Letter to the Editor: Give the arena a chance

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The arena is brutal, unforgiving, very public — and yes, at times, rewarding. Whether you are in policy, sports, academia, or business, the characteristics of the arena are basically the same. And despite its shortcomings, the arena is where lasting impact happens, so take the plunge.

In one of my earliest forays into the arena, I ran for class office when I was in 7th grade. Each candidate gave a speech to the student body during an outside assembly. I arrived in a pink dress, white stockings, ballet flats, perhaps a tad of makeup, and a bow in my long, flowing hair. The other contenders wore jeans and T-shirts.

I knew I was pushing the envelope, but I also knew that I had to give a strong address. I wanted to break the color line in my school’s elections. I wanted to change the conversation on campus. I wanted more open-minded and informed teachers. I wanted them to recognize Egypt as part of the African continent, and I was furious when they refused to do so. I had a voice, I wanted to lead, and I was forceful in my delivery. With only 35 black kids in a student body of 700, I thought I needed a theme to catch everyone’s attention, so I had titled my campaign speech “Chance.” I said, “Give me a chance just the way the tennis world gave Billie Jean King a chance.” (Billie Jean had become one of my idols when she defeated Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes). At the end of my speech, the cheerleaders went wild and the whole crowd joined in to give me a standing ovation.

By that point, I was well on my way to becoming a serial class-office seeker. Throughout my school days, I would win some elections by convincing enough classmates to vote for me, but I’d also lost some contests. This time was different. I won the election but the school authorities claimed I had lost. Tipped off by a teacher who was skeptical about the outcome, my mother demanded a recount. As it turned out, I had won by a landslide. My “Chance” speech might have been too strong for some faculty members and administrators, who were probably responsible for changing the results of the election. It was a dramatic and highly unusual situation for my California junior high school. I assumed my office and, to my knowledge, that was the last time a student election was compromised at my junior high school.

I was reminded of that episode when I was dismissed recently from the State Department. In the U.S. federal government, there is but one think-tank for foreign policy: the Office of Policy Planning at the State Department. Because of the pace of U.S. foreign policy and demands on the Secretary of State and the President, policy planning has become an extension of the Secretary of State’s operations. Secretary Pompeo wanted a course correction and tasked me to manage it. I took him literally and attempted to do it all at once.

From the first day on the job, I began assembling interdisciplinary teams of career officials and political appointees, including faculty from civilian and military universities and think-tank scholars, to work on regional and functional problems. I unleashed them to define the Trump Doctrine, turning the president’s hunches into hypotheses, and I watched with admiration as they engaged hundreds of State Department officials in red-team exercises on Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and other hot spots. The Policy Planning Staff led meeting groups on a dozen cross-cutting challenges such as the use of sanctions to change the behavior of foreign leaders and public diplomacy for the 21st century. Policy planning was on its way back to the original model.

I have found that people who are deeply invested in an enterprise welcome rapid change and support their leader. Those who are invested in the status quo, however, can be formidable in obstructing progress. Often, their objectives tend to be narrow and clear: tackle and block.

So, know the following: if you succeed only in shifting the expectations about what is possible, you will have won. In other words, you win even when the authorities say you have lost. To this day, I consider “Chance” to be my best political speech, one that continues to inform all of my actions inside the arena. At State, I took a chance, and have influenced the expectations about what is possible.