America: Do you deserve those who serve you?

When the public uses the government as a punching bag, who will be left to fight for you?

I don’t envy the choice so many of my former national security and foreign policy colleagues are facing of whether to continue serving under a Trump administration. Had Hillary Clinton won, many on the other side would undoubtedly wrestle with the same question: can I continue to serve when this person is my Commander in Chief?

I entered the intelligence community on November 6, 2000. Bill Clinton was still our President, and during my first month, nobody knew if Gore or Bush would be next, thanks to the Florida debacle. As a social liberal, I felt dazed by the 2000 election. But I never even considered resigning. I knew I was serving the country, more than any one man, and I believed (and still do) that I contributed to hugely important work at home and abroad.

This election is different.

If I were still in government today, I would agonize over questions like: Could I work for a man who might order my agency to torture and/or kill terrorist suspects’ families? Equally important, I would question: Could I serve people who put him into the White House?

There is a lot of talk about the national security senior leadership types, and whether they will accept appointments. I, however, am writing about the career officers, those who choose to serve despite who is in office; who often have to suppress their political beliefs for the greater good of the nation; who follow the rules of the Hatch Act and transcend partisan politics.

I imagine, in addition to struggling with concerns about the incoming administration, many are grappling with the question of whether the American people even deserve their hard work anymore.

I remember the day that I felt the American people no longer deserved my work.

It was December 30th, 2009. Seven CIA personnel had just been killed in Afghanistan. Five days earlier, the “underwear bomber” had attempted to blow up an airplane headed to the United States. I was serving at the White House as a special advisor to Vice President Biden, covering global counterterrorism and other national security issues. After a week of profound loss, sleeplessness and around-the-clock work, I listened to the endless loop on the news about how we had failed to “connect the dots”. I heard the American people, and many in our government, criticize those who worked tirelessly to protect, hearing anger and blame, before my colleagues’ coffins even made it home. Everyone was angry, and although criticism and accountability were certainly warranted, the vitriol felt beyond the pale, and deeply personal.

That night, I sat alone at a bar and wondered if the American people really deserved all that our armed forces and the nameless men and women who serve in various agencies do every day to keep this country safe. I, for one, felt the country didn’t deserve my work, and I was not even serving on the front lines. It was the lowest I had felt in my career.

It is both sad and dangerous when we demoralize those who serve and protect us, when we let them feel abandoned, under appreciated, or unduly criticized.

From cries of “dysfunctional government” to threats of sequestration every time Congress can’t find compromise, public servants have often become the scapegoat for all of our frustrations about the world, about our country, and about those elected to represent us. Remembering a time — albeit short-lived — when I questioned my commitment to my fellow citizens, I am hugely concerned about so many good and dedicated federal employees who today question either their ability to serve under Trump, or if the country they are serving still deserves them.

Whatever your political views, I ask you to consider:

When the public uses the government as a punching bag, who will be left to fight for you?

The next time sequestration is discussed — and it undoubtedly will be — or other conversations about cutting government ensue, remember this: These are the men and women who will continue to protect you, to serve even without pay during sequestration, and to attempt to feed their families and pay their bills, even as the nation continues to demoralize and disrespect them. Add to that the internal struggles of how to serve this particular administration; and I feel extreme sympathy for those affected and frustration towards those who just don’t care.

I cannot make a plea to our men and women in government to stay, serve, ensure continuity and push for a diverse set of opinions — even though I know our country’s future depends on them — when I do not know that I could do so myself. But I can make a plea to the rest of America to respect their choices — whether to serve under Trump or to resign — to be thankful that so many people continue to work long hours for our country, even if they do not agree with half the voters and often do not feel valued by many of you.

While I desperately hope that strong men and women who share my moral compass will continue to serve our country, I cannot in good faith demand that of them. I can only promise that, whatever they decide, they have my undying respect and gratitude.