Las Vegas Sun

February 21, 2019

Currently: 34° — Complete forecast

Sun interview:

Uncle Sam needs you, young Americans

Scholar urges students not to reject government service as career option

Amanda Sloat calls herself a poster child for studying abroad, as a trip to the United Kingdom during college set her on a path to a rewarding career in foreign affairs and government service.

But now, as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in foreign policy, Sloat says she’s getting discouraging signals from young people in their attitude toward working for the government, especially in foreign service.

“I’m quite worried we’re going to lose an entire generation of young people from going into government,” Sloat said last week while visiting UNLV. “For one, I think the allure of private-sector, Silicon Valley-type tech jobs is new and sexy and it pays better and seems more exciting. So I think there’s already a faction of students who are going in that direction anyway.

“But I also think this current political climate is putting people off from going into government.

“What I find most sad is students who their whole lives dreamed of being a diplomat and now suddenly feel like they don’t want to go in that direction.”

Sloat is working to counter those sentiments by getting out of Washington, D.C., where Brookings is based, and visiting college campuses across the nation. She also has written commentary for USA Today outlining to younger people why government service is still a career well worth considering.

Sloat served in the U.S. government in the State Department, where she focused on Southern Europe and Eastern Mediterranean affairs, and as a senior adviser to the White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf region. Before her government service, she was a senior program officer for the National Democratic Institute, a role which called for her to work in Iraq.

In her interview with the Sun last week, Sloat discussed her message to students, the situation in Syria and more. Following are excerpts, edited for brevity.

You hadn’t planned to be involved in foreign policy or work overseas. What had you planned to do, and how did that evolve?

I was always very interested in government and public policy, so I thought I was probably going to be a lawyer. So by my junior year, I was thinking about going into law school or a Ph.D. program with some sort of focus on government.

I really had no interest in foreign policy. But I went on a study abroad program to the U.K. between my junior and senior year of college, and we spent a month in London and a week in Edinburgh. I fell in love with the city of Edinburgh, got very interested in British politics.

So when I finished college, I did an internship in Washington, D.C., and was debating staying in D.C. and getting a job or going overseas. And the pull of going overseas and getting that experience there was too strong.

How is your message about the rewards and benefits of a career in government service being received?

It’s definitely hard in the current climate.

One of the points I make in my op-ed for USA Today is that I’d done all the foreign service exams in the early 2000s and looked at going in, but for a variety of reasons chose not to. But it was post-9/11, starting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I found it difficult to think about how I’d go back to my European friends and justify some of what the U.S. was doing in the Middle East.

But then I went into the administration as a political appointee for (President Barack) Obama and was working on Syria, which was a policy area that was problematic and where I think the administration made some mistakes.

It goes to show that you’re never going to agree with the president on everything, and there’s important foreign policy work to be done in every administration.

The point I make on (George W.) Bush is that he’s widely praised for his work in Africa. His PEPFAR program (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) did a lot for AIDS in Africa, for instance. So you could disagree with Bush on Iraq but still find meaningful work in other parts of the administration.

Are the young people you’re talking to just waiting out this current presidential administration?

What I tell people, certainly for some of the State Department jobs, is that you can buy while the stock is low. If you apply now to join the foreign service, it can take about a year to go through the writing and the oral exam process. Then it might take a year to get your security clearance. Your first tour in the State Department is usually a two-year consular tour, so you’re going to be stamping visas in Mexico City or something like that. So it’s going to be four years from now before you’re actually going to start getting into the meat of a policy issue.

So who knows what the world is going to look like at that point?

You did a piece for Time magazine recently about a potential ramification of Brexit involving Northern Ireland. Can you describe your takeaway of that piece?

I was actually thinking about Northern Ireland this morning.

I lived in Belfast for three years. I have a very strong association with Belfast, because I literally had just been there for a week when 9/11 happened. It was a very poignant place to be, because everybody there had struggled with decades of domestic terrorism and really had an understanding of what the implications of the 9/11 attacks were.

So this is the piece for Brexit that has worried me the most.

If you look at the Brexit debates, the inability to resolve the Northern Ireland border question could end up precluding a final deal on Northern Ireland.

So one is the fact that it could prevent this deal from actually happening. In the worst-case scenario, if that doesn’t happen, then the U.K. would crash out of the European Union with no deal at all. And then you can get very wonky: They’d be under World Trade Organization rules, and there are all sorts of nightmare scenarios in terms of questions about how planes could land in Heathrow; you’d have long lines of trucks that would be stopped at the port that would need to go through checkpoints.

It would be like all of a sudden there was a hard border between Nevada and California overnight. Right now, they’re in this customs union and single market, so people and goods can move freely, kind of like if you drive from Nevada to California. If California becomes independent, it functions like going into Mexico. You can’t just drive across the border.

After decades of conflict about what the status of Northern Ireland was going to be, it’s really important that those identity issues and border issues are live issues. But this Brexit debate and the inability to solve that is triggering all of these identity questions again.

Could there be hostilities again?

People I talked to were pretty clear that they don’t expect a return to violence in the sense of the troubles we’ve had for decades, mostly because there’s just not an appetite on either side for it.

But it’s destabilizing on the peace process.

As we seem to be moving toward an endgame in Syria, what are a couple of the more likely ways this could play out?

The big question is going to be the handling of Idlib, which is the city in Northern Syria that is the last holdout of the opposition forces.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, backed by the Russians and Iranians, is very keen to get this area back.

Turkey is understandably very concerned about that, particularly from the perspective of refugees. Turkey right now is housing more than 3 1/2 million Syrian refugees, which is extraordinary. If you think about some of the debates we’ve had in this country about taking in refugees, and the numbers. The U.S., in the last year of the Obama administration, had maybe gotten to 100,000, and that was the very highest. So Turkey is a population of 80 million people, and they have 3 1/2 million refugees.

So they’re very concerned about Idlib.

And Idlib is the city where a lot of Syrians fled to when their cities were taken over, so you have a lot of displaced Syrians already living in Idlib — then there’s the possibility you’d have mass numbers of refugees coming out.

So depending on how the battle goes, it has the potential to be a massive humanitarian crisis.

Then there’s the question about what does a peace process for Syria look like. Clearly, Assad is not going to go anytime soon and is going to regain control over large swaths of the country. So what sort of governance arrangements are put in place — I think there’s going to be a lot of reluctance from the Americans and others in the international community to contribute to reconstruction in areas that are held by Assad, which I think is understandable for political reasons. It’s certainly difficult for people wanting to return to their homes.

There are outstanding questions about what the longterm military presence of the Americans is going to be. President Donald Trump earlier this year was sounding quite keen on wanting to pull U.S. troops out once ISIS is defeated.

And where does Russia fit in?

They seem supportive of this idea of clearing Idlib of these remaining opposition forces. There was a meeting last week between the Iranians, the Russians and the Turks to discuss what to do with Idlib. The Turks were making a big plea not to have a military assault, which seems to have pushed off — at least temporarily — a military assault on Idlib. But I find it hard to believe that’s going to last very long.

I’m sure the U.S. is having conversations with the Russians. The best-case scenario on that is that you reach some sort of solution for how you handle Idlib short of military action, but I’m pessimistic that’s going to happen.

Why are you pessimistic?

For one, the U.S. doesn’t have military skin in the game on the ground around Idlib. So we don’t have a huge amount of leverage. We can diplomatically engage and say, “This will be disastrous if it were to happen, so can we find a way to resolve this?”

But I suspect that the desire by Assad to regain control over that part of his country is likely going to prevail.

How would you rate U.S. relations with NATO allies right now?

I’m always reluctant to say things are “better than” or “worse than.” In all of these cases, there are times when relations have been poor and it’s always possible to conceptualize ways in which things get much, much worse.

You can think back to Iraq, for instance, when the U.S. had a big division with a lot of Western European countries over how to handle that war.

On NATO now, if you look at the communique that came out of the summit in July, it actually was incredibly robust. There were a lot of new initiatives that were developed. Allies reaffirmed their commitment to responding to Russian aggression in the east, announced development of new capabilities and announced they were going to do more in NATO south.

Second, Trump has been very focused on this question of defense spending. For him, it’s the singular issue for NATO.

So on the face of it, I don’t think he’s wrong to be raising that. And if you look over the past couple of years, there’s been an increase among European countries in their defense spending.

The problem has been the very aggressive way he’s gone about it — the fact he’s raised questions about America’s commitment to Article V to continue to defend the alliance.

It’s had the impact of unsettling NATO allies and raising questions about whether or not the U.S. is committed to the Article V collective defense agreement.

You’ve suggested not scheduling another NATO summit during Trump’s presidency.

It’s not set in stone that NATO needs to have these summits, so if the president is going to use them as a platform for berating allies and raising questions about U.S. commitment, I think there’s merit in denying that platform.

Normally, these summits end up being action-forcing events that compel countries to come to decisions on things, to announce deliverables. But there are ways of doing that without having to have all of the leaders together.

Given what’s happening both in foreign relations and domestically under this administration, are you waking up these days and just saying, “I’m going to stay in bed all day?”

There are certainly days when it’s very tempting.

But I think you’re seeing a renewal of engagement within the American public. They’re doing it in political debates, you’re seeing people come out and march, and you’re seeing people who were not participating before finding new ways to get involved.

It will be interesting to see the turnout in the midterm election. For Americans who may have thought in the past that their vote didn’t matter, the election two years ago should have showed people that their vote did matter.

I went out and knocked on a huge number of doors in the weeks before the 2016 election, and it was dispiriting to see the number of people who weren’t planning to vote. And I hope that is different now.

For some people, there’s this question about how do I engage? The No. 1 message I’d give to people is to register and vote, because your vote actually does matter.

So I’m hoping we can survive the worst of this and ultimately come to a place where people recognize that democracy takes work. To go back to Turkey, where I’ve spent a lot of time, we’ve seen a diminution in press freedom, a diminution in free expression and civil society, and it’s disturbing to see that some of these things are happening in the U.S., albeit to a much lesser extent.

Growing up and always working in democracy and studying what was happening in other countries, my own assumption was that these things were never going to happen in the U.S. And I think what’s happening now is showing that democracy is fragile, and you have to fight for it and you have to fight for these institutions.

That’s why I think people need to keep working in government. If we believe in the enduring nature of our democratic institutions, we need people who are going to staff those institutions. And if we believe in democracy, we need people to register and vote.

So the civil engagement over the past year and a half has been encouraging, and I hope that plays out in turnout for elections.