The Fearless One

By Sasha Polakow-Suransky ’01 / May/June 2008
May 30th, 2008

The pounding on my door began promptly at 5:50 a.m. The snooze button was not an option. By 6:00, Michael Bhatia’s booming voice, peppered with occasional profanities, ordered me and his other sleepy teammates to “get down to the river.”
        We sensed our way, running or biking, through the dense pre-dawn fog along the empty cobbled streets of a sleeping city. Bhatia led the newcomers among us into Christ Church meadow, teaching us to scale the eight-foot iron gate—still locked at that hour—in the dark.
        In addition to his intimidating intellect, impressive resume, and worldwide network of friends, students, and admirers, Bhatia possessed a passion for rowing.
Lacking the tall, muscled physique of the typical rower, he never made the Brown crew team. But at Oxford, where anyone with arms is encouraged to row, he took up crew and recruited others like an evangelist, including scrawny novices like me. One morning when the coxswain overslept, Bhatia decided to cox the boat himself, cramming his substantial frame into the narrow seat usually occupied by someone weighing barely 100 pounds.
        I first met Michael Bhatia at Brown in late 1999. He had just returned from East Timor after having witnessed the violent aftermath of its referendum for independence from Indonesia. His reputation preceded him. Anyone concentrating in international relations or taking classes in the department had heard his name. And by the time of his graduation, Bhatia was something of a legend. Rumor had it that he had returned from Dili with hundreds of images depicting the Timorese voting for independence in the face of violent state repression. It was not every day that a recent Brown graduate returned from a war zone with original material, and I encouraged Bhatia to write something for the College Hill Independent, which I was editing. He regaled me with stories for hours on the phone and eventually wrote a powerful firsthand account of the events he witnessed. He was far too self-effacing to mention his small acts of heroism.
        For Brown students who sought to follow in his footsteps and study in England, Bhatia was obsessively supportive. He would read draft after draft of application essays, offer his assistance to the dean’s office during fellowship selection, and host visitors in Oxford, fetching us from the bus station in the pouring rain and leading us, down a winding alley, to one of his favorite pubs, the Turf Tavern.
He was intellectually fearless. He loved a good debate, but was impatient with people who regurgitated the received wisdom of the day or who clung to ideological mantras. He forced his friends, his students, and his antagonists to examine their most deeply held beliefs, and he never shied away from controversy.
        In early 2002, Bhatia traveled to Israel with a group of Rhodes and Marshall scholars as part of Project Interchange, an all-expenses-paid trip for opinion leaders organized by the American Jewish Committee (AJC). He regarded the spectrum of Israeli and Palestinian views the AJC presented as far too narrow, so after the official trip ended, he arranged a separate one to the West Bank and Gaza so he could speak with ordinary Palestinians and the Israeli soldiers serving in the occupied territories. He returned with stories of Palestinian ambulances held up at checkpoints and of bored Israeli soldiers who complained they were serving in dangerous areas to protect only a few hundred settlers. Bhatia took the AJC to task in the journal Middle East Policy, criticizing the trip for reinforcing Israel’s founding narrative without allowing participants to see the settlements and occupied Palestinian areas that lay at the heart of the conflict, a form of selective exposure that he believed misled visitors and perpetuated the conflict without offering any constructive solutions.
        He was equally bold in confronting the orthodoxies of the left. When the U.S. military announced the creation of the Human Terrain System, an effort to reduce civilian and military casualties by attaching academic experts to combat units, the program was met with denunciations from the American Anthropological Association and a variety of left-wing groups lamenting the use of scholars to further the goals of the U.S. government. As a result, the program has struggled to recruit qualified academics; Newsweek recently reported that many marginally qualified applicants were offered jobs and that an anthropologist writing a PhD on goth, punk, and rave subculture was offered a position in Iraq while several candidates with relevant linguistic expertise and Middle Eastern heritage were turned away, ostensibly for security reasons.
        The criticism didn’t faze Bhatia. He was an Ivy-Oxbridge academic with deep expertise on the political motives of combatants in Afghanistan. He had published scathing critiques of the U.S. and NATO conduct of the war in Afghanistan. He knew far more about the politics of post-9/11 Afghanistan than all but a handful of other specialists, few of whom were willing to put their lives on the line there. Bhatia refused to be an armchair critic, or to confine himself to the ivory tower. He offered his expertise to the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. He chose to focus on the Human Terrain program’s possibilities instead of on its failings. He joined up believing that it would help reduce casualties among both Afghan civilians and NATO soldiers.
        And so he was killed on the way to mediate an intertribal dispute near the city of Khost. The soldiers and academics who served with him joked that the Afghan Human Terrain program should be renamed Bhatia Mediation Services because of his success in negotiating solutions with local tribal elders. His friends spoke—with no illusions—of his one day becoming U.S. secretary of state or U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. When faced with such speculation, Bhatia simply rolled his eyes.
        Our country has lost one of the most promising diplomats of its youngest generation of leaders, and Brown has lost one of the most formidable and unconventional minds ever to emerge from the Van Wickle Gates. And the hundreds, if not thousands, of people whose lives he touched have lost a dear friend.

Sasha Polakow-Suransky is an associate editor at Foreign Affairs. He studied at Oxford with Michael Bhatia from 2003 to 2005. 

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