Flight of the Valkyries?

What Gender Does and Doesn’t Tell Us About Operation Odyssey Dawn

Courtesy Reuters

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama decided to send fighter planes to Libya in an effort to protect civilians from the predations of Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi. In doing so, he sided with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs Samantha Power, and UN Ambassador Susan Rice over Counterterrorism Chief John Brennan, National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

As a result, commentators are falling over themselves to explain the “gender divide” among Obama’s staff, particularly the apparently astonishing fact that several key pro-intervention voices came from women. The Daily Beast’s John Avlon claimed that the bellicosity of female presidential advisers was historically unprecedented. Invoking the dual hawk-dove/woman-man dichotomy in The New York Times, Maureen Dowd called the presence of strong female politicians “mythological.” The Nation’s Robert Dreyfuss, meanwhile, perhaps captured the pundits’ astonishment the best, writing, “We’d like to think that women in power would somehow be less pro-war, but...”

These discussions reveal far more about gender misconceptions among foreign policy journalists than about the preferences or influence of Obama’s female foreign policy staff. Avlon, Dowd, Dreyfuss, and others apparently subscribe to the classic gender myth that women are generally more diplomatic and opposed to war than men. This myth is widespread in the foreign policy establishment. Indeed, Francis Fukuyama, Swanee Hunt, and Isobel Coleman have all made the case for women’s inherent pacifism in Foreign Affairs in recent years. In other forums, so have a variety of nongovernmental organizations, the United Nations Security Council, and some feminist international relations theorists, such as Betty Reardon and Sara Ruddick, who argue that women’s maternal impulses translate into a greater reluctance to solve problems through armed violence.

But the wider scholarship on gender and international affairs -- to say nothing of the historical record -- provides plenty of evidence that thoroughly refutes the association between women and peace. In 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pushed

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