Thursday, May 24, 2007

Women and Politics

In the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, Swanee Hunt of Harvard's Kennedy School has written an interesting piece calling for greater political participation by women around the World. The article is well argued, and raises many points that are worthy of further analysis. Let me acknowledge first that as a reasonably well-off white male in an industrialized liberal society, I approach Dr. Hunt's article with limited personal experience of the problems she attempts to address. I will therefore try to approach her argument with some humility, and critique it in the manner in which porcupines mate: very carefully.

Hunt's thesis, boiled down to its essence, is that women continue to face serious structural and ideational barriers to their effective participation in high-level politics, and that both women and politics would benefit from those barriers being broken down. At this level, Dr. Hunt and I are in complete agreement. In almost every society, historical and modern, women have inhabited different socio-economic spaces than men. Greater representation in the political sphere would undoubtably bring important issues to the table that had theretofore been given short shrift. Beyond obvious gains for women themselves in terms of legal equality, reproductive rights, equitable economic opportunity and other "women's issues" (I use quotes because I dislike the term - issues of equity and opportunity are in my opinion issues for every member of every society), female perspectives would be of value across the policy spectrum.

By way of example, I recall a professor of mine once telling a story, perhaps apocryphal, of a development agency that wanted to build a road in a certain rural village. The agency's representatives consulted with men of the village from various walks of life, all of whom agreed that a new, well-paved road would be an excellent project that would stimulate the local economy and should be started right away. Before construction began, someone suggested that they consult with some of the village's women, many of whom began pointing out problems that simply did not occur to the men. The road's high embankments and lack of sidewalks would make it too dangerous for children to walk to school. Likewise, the proposed route cut off access to a critical local water source and would necessitate walking much further and wasting much more time and energy simply to keep a household going.

True or not, the story points out the value of women's participation in the policy-making (gender lines, of course, are not nearly so clear-cut in most cases). I am with Dr. Hunt up to this point, though I do question whether or not the many positive correlations she cites between women's political participation and increases in good governance are spurious (whether good governance and women's political participation aren't both dependent on an forward-looking political culture). I begin to take more issue with her argument, however, when she suggests that female participation will change politics qua politics, rather than simply policy-making. In making her point, she adopts a more intellectually sophisticated version of the men-are-from-Mars-women-are-from-Venus argument, positing that "A critical mass of female leaders will change norms ... generally speaking, stereotypical 'feminine' qualities (such as the tendency to nurture, compromise, and collaborate) have been confirmed by social science research. The world needs those traits." According to Hunt, a greater preponderance of women in politics would reduce the amount of "swagger" involved in governing. Politics would be less cut-throat and more conciliatory.

My first reaction here is to question the ability of "social science" to separate innate female traits from those developed as a result of occupying social space that encourages them. I simply can't imagine how one would control for that. I'm sure Dr. Hunt has a better knowledge of the literature than I do, but since citing sources doesn't seem to be something Foreign Affairs encourages, I'll have to revel in the uncertainty.

Some (Hunt included) consider the nature-nurture debate irrelevant. Women clearly do posses more of these traits - for whatever reason - so we should take advantage of them. To my mind, though, it is quite relevant. Politics - defined as the art of managing the distribution of power and resources, and distinct from policy-making - is by nature an arena that rewards a certain self-interested rationality, combined with an large ego and a desire for power as an end in itself. For those who look at me as cynical, I would point out that some of the most visionary leaders of the last century, from Churchill to Roosevelt to Kennedy, were as power hungry as they come. That the impulse to acquire power has also produced Mao and Hitler is not lost on me, but the fact is that people who do not desire power generally don't acquire it, and those that do generally don't know what to do with it (Jimmy Carter is a case in point). To that end, women (and men, for that matter) who exhibit the kinds of nurturing, conciliatory traits that Hunt exalts are likely to have neither the desire nor the audacity to seize the reins of state. Indeed, Hunt notes in her article that women tend to view politics as a "dirty game" and thus eschew it. It all comes down to one's view of politics - does it involve "swagger" because it is a man's game and men naturally act that way, or is it a man's game because men have historically been encouraged to develop the kind of brazen attitude necessary to play it?

Dr. Hunt tends toward the former explanation, I tend toward the latter. Judith Warner recently had an excellent piece on the myth of innate female moral superiority. She argues that womens' historical tendency to play more nurturing roles in society has been largely a function of social position, not of biology. This is relevant because, logically, people who would be most likely to go into politics - women and men - would be the people with the desire and capability to amass power at others' expense. That women have not been historically socialized to play this role may account for Dr. Hunt's observation that women predominate in the area of NGOs and other elite institutions that are less power-dependent.

Again, for the record, I am not arguing for a second that women do not deserve a larger place in politics. I believe that from the perspective of policy-making, greater female participation would be enormously beneficial. I believe women are capable of being just as visionary, just as strong, just as capable leaders as men. I also believe, though, that they are capable of being just as avaricious and corrupt. The world, indeed, does need more women in politics, but Dr. Hunt is overly optimistic in her estimation of what this would accomplish.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Contra Krauthammer (Vol. 2)

Everyone's favorite psychiatrist-turned-pundit Charles Krauthammer has released this jaunty little diatribe excoriating George Tenet's new autobiography as an absurd reinvention of history. Full disclosure: I have not read Tenet's book nor, frankly, do I intend to. Post-political memoirs can make for illuminating reading, but only when they are written with the benefit of time and distance, and with some purpose at least marginally more expansive than the issuing of a post-hoc "screw you" to one's erstwhile critics. As far as I'm concerned, Krauthammer is being overly charitable when he characterizes George Tenet's legacy as "mixed." The fact is, irrespective of his success in engineering the takedown of the Taliban, Tenet's role as an enabler of the Bush Administration's catastrophe in Iraq borders on unforgivable. As Maureen Dowd in one of her rare bits of insight recently argued, if Tenet had as many problems with the Administration's Iraq plans as he now alleges he did, he should have resigned. If something as important as war does not merit a bit of personal sacrifice on behalf of reason and principle, I don't know what does. The same, by the way, goes for Colin Powell.

I do agree with Krauthammer that Tenet seems to be reinventing history, or at least heavily sanitizing it. That, however, is as far as my agreement goes. Krauthammer's reasons for rejecting Tenet's story could not be more misguided. I offer the following passage:

Tenet writes as if he assumes no one remembers anything. For example: "There was never a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat."

Does he think no one remembers President Bush explicitly rejecting the imminence argument in his 2003 State of the Union address in front of just about the largest possible world audience? Said the president, " Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent" -- and he was not one of them. That in a post-Sept. 11 world, we cannot wait for tyrants and terrorists to gentlemanly declare their intentions. Indeed, elsewhere in the book Tenet concedes that very point: "It was never a question of a known, imminent threat; it was about an unwillingness to risk surprise."

To paraphrase Bill Clinton, both Krauthammer's and Tenet's arguments depend on what the meaning of "imminent" is. In the interest of being thorough, I'll turn to Webster for a moment:

imminent : ready to take place; especially : hanging threateningly over one's head.

This definition at least partially helps to concretize the debate. In the parlance of international relations and international law, "imminence" has historically indicated the presence of a clear, immediate and obvious threat. The classic modern example is that of Arab armies massing on Israel's borders in 1967. However much some have argued after the fact that the Syrians and the Egyptians didn't really want to invade, most outside observers agree that the kind of military mass-mobilization that occurred in the Sinai and along the Golan Heights in that fateful year constituted an "imminent" threat in the legal sense of the term. Essentially, the threat was so great, and the harmful intentions so obvious, that it was Arab actions that initiated a de facto state of war, irrespective of who fired the first shots.

It is this interpretation of imminence that Bush rejected in 2003. The President argued that the destructive capacity of some modern weapons, combined with the potential stealth with which they can be delivered, precludes the luxury of being able to wait until both the existence of a threat and the intention to make good on it are beyond question. Frankly, I agree with the President, at least in part. The world is a dangerous place, and there are absolutely times when security demands preemptive action. Notice, though, that I say preemptive and not preventative. Preemptive wars eliminate threats that have a good chance of being carried out (even if the threat is somewhat less blatantly obvious than it would be under the original "imminence" standard), preventative wars simply eliminate threats. The distinction is fine, but important. Under the standards of preventative war, "imminence" merely indicates some vague notion of danger, inflated with dishonest language, that justifies striking first.

Iraq was decidedly a preventative war. Saddam was attacked based on the threats that he could, eventually, if given the right environment and enough breathing space, pose to U.S. interests. The problem was that Iraq was sold to the American people as a preemptive war. We were led to believe that the Iraqi regime had both the means and the will to attack the American people at any time, and that its removal was vital to our immediate physical security. Bush may have rejected the "imminence argument" in theory; however, he relied upon it in rhetoric, painting Iraq as an imminent threat and using that portrayal to drag his country into a catastrophic war. Again, I suppose it all depends on how you define the word "imminent."

Krauthammer tries to blur the distinction with another bit of irritating historical gymnastics. Evidently, Bush Administration policy towards Iraq was really nothing new:

For the entire decade following the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Iraq was the single greatest threat in the region and therefore the most important focus of U.S. policy. U.N. resolutions, congressional debates and foreign policy arguments were seized with the Iraq question and its many post-Gulf War complications -- the weapons of mass destruction, the inspection regimes, the cease-fire violations, the no-fly zones, the progressive weakening of sanctions.

Krauthammer, of course, ignores the elephant in the room, namely that while the post-Gulf War United States was always "extremely concerned" about Iraq, it never tried to invade and topple the regime there. By way of historical comparison, it was the difference between the 1970s era of U.S.-Soviet detente and the 1980s era of brinksmanship and escalation. During both periods, the U.S. was "extremely concerned" about the Soviet Union - the two countries remained enemies after all - but the aggressiveness with which America dealt with that concern changed markedly. Of course the Clinton Administration was concerned with containing Saddam and limiting his power in the region. Nobody is suggesting that the Bush Administration should not have been equally vigilant; however, to posit that Clinton-era containment and Bush-era invasion were merely two sides of the same coin is absurd. The Administration clearly understood how drastic the change in policy was, which was why they had to mount such a large-scale public information campaign (I'm charitably in avoiding the word "propaganda") in order to convince people of the serious and, yes, imminent nature of the Iraqi threat.

I take serious issue with one final passage, because it exemplifies a phenomenon that goes beyond Mr. Krauthammer, namely the tendency of the Iraq debacle's architects to justify their actions by noting that it was not only neo-conservatives who supported the war:

The decision to go to war was made by a war cabinet consisting of George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld. No one in that room could even remotely be considered a neoconservative. Nor could the most important non-American supporter of the war to this day -- Tony Blair, father of new Labor. ... Outside of government, the case for war was made not just by the neoconservative Weekly Standard but -- to select almost randomly -- the traditionally conservative National Review, the liberal New Republic and the center-right Economist. Of course, most neoconservatives supported the war, the case for which was also being made by journalists and scholars from every point on the political spectrum -- from the leftist Christopher Hitchens to the liberal Tom Friedman to the centrist Fareed Zakaria to the center-right Michael Kelly to the Tory Andrew Sullivan.

First off, to claim that Bush's war cabinet was free of neo-conservatives is ridiculous. Both Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were signatories to the Project for the New American Century's 1997 Statement of Principles, along with Paul Wolfowitz and I. Lewis Libby among others. Maybe in Kruathammer's mind they aren't real neo-cons, but their vision of a world led in perpetuity by a muscular, unilateral, democracy-promoting, militarily-mighty United States makes them partisans in my view.

As for the notion that the Iraq war was supported from across the ideological spectrum, Krauthammer is depressingly right, at least in the most literal sense. That broad support, though, stemmed largely from the belief that Saddam's Iraq posed a much larger, much more imminent threat to the United States and it's regional interests than was actually the case. This notion did not come from thin air, but rather from dubious intelligence that was cherry-picked and inflated by the Administration with the deliberate purpose of framing public debate in a way that the threat posed by Iraq would not be seriously questioned. The New Republic article that Krauthammer links to makes that abundantly clear. I do not suggest that the American media and intellectual establishment did not fail to approach the Administration's claims critically - they did so fail, miserably in fact - merely that they had a marginally better excuse.

Tenet's book may rewrite history. Frankly, if I were George Tenet, I'd like the opportunity to do so myself. Still, Charles Krauthammer and his neo-conservative colleagues have plenty of their own explaining to do.