On the Idiocy of Framing the Libya Intervention as a Battle of the Sexes

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It's really amazing how a factual sociological observation can quickly devolve into the most ridiculous story imaginable as it moves down the media food chain.

I speak, of course, of the absurd idea that there was some sort of geopolitically important gender gap within the administration on the question of backing a no-fly zone over Libya, and the bombing campaign needed to implement one, because a handful of the president's more senior female aides argued in private meetings, according to reports, on behalf of an interventionist posture.

Note to anyone still playing with this idea: You might as well title your story, "Hello, I am an idiot who has not been paying attention to politics in the past 15 years."

And yet away we go, as the story trickles down from a totally fair and balanced observation -- "an unlikely alliance" between "a handful of top administration aides" -- into a kind of shorthand -- "Obama agenda: The women vs. the men?" -- into accusations a weak president was railroaded by harpies into backing an intervention that's against America's interests -- the women "nagged him to attack Libya until he gave in" -- or that only the women of Obamaland have any balls.

Um, hello: Hillary Clinton pushed for intervention in Libya not because she's female, but because, cautious as she may be, she also is among the more historically hawkish members of the administration. Indeed, one of the central reasons she is not president today -- and Obama is -- was her vote in favor of the military intervention in Iraq that Obama opposed. Then-state Sen. Barack Obama stood up against President Bush's fear-mongering push to invade Iraq, and opposed authorizing the use of force that Clinton backed. And he won support for his presidential bid because the left-leaning Democratic primary electorate wanted more change on the foreign policy front from the Bush years than Clinton represented.

"I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars," he declared in October 2002.

If Clinton is now, years later, still a more hawkish individual than some other Obama aides, it is not because she is female, but because in selecting her for his team of rivals Obama brought in someone whose foreign policy leanings have been for more than a decade far more aggressive than his own. That was his call, just as it was his call as Commander-in-Chief to back a strong resolution before the United Nations Security Council authorizing intervention in Libya in defense of threatened civilians there. There were other men and women, less hawkish, he could have chosen to lead the State Department, and he certainly demonstrated an ability to deliver a sharp rebuke to Clinton during campaign 2008, both before the primaries and after, when he chose not to select her as his vice presidential ticket-mate.

As for Samantha Power, the most important fact about her is not that she is female, but that she is one of the leading proponents of Clintonian (president, not secretary of state) liberal internationalism, an individual whose conscience was seared by the brutality of the Balkan wars, which she covered as a reporter, and who later wrote the definitive work about the consequences of America's failure to intervene in Rwanda.

Far from being lady-allies in pant suits, Power had to resign from the Obama campaign for calling Clinton "a monster."

"We'd like to think that women in power would somehow be less pro-war, but in the Obama administration at least it appears that the bellicosity is worst among Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and Samantha Power," lamented Robert Dreyfuss in The Nation in a piece that was, bizarrely, aggregated by Fox News.

Yes, it is the case that on average women are more pacifist than are men. But there are no average women at the level of senior administration advisers or Cabinet secretaries.

And anyone who is unable to have a conversation about what is happening within the administration without recourse to tired gender stereotypes about women's better, gentler natures -- or else how the strength of their views, when heeded, is somehow emasculating -- is willfully playing the part of cultural idiot, regardless of what side of the question they are writing from.

As women increasingly take on important positions within the foreign policy arena, there will inevitably be moments when small groups of them -- as women remain a minority in such arenas, small groups are what you get -- will agree on policy issues, just as in other circumstances they ally with male peers, without anyone batting an eye.

The original gender gap emerged in the 1980 election as Democratic women stuck with Jimmy Carter instead of flocking to Ronald Reagan, in part because the Republican Party had adopted opposition to abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment for women as party planks during what was a time of feminist ferment. Women-specific issues and the transformation of women's roles in society since the 1970s created a gap in voting patterns that has persisted, though it has also shrunk in recent years.

There is no gender component to the Libyan conflict, as compared to, say, the ongoing conflict in Sudan, or other conflicts where America's top women security advisers and female secretary of states apparently have not managed to hen-peck the president into more aggressive action, even as Clinton has made American concern for the status of women globally one of the hallmarks of her tenure in the Secretary's chair.

The women of the administration are individuals with distinctively intellectual histories that are sufficiently explanatory of their views that no further imaginings about some mysterious female factor are required. They were hired for those histories, not because they are women, and it is their distinctive intellectual backgrounds that doubtless led them to arrive at certain conclusions about the appropriate course of action in Libya.

If those histories led them to postures people find disagreeable, they ought to be called out for their politics -- but anyone who points first to gender is really just pointing the finger back at their own crabbed and narrow thinking about the legitimacy of women in power.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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