A 'gender gap' in Obama administration’s approach to war?

Senior men in the Obama administration argued against a no-fly zone in Libya. But several prominent women, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice, pushed for military action.

Remy de la Mauviniere/AP
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses reporters during a press conference held at the US embassy in Paris Saturday March 19, following a crisis summit with world leaders regarding military action against Muammar Qaddafi's forces in Libya.

Is it just me, or has anybody else noticed the gender difference in the Obama administration’s move toward war in Libya?

With women in uniform fighting – and dying – in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re long past the point where it’s extraordinary (although still argued about) to see women earning Purple Hearts and other combat decorations. They’ve been fighter pilots for years.

And there’s certainly a history of women leading their countries in wartime. Golda Meir. Indira Gandhi. Margaret Thatcher.

But as I read about the Obama administration’s evolution in support of military action against Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, I couldn’t help but notice an important distinction in the line up of senior officials.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, and White House chief of staff William Daley all argued against a no-fly zone in Libya.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said laying the groundwork for a no-fly zone would take “upwards of a week.” That was two days ago, and already the bombs from allied jets are falling on Libyan military targets. So are cruise missiles from US Navy ships in the Mediterranean Sea.

But as Qaddafi’s army and air force kept pounding the rebels and the United Nations moved – faster than its typically glacial speed – to stop the Libyan dictator from killing more of his own people, it was senior women in the administration who pushed the process toward military intervention.

That included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, and National Security Council senior aide Samantha Power, according a New York Times report.

“The three women were pushing for American intervention to stop a looming humanitarian catastrophe in Libya,” according to the newspaper.

In op-ed columns in the nation’s leading newspaper, this gender gap was apparent too.

In the Washington Post, retired US Army Gen. Wesley Clark, NATO's former supreme allied commander in Europe, argued against US intervention in Libya.

“To me, it seems we have no clear basis for action,” he wrote. “Whatever resources we dedicate for a no-fly zone would probably be too little, too late. We would once again be committing our military to force regime change in a Muslim land, even though we can't quite bring ourselves to say it. So let's recognize that the basic requirements for successful intervention simply don't exist, at least not yet: We don't have a clearly stated objective, legal authority, committed international support or adequate on-the-scene military capabilities, and Libya's politics hardly foreshadow a clear outcome.”

“We should have learned these lessons from our long history of intervention,” Gen. Clark concluded. “We don't need Libya to offer us a refresher course in past mistakes.”

Over in the New York Times two days later, Anne-Marie Slaughter, former State Department policy planning director under Sec. Clinton, took on Clark’s argument.

“Now we have a chance to support a real new beginning in the Muslim world – a new beginning of accountable governments that can provide services and opportunities for their citizens in ways that could dramatically decrease support for terrorist groups and violent extremism,” she wrote. “It’s hard to imagine something more in our strategic interest.”

“Any use of force must be carefully and fully debated, but that debate has now been had,” wrote Dr. Slaughter, now a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. “It’s been raging for a week, during which almost every Arab country has come on board calling for a no-flight zone and Colonel Qaddafi continues to gain ground. It is time to act.”

One can make too much of any “gender gap” in military affairs in the Obama administration. But it’s worth noting.

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