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 for war in Iraq. In 1998, U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright and a significant faction of U.S. feminists strongly advocated for military intervention in the Balkans. Jeane Kirkpatrick, President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy adviser and later U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was never known for pacifist views. Nor are women associated with the “security mom” movement, which, in the wake of 9/11, harnessed maternal fears of terrorist attacks to influence elections. Their calls for a tough foreign policy to protect America’s young infused former Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s rhetoric and launched women such as the conservative blogger Michelle Malkin to national prominence.

The myth of female nonviolence is also countered by studies on female violence, such as Mothers, Monsters, Whores, by political scientists Laura Sjoberg and Caron Gentry, and “Countering Female Terrorism,” an essay by Karla Cunningham, who works as a political scientist at the RAND Corporation. In War and Gender, Joshua Goldstein, a professor at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, has documented the historical role of some civilian women in shaming men into war, even as other women support peace movements. Finally, the feminist writer Cynthia Enloe explained in her book Maneuvers how women may become complicit in war through the state militarization of the roles they play in society. Think, for example of military wives and mothers, women who depend on jobs in munitions factories, or those who design the uniforms worn by military men and women.

Of course, it is never a good idea to make broad inferences from case studies of particular wars and historical eras, but more systematic social science studies have also shown that the “women and peace” myth is partially correct at best. Strong evidence suggests that it is not sex but gender ideology that correlates with more pacifist views. In surveys conducted throughout the Middle East, the political scientists Marc Tessler and Ina Warriner found that both men and women who generally value gender equality also generally value non-violent resolutions to international disputes such as the Palestinian conflict. And Mary Caprioli, a researcher at University of Minnesota has found that a higher level of gender inequality within a country yields a greater likelihood of militarized international disputes, even when controlling for democracy.

But all this is a far cry from claiming that women per se are likely to oppose war. Although there is a small gap in foreign policy attitudes about war between men and women in the general population -- with men generally supporting war about 12 percent more often than women -- it is far from cut and dry. In a 2003 analysis of U.S.-based surveys, Richard Eichenberg, an associate professor at Tufts University, found that the “gender gap” varies considerably depending on the reason for war: women are about as comfortable as men with using force to protect civilians from atrocities, and as a group they feel more strongly about it than men do. So it is really no surprise that U.S. feminists were among those who championed intervention in Bosnia to halt mass human rights abuses in the 1990s, and that certain female politicians are among those now pushing for the protection of civilians in Libya.

But gender trends are only probabilities: they have very little to say about what policies an individual woman or man would prefer once in power, or about the extent to which she or he will succeed in pursuing those preferences. And fixation on the sex of the pro-intervention voices in this case overlooks a far more fundamental difference between the hawks and doves on the Libyan issue: in the hawks’ view, the national interest included both human and national security.

And this political preference of Clinton, Rice, and Powers -- which was similar to some men but different from others -- is as likely a result of their professional histories as of their sex. All three moved into the foreign policy establishment through political, diplomatic, or academic circles in the late 1990s, when the idea of humanitarian intervention as being a part of protecting the national interest was nearing its heyday. Many men with the same background and social networks share their views on intervention. John Prendergast, a human rights activist, and Ramesh Thakur, a political scientist and peace researcher, have both spoken out in support of a muscular U.S. human security policy. And within the White House debate last week, Dowd’s mythical Valkyries had like-minded men on their side as well, including Ben Rhodes, Obama’s foreign policy speechwriter, and ultimately, the president himself, who made the final decision.

By contrast, Gates and Brennan were socialized into foreign affairs though careers in the Central Intelligence Agency during the Reagan era, when counterterrorism and nuclear deterrence took precedence over genocide prevention and the concept of human security had not yet been popularized. Perhaps as a result, they lacked personal experience with, or investment in, the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, one of the chief justifications of the Libya intervention.

Reconciling individuals’ competing conceptions of the national interest is an essential part of foreign policy decision-making, not a sign of weakness on Obama’s part. Of course, it will take some time for the full details behind the Libya intervention to come out, but it is likely that Obama sided with Clinton, Powers, and Rice because their way of looking at war resonated with him. Rather than being henpecked, perhaps he is simply sympathetic to the “responsibility to protect” doctrine -- as he indicated when he said in his 2010 Oslo speech, “Those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted,” and spoke sternly about the need to rein in “those who violate international laws by brutalizing their own people.” Or perhaps he was truly conflicted over intervention but judged that in the case of Libya -- now a humanitarian problem, not a terrorism problem -- he should assign more weight to the opinion of his UN ambassador and multilateral affairs director than to his counterterrorism specialists.

Far from being “pusillanimous,” to quote the conservative radio host Bill Bennett, Obama’s apparent last-minute decision may have in fact been carefully calculated to encourage Western allies to take the lead first. If his actions were meant to balance commitments to multilateralism, the protection of civilians, and a withdrawal from the role of single-handed global policeman, they may have been his savviest yet.

Of course, what gets all the attention is the supposed Amazon-woman aspect of the Obama administration’s decision-making. Ultimately, it does not matter whether a political actor is male or female; it matters whether social expectations about gender roles shape or frame policy choices. It is unlikely that the sex of these policymakers alone determined their preferences, and it is unclear if it influenced their authority in briefings with the president. It is, however, apparent that gender expectations -- based on myths and stereotypes -- have influenced the interpretation of these events. And if such spin damages Obama’s credibility in the eyes of U.S. allies or adversaries, the responsibility is on the spin doctors, not the policymakers.

For further expert analysis of the uprisings across the Arab world, please check out Foreign Affairs/CFR new ebook, The New Arab Revolt: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next.

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