What about your time at Yale have you most enjoyed?

I have to say it’s the interaction with students. I’ve spent years away in a warzone, and interaction with Yale students rejuvenated me and gave me hope for the future. It’s not just that they’re smart. They’re good, and they want to do good. They’re optimistic about life and that’s really great.

 

Tell me a little more about your background as an adviser in your time in Iraq. How did your interest in Iraq begin–how early in your career did it start, and what were your major influences?

When I was in high school, I spent a year off in a kibbutz in Israel, spending long evenings sitting with people around the campfire, discussing the meaning of life and how to bring about world peace. It was very humanist, very idealistic.

I went to Oxford to read classics, but it wasn’t long before I changed course and did Middle East Studies. I thought my purpose in life was to try and bring about peace in the Middle East. That’s what I set out to do, because when you’re a student you feel like you can do anything, like you can change the world.

I spent a decade working in Israeli-Palestinian territories, helping them build up institutions of Palestinian authorities, and looking for ways to get Israelis and Palestinians working on people-to-people projects.

After that, I went back to the UK. Then 9/11 happened. After 9/11 was the invasion of Iraq, and the British government was looking for volunteers to go to Iraq for three months before we handed it back to the Iraqis. So I thought this was my opportunity to go to Iraq and apologize for the war and help them to rebuild their country–to let Iraqis know that most people in Europe were against this war.

 

Your ethos towards the Middle East is singular and unique, based on your personal experiences. Could you expand on it? If you had a chance to briefly pose your thoughts, how would you propose people should view current-day Iraq?

So I arrived in Iraq. I thought I knew what my job would be, but I ended up working for the province of Kirkuk. I argue that it’s an incredibly fascinating country, with a rich history and diverse people. I found many Iraqis to be so kind, so interesting. I really grew to love the country and the people during my time in Iraq. You’ll have to read my book, The Unraveling, which describes the whole experience!

 

How does the book capture your role as a diplomat–using words to bring people of different worlds together?

Well, armies typically view people as friends and enemies. In my life, I never viewed people as the enemy. Anyone you meet can be your friend and your enemy, depending on how you treat them. So I had an optimistic view, that you can win people over. And I believe people can change. People are a product of their environment. Change the environment, and people will behave in a different way. That’s what we saw in Iraq. Given an environment in which the state was removed, and it descended into a Hobbesian world, of everyone against everyone.

When the state grew stronger again, when there was more certainty, more rule of law, we could help people change their behavior. It’s really not easy, but it’s important to understand–that environment is politics by other means, that people are struggling for power, and there are all these different power struggles going on. So we as outsiders can help set the rules of the game, to be the referees between the two different groups, to get people use politics rather than violence.

And during that period in Iraq, from 2007 to 2009, we noticed a change of behavior. A lot of officers were helping mediate between the two groups, helping them bring ceasefire, helping them bring people into the political process.

 

Is there anything about your personal experience that led to particular achievements you’re proud of?

It’s hard to say, because in Iraq, there are many people working hard, and you can see tactical success. But at the end of the day, the overall outcome was 150,000 Iraqis, and four and half thousand Americans. I think that the US army really showed that it was capable of learning, and the fact that you had someone like Odierno to bring me in as his closest adviser says a lot about him–that he realized from his first experience in Iraq the limitations of force. My biggest contribution was to the military, helping them build better relations between them and the Iraqi people.

 

Are there other people who have influenced you along the way?

I can think of three young women who have inspired me. I haven’t met them and they all died young. One was Fern Holland, and she died in Iraq. Another was Rachel Corrie, and she died in Gaza. Another was Kayla Mueller, and she died in Syria. So three young women who believed passionately in helping other people and speaking out against injustice. I look to them as representations of young women who believe they can make a difference in the world. They tragically died, but let’s remember them for how the lived, and the impact they had for the short time they lived on the world.

 

Not only do you have an incredible amount of hands-on experience, you are also doing a tremendous amount of work here at Yale. What does your job as a Senior fellow at the Jackson Institute, teaching a class on Middle East Politics, involve?

You can see at very young ages, people rise up, people believe they can make the world a better place. It’s the youth that have the energy to bring about positive change. So teaching at Yale is wonderful. It’s a huge privilege to interact with young people who’ve got the brains, the belief, and the will to go out and do good. There are plenty of people who are more normal, but there are others who really are prepared to focus their life on serving others, and I think that is really inspiring.

 

What does your position as Director of the Yale World Fellows involve?

So the Yale World Fellows is a wonderful program, in that it brings sixteen of one of the most wonderful people you can find around the world to Yale for one semester. These are people who have shown themselves committed to making the world a better place. It provides them an opportunity to reflect, rejuvenate, get to know people who are passionate about similar things, feel the love and support from this group, to have round tables and talks, to interact with students, and to give students ideas about what they might do. I was fortunate to be at a similar fellowship at Harvard when I came out of Iraq, and I found it to be a very healing experience. It’s a great honor to be asked to direct this program at Yale, to find these amazing people around the world, and bring them here. So to hang out with the 16 coolest, most interesting people you can find in the world for four months–that’s great.

 

What advice do you have for current Yale undergraduates?

We put an advert out in the spring semester about who’s being selected for the next year’s World Fellows. I really recommend to students to look at who the world fellows are, and to apply to be liaisons to them. That means you can hang out with these people, and really get to know them. I vouch that that’s one of the best things you can do during your time at Yale. You can speak to current liaisons, and they’ll say that it’s just such a great time, getting involved in all these different activities, with different people from all around the world. You should do it.

 

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *