Tally Helfont

DIRECTOR PROGRAM ON THE MIDDLE EAST | FOREIGN POLICY RESEARCH INSTITUTE

What do you do as Director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI)'s Program on the Middle East?

My work as Director of FPRI's Program on the Middle East focuses on four major areas: development, programming, scholarship, and mentorship. In terms of development, I craft and drive the Program’s fundraising strategy, and contribute to the grant writing, donor solicitation, and donor cultivation processes. In regard to programming, I am responsible for planning, managing, and implementing conferences and events from their intellectual conception to their administrative execution, as well as coordinating with internal staff and external partners to ensure their success. In terms of scholarship, I solicit, edit, and fact-check articles by affiliated scholars, and ensure their timely publication. In terms of mentorship, I work regularly with college-age interns to hone their policy-style writing and acquaint them with the think tank world.

You are also a research fellow at FPRI. What do you do in that capacity?

As a Middle East Research Fellow at FPRI, I conceive of and execute original research and writing projects based on my academic background, my foreign language skills (knowing Hebrew, Arabic, and French definitely comes in handy when studying the Middle East!), and the time I have spent living, studying, travelling, and conducting research in the region. My research primarily focuses on regional balance of power, the Levant and the Gulf Cooperation Council, and U.S. policy therein. My upcoming article, titled “America’s and its Allies in the Middle East: Bungling toward Strategic Cooperation,” looks at U.S. policy in the Middle East over the past 15 years and examines the implications of its current increased reliance on alliances. My writings have appeared in English, Hebrew, and Arabic in publications such as Orbis (US), The American Interest (US), INSS Insight (IL), al-Mesbar (UAE), and al-Majalla (UK/KSA), as well as in FPRI's E-Notes and Geopoliticus blog. I also speak and present on my research at think tank venues, at conferences in the region, and on Al-Jazeera America.

What is the aim of the Foreign Policy Research Institute?

Founded in 1955, FPRI is a non-profit organisation devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests. In particular, FPRI examines foreign policy and global developments through the lens of geopolitics.

You also work for Wikistrat's Middle East Desk as a Contributing Analyst. What do you do there?

As a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat's Middle East Desk, I participate in simulations and war games focused on predicting regional trends and providing policy solutions for both government agencies and NGOs. These projects are challenging, stimulating, and collaborative, adding a different dimension to the way I think about world affairs.

Tell us about running courses in Civil Information Management to U.S. Military Civil Affairs Units and Human Terrain Teams assigned to Iraq and Afghanistan.

I taught U.S. Military Civil Affairs Units and Human Terrain Teams assigned to Iraq and Afghanistan how to use programmes like Analyst Notebook and Arc GIS to solve complex research questions. It was both a challenging and enriching experience.

You previously worked at the Investigative Project in Terrorism (IPT). What did that entail? 

As a Terrorism Analyst at IPT, I provided evidentiary and analytical support to U.S. Attorney’s Offices, the FBI, the Department of Justice, the Department of Treasury, and State and Local Law Enforcement in over 40 terrorism investigations throughout the country. I also briefed Congressional staffers on terrorism-related issues, delivered several training sessions on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security to Federal Law Enforcement Agents regarding specific terrorism case studies and counter-terrorism research methodology, and delivered a series of training sessions to the/for the IPT Research team on counterterrorism research methodologies.

You have a BA in International Affairs, Conflict and Security from George Washington University (GW), and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Tel Aviv University (TAU). Would you recommend these universities and programmes?

Absolutely! GW’s IR programme provided me with a sound multi-disciplinary foundation from which to approach world affairs, while TAU’s Middle East Studies degree instilled in me an in-depth knowledge of the history, culture, and politics of a region which I am deeply passionate about. I found the thesis-writing portion of my MA particularly rewarding, as it pushed me to research and write in long form – a skill which would be invaluable to me later on at FPRI.

How do you use your two degrees in your day-to-day job?

Broadly speaking, my knowledge of IR has helped me consume scholarship about international politics and understand the arguments and frameworks scholars use to explain regional developments and American political behaviour. My Middle East studies degree and its focus on history, culture, and politics translates directly into the geopolitical approach to area studies that FPRI subscribes to, helping me understand developments in the Middle East both in context and over a longer arc.

You’ve also been studying Arabic. Why was it important?

Language study, and time spent in the region doing so, is extremely important for research, scholarship, analysis, and policy recommendations on the region. It is not enough to learn about a region through the eyes and words of others. Rather, one must also learn from the region – and its people – on its own terms.

Why the interest in foreign policy and the Middle East in particular?

America plays an outsized role in the world and therefore has a great responsibility not only to its own citizens, but also to citizens of the world. I think that it is important for the United States to make informed policy decisions in the world, and of course in the Middle East as well, where so much of our current attention lies. The Middle East has always held a fascination for me, but having grown up visiting Israel as I child, I remember being perplexed by this David and Goliath narrative that is often evoked vis-à-vis Israel and the Arab world, or the Palestinians and Israel depending on one’s political persuasion. It was this confusion – and fascination! – that led me to my first undergraduate course studying the Middle East.

What are the particular advantages and barriers a woman pursuing a career like yours might face?

There is a huge deficit of women in foreign policy to begin with, so one might say that in an attempt to sheepishly to catch up, there may be more opportunities now for women in the field than ever before.

Alternatively, I think that this field, like most in the United States today, has a great deal of catching up to do in terms of eliminating salary and advancement disparities among genders.

What would you recommend to a young woman who would like to pursue a similar career?

I recommend that students interested in foreign policya) chose two areas/countries (i.e. Jordan & the Gulf) and two  related subjects (i.e. sectarianism & women in politics) to focus on; b) study the history, politics, and languages of their chosen region in the most in-depth ways possible; c) hone their writing skills and try to publish on anything from blogs and school publications to op-eds and journals; and d) spend time travelling, studying, and/or working in their region of choice. This will provide a good foundation and the makings of a competitive candidate in a very competitive field.

What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career so far?

The most rewarding aspect of my career comes from producing scholarship that contributes to how we understand the Middle East and informs the U.S. policy debate. Another rewarding aspect comes from seeing an intern I have worked with embark on a promising career in the field and start to make their own impacts.

The least rewarding aspect of my career, frankly, is financial. The truth of the matter is that the humanities and soft sciences simply do not pay well, even for those who possess the highest levels of education. This is a constraining factor that causes the field to haemorrhage talented scholars. It is unfortunate.

What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?

Being detail oriented and having a solid foundation in research and writing. The former is a character trait and the latter is the product of good schooling.

What is the toughest lesson you have learned?

Sometimes, you can work your hardest, try your best, want something more than anything, and still not succeed… despite the message to the contrary that infuses every aspect of American society. It’s important to accept failure but not allow it to deter you. Keep at it!

What has been your biggest challenge, and how did you tackle it?

I was pregnant with my second child in the midst of a very hectic time at work, with many project and article deadlines looming. I then suffered a miscarriage and needed to have (a quick) surgery. Despite my deep sadness and desire to withdraw from the world into a cocoon, I felt a strong sense of obligation to my job and to myself to push through and meet those deadlines. With support from my family and my co-workers, and many tears and tantrums, I met every deadline successfully. I was proud of myself, and I think this experience taught me something about myself and helped me heal.

What achievements are you most proud of?

I am proud of the way in which I balance my roles as a wife, mother, and career woman. I am not perfect, I am hard on myself, and I always strive for better, but I am proud of what I have accomplished so far.

Do you have a role model and, if so, who and why?

There are aspects of many people who I draw inspiration from, but they are all “everyday” people who do exceptional things. I can say that my husband inspires me every day to be the best me I can be, so that’s something.

Tally Helfont | Director, Program on the Middle East | Foreign Policy Research Institute | Philadelphia, PA

10 years' experience

CV in brief

Studied MA in Middle East Studies at Tel Aviv University | BA in BA, International Affairs, Conflict & Security at The George Washington University

Previously worked at Wikistrat's Middle East Desk | K3 Enterprises Inc. | The Investigative Project on Terrorism

Languages English, Arabic, Hebrew, French

Find her online @TallyHelfont | LinkedIn

Recent writing for The American Interest

FPRI profile

Career opportunities 
Foreign Policy Research Institute employment and internship opportunities | Become an analyst or an intern at Wikistrat | K3 Enterprises Inc. job openings

Interview carried out July 2015

  Moderating a discussion at an FPRI event

Moderating a discussion at an FPRI event

"I am responsible for planning, managing, and implementing conferences and events from their intellectual conception to their administrative execution, as well as coordinating with internal staff and external partners to ensure their success."
  Delivering a public lecture on “Shifting Sands: New-Old Alliance Blocs in the Middle East” for the FPRI’s Main Line Series, April 2015

Delivering a public lecture on “Shifting Sands: New-Old Alliance Blocs in the Middle East” for the FPRI’s Main Line Series, April 2015

"I am proud of the way in which I balance my roles as a wife, mother, and career woman."
  With husband Sam in Amman, Jordan (2011)

With husband Sam in Amman, Jordan (2011)

"GW’s IR programme provided me with a sound multi-disciplinary foundation from which to approach world affairs, while TAU’s Middle East Studies degree instilled in me an in-depth knowledge of the history, culture, and politics of a region which I am deeply passionate about."
  Promotional literature and infographic flyer for Tally's public lecture on “Shifting Sands: New-Old Alliance Blocs in the Middle East” for the FPRI's Main Line Series (April 2015  )

Promotional literature and infographic flyer for Tally's public lecture on “Shifting Sands: New-Old Alliance Blocs in the Middle East” for the FPRI's Main Line Series (April 2015)

"It’s important to accept failure but not allow it to deter you. Keep at it!"

Tally Helfont on the use of Chemical Weapons in Syria for Al Jazeera America