November 30, 2023

Around the Table with Nadine Zaatar

Three Questions with the Make Room Email Newsletter

Around the Table is a three-question interview series from the Make Room email newsletter. Each edition features a conversation with a peer in the national security community to learn about their expertise and experience in the sector.

Nadine Zaatar is the Director for Jordan and Lebanon at the National Security Council. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the White House.

What inspired you to study foreign policy, Middle East security issues, and economic security policy?

I am a first-generation American of Lebanese and Portuguese descent. I spent most of my summers overseas and from a young age, these travels gave me this idealistic love of history and politics. As a result, I always knew I wanted to do something related to foreign policy and work in the Middle East, I just had to get there!

I would say I’ve had two main driving forces behind my career trajectory—my family and 9/11. To this day, my grandfather and my dad remain my biggest inspirations—the former showing me the power of public service and the latter left his country in the middle of a civil war to build a better life for himself and the people around him. They both loved talking about politics and history—and I inherited this love. And as a child of immigrants, I worked really hard to better understand where I came from.

So, that’s what I did. I studied, traveled, and loved learning about the socio-economic, ethno-religious, and security challenges/opportunities that are beyond the obvious. In my personal and professional life, I want to humanize the region—and an important way to do that is by learning and experiencing.

How has mentorship influenced your career?

I have been fortunate enough to work for and with some really smart, dynamic, and incredible people—especially very early in my career. They gave me a seat at the table, they pushed me to use my voice, and they let me fail (and then learn) with grace. I did not and I do not know everything, but I have never been afraid to ask for help and speak up—those people gave me the safe space I needed to grow. I will never forget the way they nurtured my career development.

The more I’ve grown in my career the more I’ve missed mentorship and leadership—it’s been a while since I’ve been in an environment where people actually have the time to invest in this important component of building the next generation of leaders. As I look to the next chapter in my career, a driving force behind my professional moves is the ability to work for people who care about mentorship, the team, and building a healthy work environment. I’ve learned that I never want to sacrifice my personal and professional growth again to work on a “hot” issue. It’s more important to me to be constantly evolving.

What advice do you have for someone early in their career?

Say yes to opportunities, get out of your comfort zone, and it’s okay to fail. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve failed or received a saucy email or been spoken down to. Holding your ground and knowing your worth is incredibly important. Cool projects do not always pop up so if you get the chance to work with someone senior, do it—you can do anything for a finite period.

Most of all, do not take this job personally. This career gets really heavy, especially when you work in the Middle East. It can get personal. Everyone has an opinion and they love to give you their opinion. But during those tough times, I remember what my job is (to advance U.S. national security priorities) and I remember why I serve and it gives me perspective. It took a lot of years to get there, but when I walk out the door, I leave the stressors and drama of work behind—it does not consume my life and my job no longer comes before my family or my personal life. Make sure you take care of yourself too.


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