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16-9 w2000 Usha Sahay

My Dinner With Usha Sahay

The managing editor of War on the Rocks talks 9/11, Twitter, and making time for what you love.

Words: Laicie Heeley

A Scoville Fellow when we first met, Usha Sahay was already one of the best editors I’d ever worked with. So it feels natural that, after stints at the Huffington Post and Wall Street Journal, she’s back in DC to take on the role of managing editor at War on the Rocks, a leading site for insider national security news and analysis.

Recently I sat down to dinner with Usha at one of her favorites to talk all things national security and life in DC.

The highlights of our talk are included in the gallery below:

I think that millennials have been very resilient in terms of responding to what is unfortunately a shrinking set of opportunities to be in public service strictly defined.
I love cooking, which is not to say that I’m very good at it but I do find it to be something that is really relaxing and almost the way that artists feel creative. Like when you cook you really feel like you’ve created something. And obviously you can eat it so that’s good too.
I just remember being shellshocked because I had had literally no idea that this kind of stuff was happening. I mean obviously I was vaguely aware that we were at war, but just the details of what was going wrong and how poorly managed the decision making from Washington had been really stuck with me for some reason. After that, I added an [International Relations] major. I changed my focus in school. I started applying to jobs in this field. And so, I do think that growing up with those wars in the backdrop – in very specific and very broad ways – has really shaped my perspective and my professional goals.
I’m not to this day sure why this was such a prominent moment, but around my 20th birthday a very famous article came out by Michael Hastings and Rolling Stone exposing the Stanley McChrystal – what became the Stanley McChrystal scandal. But then the article broadened out into an essay about this war in Afghanistan that had been going on since 2001, and just how much of a huge foreign policy challenge it was, and how there didn’t seem to be any good answers. And just, the playbook that had been tried was not working.
Going on Twitter always has an air of constant panic about the next crisis so I think that contributes to the sort of exhausting nature of it.
Often you hear ‘ugh, there’s so many young people in this world wanting to do foreign policy and getting their masters.’ I would turn it on its head and say there are so many young people who have seen these broken policies shape their upbringing and I think to their credit they want to be in public service and help to shape the next generation of foreign policy.
Yesterday I had something that I canceled at the last minute and had 45 glorious minutes to kill and I had nothing to do. Which was a great feeling. And so I had this book that I put down a long time ago and I couldn’t even remember what page I was on, but I sat in the otherwise very intense turmoil of my apartment — I have like one chair that is set up and can be occupied — and I curled up in the chair and just sort of killed those spare minutes by reading, and it was the nicest thing to not be checking email, to not be going on Twitter, to not be answering my texts… and I feel like I’ve kind of lost sight of that. So I’m hoping to intentionally carve out more time for that kind of thing.
You can’t just hope that time to read or time to work out or time to cook will materialize. You have to make it.
The nature of the [Trump] administration has brought out the passion and the activism of a lot of people in a way that I think is, if anything, a little bit of a silver lining.
I remember a speech by Nancy Pelosi… and Nancy Pelosi obviously is someone who is very polarizing and I certainly have mixed feelings about her over the years. But I remember just getting a sense… of her being so different from what she is described. In that moment you really got a sense of her before she was the Speaker or the Minority Leader or what have you, when she was just a really passionate policymaker who wanted to make a difference. I remember just thinking that it was so refreshing and so cool to see her in this different light and get out of this politico-like Twitter-sphere understanding of her as this politician, and really see her as someone who was a public servant and is in this business, I would think, for a lot of the right reasons.
When you talk to some of these elected officials up close, that all falls away and they engage in it, which may or may not be a good thing, but at the core I really do think a lot of these people have our best interests in mind… I hope that we continue to produce those as a country.

Laicie Heeley

Editor in Chief

Laicie Heeley is the founding CEO of Inkstick Media, where she serves as Editor in Chief of the foreign policy magazine Inkstick and Executive Producer and Host of the PRX- and Inkstick-produced podcast, Things That Go Boom. Heeley’s reporting has appeared on public radio stations across America and the BBC, where she’s explored global security issues including domestic terrorism, disinformation, nuclear weapons, and climate change. Prior to launching Inkstick, Heeley was a Fellow with the Stimson Center’s Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program and Policy Director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Her publications include work on sanctions, diplomacy, and nuclear arms control and nonproliferation, along with the first full accounting of US counterterrorism spending after 9/11.


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