's being directed as efficiently as possible. The other position, and the one I ascribe to, is that people go into government with a desire to make a difference and to do good. And the civil service provides protections, at least for now there are proposals to strip them away, but where you actually have a fair amount of freedom to express your opinions and to weigh in on discussions without fear of losing your job.
you know, unless you do something criminal or, you know, really malfeasent, there's a lot of space within the civil service to, you know, push your ideas and to bring your experience into the job and your insights and your perspectives. And that applies equally no matter what your perspectives or experiences are. I mean, what makes, I think, the civil service, a good civil service, is not a group of people turning wheels as fast as they can, but essentially being a microcosm of...
the American public and the American public debate, but funding through that, through the processes and structures of policymaking to come out to the best outcome. And so I know I've always thought that, you know, you're in the civil service, not just to execute upon the orders as you would be if you were, you know, in a squad out in, you know, South America or something like that. But you are there to make things better. And I think that's really important.
So for everyone out there who's already yelling at the screen or device we're ever looking at, so line between civil service and devious, cynical, subversive deep state that's out to get us all. Have you ever seen things that make you scratch your head with folks not being good civil servants, or do you think that's mostly mythology?
No, I think people in the civil service act in good faith. And if they do, you know, disagree with something, you know, as I have said, you know, many times I've disagreed with the outcomes, but you do your best and then you recognize that this is where we're going. Or if you get to that point where you can't, again, as I have done, you step out of it. You know, so I don't think there is a deep state that undermines things. I think there are a lot of good people.
trying to push things in what they think is the right direction, but within the parameters of the law and the policies set by the resident, and just trying to make things as good as they can. Everyone who goes into civil service, I have never met anyone who went into civil service who didn't want America to be better, who didn't want to make this country better, who didn't want to work for this country.
Okay. With that in your letter to you did mention that you've have successfully pushed back on policies that you didn't agree with or that you're able to limit things that you thought were not in America's long term interest. What do you see as the most effective way to coach upwards because obviously as a civil servant, you have functional area expertise and what you work on, and you got to balance that with whatever administration's policy objectives are. What are the most effective ways you've seen to push back and educate and coach upwards on what should be done?
Yeah, I mean, first of all, you know, people have said to me, well, the president sets the policy on arms sales. And the answer is, yes, he does, right? That's the conventional arms transfer policy, but we do 20,000 arms transfer cases a year. It's not like the president is sitting in the East Wing at night and sort of looking down this long list of, okay, what are we approving today? And so, you know, there is delegation, and this is an obvious point, but there is an immense amount of space where policymaking happens.
from the ground up as cases come in the arms transfer business or wherever you might be in government and you bring to that a certain amount of expertise and you build trust. I mean, this is one of the things about serving in multiple administrations is there's always this sort of awkward period for the first couple of weeks where there's new assistant secretary lands or new secretary lands or whatever it might be. And you've spent the last four years working for someone who's come to trust you and who turns to you. And then there's this new person there. And
got to start all over again. So I think, you know, building trust with, you know, Senate-confirmed officials, with your superiors is really an important part of that. And you build trust by showing first honesty. And I think part of that is when you when they say something that you think doesn't make sense, you know, not being rude about it, but finding the right way to say, well, look, we tried this, you know, on this occasion, or...
Yes, but have you thought about this factor? So I think honest and frank counsel is the fundamental, is the answer there. And again, within the protections of the civil service where you can offer that without the risk of being fired. I think that's critical. If we were in a situation where unless you said something that was what they wanted to hear, you would lose your job, I think we would end up with a lot more bad policy than we have already.
Excellent point. I do want to ask, though, with the Biden administration specifically, you brought up the matter of building trust with whatever information comes into power and that you're working for, which obviously, everywhere in the world, you got to build trust with your boss. You want to have a good relationship. If you don't have a good relationship, you'll never be effective. So.
When it came to the Biden administration's unwillingness to have the robust and open debate that you felt was necessary, is that emblematic of everything across the board and this was the final straw, or have they been able to engage effectively on other issues and you've been able to effectively build that trust in the last 18 months, but all of a sudden this is the outline.
Yeah, no, this has been unique. You know, there are certainly many policy decisions they have made that I have not agreed with. There have been many I've agreed with. But there has always been really a close relationship from the lowest levels, at least within the State Department, up to the highest levels in terms of how we all work together to get things done. This is, I think, unique. And from what I'm hearing from colleagues within the State Department, you know, where you have town halls where they say,
you know, sorry that you're finding this difficult basically, but this policy is coming from the top, don't question it, is unprecedented in my experience in the Biden administration and actually in the Trump administration as well.
Okay, well, we're coming up on an hour and I think that's a good place to wrap. I do have one final question for you because I know I'm gonna get comments about it. Your accent, how'd you end up working for the US government?
So I'm actually a US citizen since birth, but I grew up in London. So yeah, just can't shake the accent.
Okay. All right. For everyone listening out there, he is one of us. Okay. Ah, from, yes. I mean, not really. Uh, I'm not even going to go down that rabbit hole. That's a whole nother. Have you seen the South park episode? Oh, okay. There's a South park episode. It's a classic. It's about New Jersey. It involves Al Qaeda. Normally don't recommend stuff like that, but it's 22 minutes of your life. Well spent. Please go look up that episode.
It's joysy if that helps.
No. I'll look it up.
You will be shocked and amazed.
Alright, I'll do that. Hey, thank you very much indeed for having me. I really appreciate it.
It was a pleasure. I'm going to shut the recording off right now if we can just wait for the upload button to finish. Alright. And stopping.