Friday, March 8, 2013

Student Spotlight: Yaniv Barzilai

For today’s installment of our Student Spotlight Series, we have interviewed Yaniv Barzilai, a second-year M.A. concentrating in Strategic Studies.  Yaniv is a Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellow, and he received his B.A. in Peace, War, and Defense from the University of North Carolina in 2011. 
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As a Pickering Fellow, you’ll be joining the Foreign Service after graduation.  What are some of the practical skills you’ve learned at SAIS that will help you in your career?
One of the most important skills that I have learned at SAIS is how to approach complex problems in a systematic and strategic manner. Asking the right questions, scrutinizing historical precedents, considering the second- and third-order consequences, and evaluating alternatives are essential to the process of policy formulation and implementation but do not always occur naturally. SAIS has also helped me improve upon my time management and prioritization skills. Last semester I was taking a full course load, working 20 hours per week at the State Department, and putting the finishing touches on my book on Afghanistan. It was the first time in my life that I could not complete everything on my to-do list. The reality of the Foreign Service and many other professions is that the amount of work to be done far exceeds the time available to complete it. Learning how to survive and thrive in that sort of environment is necessary to succeeding in the fast-paced, complex world of foreign policy and national security.
Doing a summer internship is an important component to the Pickering fellowship.  Can you tell us about your summer internship?
Last summer I was an intern in the Somalia Unit of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. I worked with a small group of diplomats under U.S. Special Representative for Somalia Ambassador Jim Swan during a critical time in Somalia’s history. My job was to track the military events in Somalia and report on the state of the offensive against al-Shabaab. Every day I made calls to military and political leaders in Somalia to report on the latest events. I coordinated and developed plans to expand U.S. Anti-Terrorism Assistance programs to train Somali government officials on critical security capabilities. I even had the opportunity to draft a cable in response to a request by the White House for analysis on a particular subject that was subsequently discussed at National Security Council meetings. My time in the Somali Affairs Unit culminated with a trip by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Kenya, where I was the site officer for the Secretary’s meeting with Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. I traveled often in my free time and finished my summer in East Africa with a trek up Mount Kilimanjaro.
You have a book coming out soon.  Congratulations!  How has your time at SAIS contributed to this particular project?
SAIS has played an important role in the process of writing a book on the first 100 days of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. My book relies partially on interviews with U.S. officials at every level of the war effort, and I was fortunate to find a number of professors at SAIS who possessed experience in government during this time period. I had an in-depth interview with Professor John McLaughlin, who was the Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency on September 11 and played a pivotal role in the war on al Qaeda in Afghanistan and around the world. Professor Bruce Riedel, who has been a senior advisor on South Asia and the Middle East to the last four presidents, has been a great mentor and generously agreed to write the foreword for my book. Other SAIS professors have provided informal help, such as Ambassador Eric Edelman, who was Vice President Cheney’s National Security Advisor, and Professor Walter Andersen, who was the chief of the South Asia Division at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Being in DC was also a distinct advantage and provided me with access to a number of other policymakers. 
You recently led a student trip to the US Army Special Operations Command.  How did this extracurricular activity complement your studies at SAIS?
Our recent trip to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) was a great opportunity to gain insight into the Army’s special operations capabilities. USASOC is not only home to the Green Berets but maintains extensive capabilities in all aspects of irregular warfare. We received briefings from subordinate organizations responsible for psychological operations, civil affairs, aviation, and the training of all Special Forces. We also met with a SAIS alumnus and a few of his colleagues from the 82nd Airborne. Since the U.S. Special Forces share the same organizational predecessors as the CIA, the trip complemented a broad array of classes focusing on intelligence or the military. From designing a covert operation to producing a national intelligence estimate to studying counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, the USASOC trip enhanced my experience in the classroom by providing me with a practical understanding of the unique capabilities of our Special Forces.
What has been your favorite class so far, and why?
My favorite class at SAIS has been America’s Wartime Diplomacy: the Politics of Coalition Maintenance and Alliance Management. Taught by veteran diplomat Ambassador Eric Edelman, the class examined the implications of Churchill’s adage that “the only thing worse than fighting a war with allies is trying to fight one without them.” Ambassador Edelman’s lectures were commensurate to opening an encyclopedia on the day’s topic. The workload was heavy, but I found myself learning more from my peers and our discussions than any other class I have taken. Ambassador Edelman challenged us to reach a new level of understanding and critical analysis, and the class as a whole rose to that challenge. This class not only taught me about wartime diplomacy and coalition warfare but also provided me with a solid foundation of diplomatic history since World War I.
Yaniv’s book, 102 Days of War: How Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda & the Taliban Survived 2001, is slated to be published this year by Potomac Books.  For more information about Yaniv’s book, please click here.
Thanks for reading!
— Erin Skelly Cameron, Associate Director of Admissions
To read previous entries in our Student Spotlight series, please click here.