Congressman Ro Khanna has had an outsized impact on foreign relations since he arrived in Washington four years ago. The Democrat representing Santa Clara has guided U.S. policy in Yemen, Iran and North Korea. He helped Congress reclaim its power over matters of war and peace by creating the War Powers Caucus and passing a War Powers Resolution on Yemen. And he forged bipartisan agreement on policy when bipartisanship was in short supply.
Now Saba is Khanna’s legislative director and helps shape policy that addresses armed forces, foreign affairs, and technology policy.
“In three years’ time, working with Congressman Khanna,” Saba said, “we’ve shown we can really change the debate on foreign policy and shift the conversation to move the needle on a handful of issues.”
As a freshman, he enrolled in CISAC’s signature course, International Security in a Changing World co-taught by Professor Amy Zegart and Senior Fellow Martha Crenshaw, who had both served in the highest levels of government. With guest lectures from other CISAC faculty, the course was designed to delve into arms control, terrorism, cybersecurity and other critical international security issues.
For Saba, the course was life changing. By the end of the quarter, he knew he wanted to learn more about preventing war, fostering peace, and diplomacy. That quarter, the instructors also saw something special.
"There are some students a professor never forgets," Zegart said. "Geo Saba is definitely one of them. He absorbs everything, has a wonderful curiosity, and is brimming with ideas. I always looked forward to having him come by, and still do!”
As a sophomore, Saba traveled to D.C. and battlefields in Pennsylvania and Montana for The Face of Battle, a three-week immersive course with Col. Joe Felter and Prof. Scott Sagan, internationally recognized experts on nuclear weapons and military conflict.
Saba continued to play baseball and took courses with former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.
“My professors didn’t just explain the history or theoretical implications of policy issues,” Saba said. “It was all of that and their firsthand experience of what it was like to be in government making difficult decisions. We learned what it was like to be the Ambassador to Russia at the beginning of the Hot Peace, and what the mindset was of the president’s National Security Advisor on 9/11.”
The professors gave context to the historical events, while also giving assignments that mirrored how the real work gets done. These days, Rep. Khanna needs Saba to quickly absorb volumes of material on a wealth of topics, synthesize the ideas and write crisp analysis of the policy implications. And Saba’s ready. “In Prof. Rice’s class,” he said of the former Secretary of State and current Director of the Hoover Institution, “We had to read multiple books and hundreds of hundreds of pages and distill that down to a five-page paper every single week.” His CISAC honors thesis, on the role of the national security advisor, advised by former FSI Director and President Clinton advisor, Chip Blacker, also helped him hone his writing skills.
The work was as intense as it was inspiring. When Saba saw opportunities to provide research and analysis outside of coursework, he jumped at them. As an undergraduate student, he was a research assistant to Prof. Crenshaw on her Mapping Militants project, a research assistant to Prof. Rice and a teaching assistant to Michael Tubbs, a fellow in the D.School who is now the mayor of Stockton, California.
Saba also opted to take an economics class from an attorney, former Obama administration official and future congressman named Ro Khanna. That class led to a career and it isn’t the only relationship that Saba’s maintained.
“On the Hill, I have to cover a lot of different issues and policy areas,” Saba said. When he needs specific expertise on an issue, he can call on mentors and teachers from his days at Stanford. “They are so responsive and helpful when I need to email them and ask a question or advice.”
The CISAC network includes more than faculty. Saba taps into a network of former students—some he met during the Stanford in Washington Program and others who were in the Honors’ Program with him. “Some are colleagues now,” he said. “I always remind people who are interning. Don’t forget to meet other interns. Usually, interns try to get to know people higher up because they think that will get them a job. They forget that the interns who are in your class will also one day rise with you and be incredible people in their own right.”
The other advice he’d give students? Don’t be intimidated.
As a freshman, Saba was sitting in Sec. Perry’s class listening to a lecture about dismantling loose nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union. Perry asked if anyone knew what an ICBM was.
“There were all these policy junkies who yelled out ‘Intercontinental ballistic missile,’” Saba said. “And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m in over my head.’”
The episode could have been discouraging but Saba dug in and kept working to learn about the issues that mattered to him. Eight years later, he assisted Rep. Khanna on legislation to pause ICBM modernization and facilitated an Op Ed that Khanna co-authored with Sec. Perry, “Rethinking U.S. National Security: Masks not Missiles.”
Part of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Relations, CISAC was founded in 1983 to make the world a safer place. “Our scholars work towards that goal in three ways,” said CISAC Co-Director Colin Kahl. “We generate knowledge with original research; contribute to the policy debate by testifying before Congress and other direct engagement with decision-makers and the public; and with students like Geo, we train the next generation of leaders.”