The XX Factor

Why Is Everyone Convinced That Women Pushed Obama Into Libya?

Over the weekend, we saw a crush of stories and headlines about how the senior women on Barack Obama’s foreign policy team supposedly pushed him into supporting a U.N.-backed no-fly zone and military operations in Libya. The Times of London fronted photos of what it dubbed “The three women who persuaded the President to take action”: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and National Security Council official Samantha Power. A New York Post headline called this “Hillary’s War,” while a Daily Beast headline went after “The Women Who Called For War.” This refrain appeared on the left (a headline on the Nation’s website: ” Obama’s Women Advisers Pushed War Against Libya “) and on the right ( ” In Libya Dance, Obama Following Lead of Women Warriors “).

Finally, the storyline became too much, and the White House felt the need to push back, with anonymous officials telling Politico that “it was Obama who exerted decisive leadership.” According to Politico , a senior administration official added this: “Samantha Power, Gayle Smith [another National Security Staff senior director mentioned in stories] and Hillary Clinton weren’t even in the meeting (Tuesday at 9 p.m.) where the President ultimately decided to move forward and instruct Susan to seek the additional authorities at the U.N. necessary to do what we’re doing.”

I’m always fascinated by those who are convinced that Obama is being led around by women, specifically by Hillary Clinton.  If she can goad him into firing cruise missiles, how come she didn’t win the Democratic nomination?

A secondary question: Who knew so many women had deviously infiltrated the national security establishment?  If you check out photos and Cabinet meeting rosters on Afghanistan, counter-terrorism, Somali pirates and other “hard” national security issues, you will see a few brilliant women-in addition to those named above, there’s Michèle Flournoy, the third-ranking official at the Defense Department, and Janet Napolitano and her deputy Jane Holl Lute at the Department of Homeland Security.* But next to two or three of them, you will see 20 men. It’s no estrogen-fest.

To read these articles, though, you would think that the president had been beset by a bevy of emotional, estrogen-addled interventionists. To the contrary, these women are doing their jobs: In recent weeks it has been Secretary Clinton’s job to listen patiently as she is harangued by Arab leaders and Arab citizens alike about how U.S. policies ignore human rights and trample the wishes of the region’s people. She has been responsible for managing our European allies, two of whom-France and Britain-have been making it very clear for three weeks now that they were itching to use force to stop Gaddafi’s marauding. Ambassador Rice’s job, meanwhile,  is to … get countries to work together through the United Nations to accomplish shared goals.  She is on record, years back, calling for a no-fly zone to protect the civilians of Darfur. Estrogen-addled or consistent policy positions?  You be the judge.

I know and admire each of Obama’s “women warriors.” I have also worked for both Clinton (while she was a senator) and for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (during the Kosovo war). Perhaps I am biased in their favor. But I have also, in more than 20 years of working in foreign policy, seen plenty of men make emotional, foolish decisions.  Yes, women make them too, but I can’t help but notice that the early years of one’s career are a harsh winnowing process in which women who are easily, visibly emotional either weed themselves out or are weeded out.

I also remember male officials who took similar positions to those now being taken by Clinton, Rice, and Power, but on Bosnia, Kosovo, and West Africa. It’s been 14 years since the first woman secretary of state took office. Can’t we have a hormone-free debate over humanitarian intervention?

Photograph by Michael Nagle/Getty Images.

Correction, March 21, 2011 : This post originally misspelled Michèle Flournoy. Correction, March 22, 2011: This post originally left off Jane Holl Lute’s surname.