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Policy matters in the Middle East

PhD student Brian Haggerty's work becomes part of foreign policy debate on Syria
People gather on Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt.
People gather on Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt.
Photo: Brian Haggerty

Brian Haggerty little suspected last spring that he would soon find himself in the middle of a major U.S. foreign policy debate. A PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science, Haggerty wrote a paper for 17.482, Barry Posen’s course on U.S. military power, in which he examined the potential costs of U.S. air-based intervention in the Syrian civil war. Posen encouraged him to rework the paper and publish it quickly on the web. The response was swift: Haggerty’s study sparked international media coverage, and made its way into government policy discussions.

This kind of attention is one “virtue of policy-relevant work,” says Haggerty. “It’s rewarding, and in some sense affirms that what we do matters.” His study, “Safe Havens in Syria: Missions and Requirements for an Air Campaign,” puts precise numbers on a hypothetical operation by U.S. and other Western powers to take command of Syrian airspace for humanitarian purposes. Haggerty believes “people start debating these things and gloss over the challenges.... They shouldn’t advocate action because they think it’s easy, but because they think it’s the right policy, and accept that policy’s actual cost.”

This research, detailed and grounded in political science, is “exclusively a product of my time at MIT,” says Haggerty. Such courses as 17.482, one of the offerings in the MIT Political Science Department, placed Haggerty in direct contact with members of the military and the Pentagon, in seminars that served as briefings on policy, strategy, costs and outcomes. The program, says Haggerty, “believes strongly that academics should know something about military operations, in part so there can be a public audit of politicians’ foreign policy decisions.”

Haggerty dates his interest in the areas of Middle East security and international relations to 9/11, which coincided with his first days as a Harvard undergraduate. “My whole post-secondary education has gone on against the backdrop of the war on terror,” he says. “It’s hard not to be influenced by questions of U.S. relations with the Arab world and their consequences.”

He was “briefly seduced by electoral politics” during college, when he worked in the office of New Hampshire Governor John Lynch, and subsequently as spokesman on the governor’s re-election campaign. Haggerty envisioned working on staff for a Democratic contender in the 2008 presidential campaign, in large part because of “a deep skepticism toward President Bush’s foreign policy.” But he realized “it took a certain personality to succeed in that environment,” and questioned whether electoral politics was “the best fit” for him over the long term.

Then, an opportunity arose for Haggerty that was to launch him on his current track. Through his Harvard ties, he was invited to help start The Tobin Project, a research organization that brings scholars in the social sciences together with policy makers. He subsequently became program manager for the project’s initiative in national security, which brought him in touch with top policy experts from academia, and into the thick of discussions about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

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