Dave Harden, a former senior U.S. diplomat with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), spoke to Brandeis students on his international experience at an event held on Oct. 28. Harden presented not geopolitical analysis, but past stories of his that be believed would help shape and expand student’s knowledge about the world.
“This is not an academic discussion. This is more about what I saw as a career foreign service officer serving in the Middle East for a very long time,” Harden began the discussion. Harden shared multiple anecdotal stories to give students a new perspective separate from typical geopolitical analysis on the Middle East, said Harden.
Throughout his career in foreign service, Harden has worked in South Asia, including in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Nepal, and in Central Asia including Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan as a regional legal advisor for USAID. Harden then began his work in the Middle East in August of 2005. This was just before Gaza disengagement, when Israel removed all their military installations, said Harden. During this time, Harden said he learned about the relationship between economics and security.
Harden served as a USAID West Bank and Gaza Deputy Mission Director. In this position he said that he worked closely with Palestinian authorities, civil society and buisnesses. Concurrently, Harden said he worked closely with Israli military and the Israeli private sector.
“I was one of the few people at that time who had the authority and the diplomatic cover to talk to both sides. Normally that’s not how it works in our embassy. Normally you get one side or the other,” said Harden. This offered him a very unique perspective of the situation, said Harden.
Under the Obama administration, Harden joined the special envoy team where he was on the ground working on issues. George Mitchell—who at the time was appointed as the lead negotiatory between the Palestinian and the Israelis—“dealt with the five issues between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” according to Harden. Harden went on to joke that while Mitchell dealt with those five issues, he “dealt with the 995 other issues because there are thousands of issues.”
Harden stressed in one anecdotal story a situation where he had to decide how much food to buy for Gaza in the 2014 war. The complexity, according to Harden, was not just getting the food, but rather getting the food inside Gaza. That would become his number one task.
“In a complex crisis, you want to use everything available. You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket. Your job is to save 2 million people for 90 days and make sure they have food. The only way to get the food through is from the Israeli side,” he pointed to the map as he spoke.
From the Egyptian humanitarian crisis to the diverse demographics in Lebanon, the Yemen two-state crisis to climate change—specifically drought—in Syria to waves of refugees into Jordan, Harden led a bureau global crisis response and political transition and managed a $4.8 billion budget with a staff of nearly 1200. Through these hands-on tasks and problem-solving scenarios, Harden spent years in the Middle East at a U.S. office and learned how to talk to both sides by working closely with various groups, providing him a unique perspective by seeing relationships between economics and security.
Harden discussed a situation, which is rare in foreign policy and international relations, where he was able to test two competing theories at the same time in relatively the same place. One theory—tested in Gaza—was economic pressure will yield political change, according to Harden; if they squeezed Hamas enough then they will fail due to pressure. The other theory—tested in the Palestinian city of Jenin—was economic opportunity would yield political change. Trade through the north, which can be sustained and is predictable, would be able to maintain a business community that would provide an economic opportunity which would bring change, according to Harden.
From this situation they learned that economic opportunity yields political change because in Jenin the unemployment rate dropped, there was a higher attendance of children in schools and there was a reduction in fighting, Harden expanded. “We didn’t get peace in the Middle East. I wasn’t ever going to bring peace, my job was to bring calm and opportunity for peace in the Middle East and I think we delivered it for 10 years.” The same success was not seen in Gaza where they tested the theory that economic pressure yields political change.
Harden also discussed the problems which will begin to arise due to climate change. Wet-bulb temperatures will be rising in South Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa which will add additional pressure to these already “fragile” areas, as Harden described. “This is your challenge, we failed,” Harden said to the students.
In regards to the Palestine-Israeli conflict, Harden said that he initially believed Mitchell would be the one to bring peace between the two groups due to his role in solving relations between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland. “I think it’s probably too late,” said Mitchell, “I know that’s not where hope for the people want to be.”
“I think the chance of a two-state solution is either closed or nearly closed,” explained Mitchell, “I’m saddened about it because these are very difficult issues.”
Harden is no longer working with USAID; he left under the Trump administration. He currently works at a global consulting group, Georgetown Strategy, and is running for the U.S. Congress for Maryland District 1.
The event was co-hosted by Brandeis Israel Public Affairs Committee (BIPAC) and the Schusterman Center. BIPAC is a non-partisan group dedicated to the study and discussion of the United States-Israel relationship and strengthening the relationship between students and congress, said BIPAC president Gabriella Lieberman ’23 during the event. This event was BIPAC’s first in-person event since the spring of 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic.