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On Obama, Libya and Gender

President Obama’s decision to bomb Libya apparently has something to do with gender.

The New York Times reports that Obama was waffling on whether to attack, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in favor, but having trouble convincing the president. It was only when she recruited two other women to form a coalition that Obama made the decision to act. “The change became possible,” the Times writes, “only after Mrs. Clinton joined Samantha Power, a senior aide at the National Security Council, and Susan Rice, Mr. Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, who had been pressing the case for military action….Now, the three women were pushing for American intervention to stop a looming humanitarian catastrophe in Libya.”

This coalition of women is apparently up against a coalition of men. Under a headline “Obama agenda: The women vs. the men, Andrea Mitchell reported that “In the end, it became the women foreign policy advisers against the men. ….This is a rare instance, by the way, of Clinton going up against Defense Secretary Bob Gates and the National Security Adviser Tom Donilon among other men in the White House who were much more cautious about this.” The Times concurred on this assessment, adding that counterterrorism chief, John O. Brennan, “had urged caution.”

Vanity Fair added some gossip to this story with reports of an insider interview with Clinton’s close advisers suggesting that she is “annoyed” about the president’s reluctance to take a firm stand on Libya.

There are several ways to read this story. It is entirely possible that the story actually has nothing to do with gender. It may be a complete coincidence that on this particular issue, those in favor of intervention are all women and those against are all men. If the situation was reverse, some would cite it as an example of female passivity or indecision up against male strength and combativeness. In reverse, it pretty much shows that those caricatures are empty of meaning, that men can be wishy-washy and women can be firm. So perhaps it is time that we let all those stereotypes go.

Still, a question that bothers me is why Clinton sought out particularly the women as allies. I think the story hints at behind-the-scenes gender dynamics in the Obama administration. Obama has been accused of maintaining a sexist “boys’ club” in his White House, despite his stated commitment to women’s rights. The all-men basketball game in the West Wing is a seemingly trivial — though perhaps not — example of how Obama forms power relationships with men to the exclusion of women. The suggestions of sexism, coupled with Clinton’s insistence last week that she will not participate in a second Obama term, leave many questions unanswered about gender and power in the Obama White House. And let’s not forget, although the country loves Michelle Obama, she is a woman whose power derives from being “wife of.” Clinton, who was in that position nearly a generation ago, has evolved into a woman whose power derives from her own achievements, skills and intelligence. But one can’t help wondering which model of female power Obama is more comfortable with.

That said, there is another way to read this story, and it actually does go back to Clinton as “wife of.” Apparently, one of Clinton’s main motivations in promoting intervention in Libya was her husband’s experience as president during the Rwanda massacres, in which his failure to intervene for the sake of human rights became what he has later called “his biggest regret.” The Times also notes that Rice, one of Clinton’s key allies here, was an Africa adviser to President Clinton when that story unfolded. Millions of Rwandans were killed as the United States failed to intervene because such as action had no strategic merit.

So this entire Libya story may be about women correcting a humanitarian wrong, although I would suggest that for Clinton it’s not just about doing it for “the husband” but doing it out of a profound human consciousness. And here is where gender may, indeed, play a part. According to philosopher Nel Noddings’ seminal book, “Women and Evil,” the history of women’s lives in Western culture has left women with a cultural legacy of communal care and compassion. A female culture of addressing evil is not abstract and theological, but practical and tangible. A female approach to fighting evil does not ask why God would cause a tsunami but rather why human beings hurt each other. A foreign policy built on this female culture would use military action not for abstract purposes such as a Cold War or forming ethereal alliances, but rather for protecting people from being hurt by other people. It’s a rather straightforward concept, and it may in fact be the dominant feature at work here.

The events in Libya, in which a leader notorious for human rights abuses is butchering his own people in the light of day, is a perfect example of where a female culture of fighting evil would call for action while a traditional “strategic alliance” approach to foreign policy would not. Obama’s male advisers pointed out the lack of abstract, strategic value to such a strike, while the women stood firm on issues of human life. If there is to be an impact of having more women in power, I hope that this is it: a shift in policy that focuses on protecting human life.


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