Faysal Itani Interview (10/5/20)

Photo Credit: Center for Global Policy

Professor Faysal Itani is one of SSP’s newest faculty members. After several years in the private sector, he joined the SSP community this past summer and is currently teaching SEST 522: Comparative Politics: Middle East. GSSR caught up with him to discuss his class, his career, some personal hobbies, and more.

The transcript of this interview, conducted by Freddy Ludtke, has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

What has it been like teaching at Georgetown so far? How has the Zoom world been treating you?

I got lucky to be honest with you because I have a small seminar, only seven students. Therefore, even on Zoom, it’s kind of late night and it’s a bit calmer, a little more intimate. We get to have something resembling an organic conversation. I know everybody’s name and everybody’s face so it hasn’t been all that difficult. I think it’s been pretty free-flowing, pretty engaging. It’s not a kind of lecture-style format so participation is relatively easy and straightforward but, by comparison, I do teach a much bigger class at another university with just under fifty students and I teach it on Zoom. Of course the experience is vastly different, and the delta between teaching in non-COVID times and teaching now is much bigger there than it has been here at Georgetown.

Could you give a broad overview of your career, including any stages you’d like to highlight?

I’ve had what you would call a nontraditional career path. I didn’t grow up here, I grew up in Lebanon, in Beirut. That’s where I went to college. I originally have a business background so I spent much of my early years in advertising, and then I went to graduate school here in Washington. I studied Security Studies, and after that I worked at a private intelligence company. So my work in policy—which is what I do now—probably started about seven years ago at the Atlantic Council, and now I’m at a think tank called the Center for Global Policy. I also teach at Georgetown and at George Washington, and I am a deputy editor at a magazine on the Middle East, a Middle East essay magazine essentially. That’s me in a nutshell.

How did you originally become interested in international relations and security studies? What spurred that shift away from business and advertising?

Honestly, it’s because of where I grew up. I grew up in an atmosphere of political violence and competition and a lot of strategic intersections at the same time. I was exposed to it naturally from a very young age. Not everyone who is exposed to it becomes interested in it professionally, but I just caught that bug. I was involved politically at a very early age. Then one thing led to another and I ended up doing it as a profession. So it started out personal and it became professional.

You mentioned that you have done private intelligence work and political risk analysis. What do those jobs entail on a day-to-day basis?

It varies a bit from company to company, but generally there’s a spectrum. These companies either fall on the analytical side of the spectrum—the analytical and forecasting side. Or they fall on the “guys with guns” side of the spectrum where they are the people who provide the practical part and intelligence and stuff like that. I wasn’t on that side. I was more on the consultancy side, and it largely involves doing risk forecasting and scenario analysis for governments, militaries, and some large corporations. In my case, these were all Middle East and North Africa-focused. That was my area of expertise. And there’s an unsolicited product side where you create a lot of written content, you put it out to your clients whoever they may be, you monitor things, you develop indicators. But there’s also bespoke work. Your client who has a particular need asks you—“I have people here, I have personnel here, I have an asset here,” or “we’re trying to game out what a Gulf War scenario might look like” so it really depends on your client. They are the ones who drive the agenda.

You mentioned that your interest in international relations and national security was originally spurred by your own personal experiences. Are there any specific ways in which you have found that to be the case? Have you found that you have been able to incorporate personal life experiences into your professional work?

Absolutely, yes. I think what’s at the core of my professional work is the kind of intuitive knowledge and familiarity you build, in addition, of course, through your formal education, which is still important. You kind of have this gut feeling for how people think, how people feel, and how things are processed. The context is so important for making national security decisions. It’s definitely something where, for the most part, you have to be in a place for a good amount of time to get it. You don’t necessarily have to be from the place, but you have to know a lot of people there and have some quality time there. So absolutely, in my teaching, in my classroom, in my work, it informs everything I do. It’s a certain kind of knowledge, where it’s not the entirety of knowledge. There’s also the kind of formal training, which I got here, not there.

Shifting gears toward your class, can you speak a bit about how you organize it given that you’re covering a huge, very complex, multifaceted region in the Middle East? How do you condense that into fourteen seminars?

It’s not easy, but I decided to make it a multidisciplinary class. It’s a security studies class, but there’s a funnel approach. We learn a lot of things about the place, and then we distill it down to the security implications and the security actors and situation. We spend the second half of the course—as a comparative politics course, of course, comparative politics is all about comparing things, how are they the same and how are they different. For us, what I decided to do is spend the first half, maybe one-third, of the class talking about generalities about the region—things you can safely generalize. What is the modernization process, political economy, some basic history, religion, and politics—thematic if you will. Once we’ve got those themes down and we have a framework to work with, then we move to the cases—ISIS, Hezbollah, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iraq War, Syrian Civil War. That’s when we sink our teeth into different places and groups. But I don’t like to do that right away from a security lens because I don’t believe in mono-dimensional ways of looking at very, very complex policy problems. I think it’s irresponsible and it gets you in trouble so I try to make it a bit more holistic. It makes it a bit more challenging, but it works in the end. We get the vocabulary and the concepts we need to deal with the region and then we deal with it—that’s the approach.

SSP has several dozen courses and, over the course of a student’s SSP career, one only takes twelve. What is your pitch for why an SSP student needs to take a more area studies-focused course?

All knowledge is local knowledge and contextual knowledge. Policy ought to follow that, rather than start first with principles and abstractions. I think people at SSP, or any of the top policy schools, are getting the exposure to the concepts of security and the tools. And they need them because the world needs a framework. But this is a part of the world that, for better or worse, we’re knee-deep in. As much as we kick and scream about it, we’re staying [in the Middle East] for a while. We have interests there and problems to manage, so I like to think this is the one course where they can take a breather away from the hard security stuff and talk about security in the context of a place. I think students appreciate the change of pace. It still has that realpolitik, it’s got that power streak which runs through all of it. It’s not a liberal arts course or a history course, and I am a security guy, but we engage with things in a little bit more of a granular way. And I find that a lot of students want to do that.

You did your undergraduate studies in Lebanon, and then your master’s degree here in the United States. What are some of the differences in terms of how Middle Eastern politics are presented in the United States, relative to in Lebanon and the Middle East at-large?

My university in Lebanon was based more or less on an American liberal arts curriculum because it’s the American University of Beirut and was founded by Americans. It’s not that different, but what I find to be the real difference is this: the real difference is that, within the United States, between the college level education about the Middle East and what people learn by the time they get to the policy schools. At the college level, the curriculum leans—this is a crude term but—slightly left I guess. It’s a slightly more liberal take on the region, less emphasis on hard power, less emphasis on realpolitik, more emphasis on the more humanistic side of things, some critical theory, a pretty negative view of the United States’ role there—not that that’s entirely unjustified. But these are things I’ve picked up because academia treats the region differently than policymakers treat it. Whereas when you go to Georgetown, SAIS, GW, things sharpen up a bit and you’re suddenly looking at things through a US policy lens. There are more practical questions. It’s a little more skeptical and—it depends where you fall actually—some schools are pretty hardcore realpolitik like SAIS, very classical. It’s more practical and less academic and less intellectual. That is what I felt to be the biggest difference at the level of education, particularly when you jump from the academic to the policy schools. I think if you were to go do a master’s in Middle East Studies at the University of Chicago, you’d find it quite similar to college. If you’re going to the Washington schools, I’ve found it to be different. Also because it attracts a different sort of person. Academia attracts a different person than the practitioner-policymaker who wants to teach a course because those are completely different views of the world, different experiences. And, if you have a lot of people who work for the government or the security sector, you’re not going to come in and have super critical views about the United States because they are already working for the government. So it’s very understandable and self-selecting.

What are some misperceptions about the Middle East you find yourself having to correct?

This phase of my career, most people I talk to either understand it pretty well or at least they know what they don’t know and they’re not presumptuous. So I’ve been fortunate in that sense, but Washington obviously isn’t representative in that sense. In the private sector, you tend to have the hard security guys who were maybe in the military or in intelligence to make more money frankly, or you have the pure corporate types. I think there’s a lot that is misunderstood about the region. The variation within it, and the sheer number of very different places that are in the “Middle East” is one of them. The other one that I think people misunderstand is that we [the United States] tend to see everything in the Middle East through us or about us as Americans. So if the Middle East is going well, “great, President X is doing the right thing.” If the Middle East is going badly, it must be because we screwed it up. The truth is that the United States is not always at the center. People in the Middle East have agency. Governments have agency, and they do these things to each other also. Whether or not we disappeared off the face of the earth tomorrow, a lot of things actually wouldn’t change. It comes from a good place sometimes, it’s not all negative. But there’s also the self-centric point of view in the West, in the United States and Europe alike, that prevails. It’s hard to get people out of that without spending a lot of time there. And some people do spend a lot of time there and come back with this conclusion anyways.

How do you get your news about the Middle East? What types of sources do you follow, especially in the aftermath of a major event or crisis?

Both local and international, everything on Twitter, and my personal contacts here and back home as well. That’s really all I use. I don’t use anything else.

Your New York Times op-ed[1] you wrote shortly after the Beirut explosion has generated a lot of attention. What was the process of writing that like, having been somebody who literally worked at that port during your childhood?

I’m not going to lie, I was working on this issue, trying to follow it on my computer just to understand what had happened in this bizarre event. And my colleague who I work with here, he walks in and asks what’s going on and I told him, “Can you believe I used to work at this place?” And he’s like “You should pitch that story.” So that’s how it was conceived. Then I went home and wrote it the same night, sent it in, and it was published. I didn’t expect it to be picked up the way it was, but I guess this event kind of touched a nerve for some reason, even among people who don’t know anything about the country. I think the event itself was so compelling that it took a lot of people’s bandwidth.

For students interested in studying the Middle East, what would your advice at this stage in an academic career be?

Any advice I would give is grounded in the current situation, the COVID situation which makes life much more complicated, especially at the graduate level where you’re supposed to be studying, as well as networking and stuff like that. To study the Middle East, I would tell you that this is a tough and crowded field but, if you are passionate about it, there’s no reason you can’t be a roaring success. But you can’t half-ass it—you have to learn the language, Arabic is probably the most practical one. And if you’re going to learn Arabic, learn a dialect, don’t just learn classical Arabic because nobody speaks that unfortunately. And see it through, commit yourself, do the internships, go travel, get the job. It’s not something you can just casually do because there’s a high barrier to entry. But if you like the Middle East enough, you’ll know if you do. That’s usually my impression with my students—I know who the ones who are going to do a deep-dive into it, and then there are the ones who are like “this is just an interesting course” and that’s fine too.

More broadly, what general graduate school advice do you have?

For students, make the effort to meet your professors virtually if possible. I won’t be advising anyone physically, but if your COVID philosophy allows it, do it and try to reach out to other students as well. I know how difficult this is and how awkward it is, but the relationships you’re forming right now—especially with people you actually genuinely like—are going to be very important for you. And they’re going to be career-defining, not to mention that they’re just people who are good to know. I would go the extra mile, get out of your comfort zone, make the effort. It’s unfair, but it’s something you should do—you’re paying for the privilege so don’t neglect it.

You’ve spoken very highly of Kim Ghattas’ Black Wave. Any other books you would recommend to people interested in the region?

There haven’t been a lot of great books written about the region as such, more about slices of it. But if I were to say what I consider essential reading, I would say A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin is one of them. If you want a historical background, A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani would be the other. If you want to go country-specific, there are loads of good books about each country. Some countries tend to be published about more than others, and it’s easier to find good stuff, so Iraq, because we were there, gets a lot of books. Lebanon as well because it’s a more open society with publication. For Iran, All the Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer is a great book. I would read Daniel Yergin’s books on oil and the geopolitics of energy. On Syria, I would recommend The Struggle for Power in Syria by Nikelaos Van Dam—a superb book. For Lebanon, I would recommend A House of Many Mansions by Kamal Salibi.

Final question, probably the most important one—on your Twitter,[2] it says that you are an avid dirt bike rider and a parrot owner. For the good of the SSP community, can you elaborate on both of those interests?

I decided a while ago that the best way to see America through completely new eyes—I still consider myself an immigrant—was to go on a motorcycle, largely because people are much nicer to you when you’re on a motorcycle and much more likely to talk to you and much more open, and it’s fun. The dirt bike part is because there are a lot of places you can’t go if you stay on paved roads. And some of the most interesting places I’ve been—this is kind of like my own anthropology experiment—have been on the back of a motorcycle. These things are all being jotted down and will hopefully one day form a book if I ever have time.

Parrots? Yeah, that’s a hard one to describe if you don’t already get it. But something about a bird being smarter than most young humans is fascinating. It’s a very interesting bond because these are not domesticated animals so they’re wild and everything they do, they don’t do because we’re their masters. They do it because they feel like it so it’s kind of an egalitarian relationship with an animal, and it’s a lot of fun if you can put up with the obvious downsides I would think—the noise, the destruction, this stuff. It’s like having a toddler forever basically.


[1] Faysal Itani, “Why Did Lebanon Let a Bomb-in-Waiting Sit in a Warehouse for 6 Years?” The New York Times, August 5, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/05/opinion/beirut-explosions.html.

[2] “Faysal Itani,” Twitter, https://twitter.com/faysalitani?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor.

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