Alright… here we go… I have grudgingly accepted the necessity to write about the current state of affairs in the Middle East. Let’s begin with a story first. As many of you may know, I passed the written examination for entrance into the Foreign Service last October. This is the first of a multi-step process to become a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State, and has remained my dream and ultimate career goal for nearly half a decade now. From passing the written examination (on my second try) I moved into the next stage of the process which was answering a number of personal narrative questions (or QEPs, I believe, for anyone familiar with the process) which were then submitted for review. The answers provided for the questions are accompanied with recommendations, or essentially, sources to provide a credible backing for each answer. I thought my responses were pretty decent. In addition to this, I participated in a phone interview in Arabic with the Foreign Service Institute as I had indicated on the written exam my proficiency in Modern Standard Arabic. There really was no way to find out how I did on that interview. And I wasn’t entirely sure how well it went, since my examiners jumped to a more difficult level with my asking questions in Arabic about the U.S. congressional elections and the state of our democracy. Passing a language exam, at the required Level 2, can only help an application, not hurt it in any way. Therefore, I was somewhat surprised, finally receiving word back this week on my progression as a candidate for the Foreign Service that I had not been selected to procede to the next stage of the examination process, which would have been the Oral Examination. Needless to say, I was pretty dismayed, and have since been in somewhat of a stupor when it comes to following events in the realm of U.S. Foreign Policy. Though, oddly enough, the rejection of my dream came to coincide with President Obama’s State of the Union Address.
Prior to the address, watching Hillary Clinton and the rest of the Cabinet walking down the aisle on the floor of the Capitol, I was admittedly bitter, having just been rejected by the woman who leads the department I want to devote a career to and represent. She stands for something more than politics now; she is the head of our foreign policy and our face to the world. So I sat there grimacing, with a stoney, emotionless expression on my face, waiting for the President to deliver his address to the nation.
What’s more, we are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea -– the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny. That’s why centuries of pioneers and immigrants have risked everything to come here. It’s why our students don’t just memorize equations, but answer questions like “What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world? What do you want to be when you grow up?”
This is what defines America. I am not particularly a fan of the term “American exceptionalism” because it has been seriously misconstrued and spun into something quite dangerous by individuals such as Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman. But that we were the first nation to be founded upon an idea, or perhaps a bed of multiple ideas that came out of the Enlightenment, as it were, does make us unique, and is something that is enshrined in the principles laid down in our founding documents. And don’t get me wrong, we’re certainly not the only nation anymore that’s been founded upon an idea, and perhaps one can even make the argument that human civilizations have been founded on ideas since the dawn of time, but it is something that defines America. And certainly, at the time when our nation was established, there was nothing quite like it on Earth. It follows a political perspective I’m fond of, when it comes to determining how America should behave internationally, which is as the “first among equals.” We’re not better or superior than anyone else, nor should we define ourselves as exceptional or some how above the rest. But we should lead, and lead well.
In fact, to every young person listening tonight who’s contemplating their career choice: If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child — become a teacher. Your country needs you. (Applause.)
I’ve strongly considered doing this at some point in my life. Teaching history or some aspect of international politics or foreign policy would undoubtedly be highly rewarding. And it was actually through a high-school history teacher that I came to piece together the idea of wanting to become a civil servant in some capacity.
And America’s moral example must always shine for all who yearn for freedom and justice and dignity. And because we’ve begun this work, tonight we can say that American leadership has been renewed and America’s standing has been restored.
Yes, it should shine. We should lead by example, with our principles dictating our actions and not the other way around. Is Obama invoking Wilson here, perhaps just a bit? And as far as our image being renewed… well, ha, it’s going to take a lot longer than 2 years of a Presidency to do that. We’ve still got a hell of a long way to go, especially in the Middle East, to rectify our standing.
And yet, as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.
Though I might enjoy living and serving my country from the outside more than inside, I’ll always be grateful to return to the places here that I consider home.
We may have differences in policy, but we all believe in the rights enshrined in our Constitution. We may have different opinions, but we believe in the same promise that says this is a place where you can make it if you try. We may have different backgrounds, but we believe in the same dream that says this is a country where anything is possible. No matter who you are. No matter where you come from.
And this is where I didn’t feel so bad anymore about not being selected to move on to the next stage of the process for the Foreign Service. I might have to go back to square one and take the written exam again, but I will certainly do it again next October. I can only keep trying.
We’re a nation that says, “I might not have a lot of money, but I have this great idea for a new company.” “I might not come from a family of college graduates, but I will be the first to get my degree.” “I might not know those people in trouble, but I think I can help them, and I need to try.” “I’m not sure how we’ll reach that better place beyond the horizon, but I know we’ll get there. I know we will.”
As often as I read about Lebanon and feel the knife twist inside the open wound I’ve carried since leaving that country, I can say without a doubt that I always return to the notion that there are so many reasons for me to go back there. I’ll never forget my interaction with Asra, that little girl in the Shatilla Palestinian Refugee camp in South Beirut. She taught me more Arabic than I could teach her English. The way her smile lit up the dark, gray areas of a camp and a school that had absolutely nothing. It doesn’t take some grand foreign policy strategy to help her or others like her. It only takes one individual to care.
And that’s why I must try again at the Foreign Service and must eventually return to Lebanon, or anywhere else where I feel I can do something to help.
That is my American Dream.