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Washington is strangling young foreign policy professionals

Washington is strangling young foreign policy professionals

Many of us now find ourselves whispering our views on what is going on in Gaza, fearful of the impact that speaking out in public may have on our careers

Analysis | Middle East

Over the last decade, a new generation of foreign policy professionals has risen through the ranks in Washington. The post-9/11 world shaped its worldview, and despite diverse experiences and backgrounds, this cohort has developed shared values on issues ranging from global democratic norms to the need for changing the conversation on global terrorism.

Many of us who belong to this cohort fundamentally believed that Washington’s foreign policy institutions were evolving to be more inclusive and nuanced. But the U.S. response to the Hamas terror attack on Israel, Israel's disproportionate response, and the conversation dominating the Washington foreign policy elite, has shattered that illusion. It exposed the double standards — illustrated most vividly by the difference between discussions about the war in Ukraine and the indiscriminate bombing of Gaza — that dominate the so-called D.C. foreign policy blob.

Living as a foreign policy professional in Washington over the last few months is reminiscent of what I often encounter in my home nation of Pakistan, where friends and family often tell me to speak in hushed tones in public when talking about blasphemy laws and violence against underprivileged communities.

Many of us now find ourselves whispering our views on what is going on in Gaza, fearful of the impact that speaking out in public may have on our careers.

One of my mentors who cut her teeth during the post-9/11 era told me to keep my head down and quietly work the system. Many of us know of examples of people who veered off the party line of commentary about Israel's attacks and found themselves shamed or, in extreme examples, fired.

Things are changing, albeit slowly. Chuck Schumer’s remarks on the floor of the Senate were described by Fareed Zakaria — a key establishment voice — as a “watershed moment”. In addition, the Biden administration has placed sanctions on some Israeli settler outposts and increased its public criticism of the Nethanyahu government.

But this is not happening because men like Biden and Schumer have somehow rediscovered their moral compass; they are in large part responding to the data which suggests that the White House’s policies have put at risk Biden’s reelection prospects. The growing domestic and global outcry about the civilian body count, destruction and famine in Gaza — and little prospect that Prime Minister Netanyahu is ever going to shift direction — have also contributed to the change in tone (though this has not prevented the administration from sending billions of dollars in new weapons, including 2,000-pound bombs and fighter jets, to Israel in recent days).

The Biden administration may eventually abandon Nethanyahu, primarily guided by Biden’s collapsing polling numbers among key constituencies. The Uncommitted Campaign, led by grassroots Arab-American organizers like Layla Elabed, has played a critical role by mobilizing hundreds of thousands of voters in places like Michigan and Minnesota.

But the fear is that once the anger subsides, the current conflict winds down, and Israel elects a new leader, Washington will go back to its status quo policy of providing unconditional military aid to Israel, ignoring the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, and paying lip service to a two-state solution.

While things are changing, the mission to transform American foreign policy towards Israel and Palestine is only just getting started. Achieving greater influence to help shape better policies will take years, if not decades.

The broader community will have to be patient, but forceful and uncompromising. It will have to work the levers of America’s political system to develop a coterie of staffers on Capitol Hill, advisors in the National Security Council, and think tank scholars and academics who develop, shape, and influence American foreign policy for the better.

While it is true that Joe Biden’s embrace of Netanyahu’s hard line government has cost him dearly, there are still things he can do to showcase that he is open to evolving his policies. To do so, Biden must not only call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire, but also stop the illegal provision of offensive weapons to Israel, join the majority of the world’s nations in recognizing the state of Palestine, and pursue a policy that punishes Israel for the continued expansion of settlements on Palestinian lands.

Many of us who belong to this rising group of experts will not sit idly by in the face of stagnant, imbalanced U.S. foreign policy – much like our global contemporaries who reject status quo politics. The polls are now bearing this out: Americans do not approve of Israel’s ongoing operations in Gaza. As a result, the Biden administration should not be supporting Israel further with weapons and military aid. President Biden and his advisors must recognize that Washington cannot continue dismissing the concerns and recommendations of their citizens and voters.

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