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The Media Parlor Game on Libya Continues: The Gender Angle?

March 21, 2011

I have no idea what went on behind the scenes with respect to the decision to support instituting a no-fly zone over Libya. It does seem that the administration was all in agreement on at least two major factors- that nothing could/should be done without a) UN support and also, if possible, b) Arab League support.

Ben Smith has an article up on his blog at Politico (from yesterday) and note the provocative title of it: “Boys against Girls over Libya,” which is clearly meant to bring eyes (and page hits) to Smith’s blog- well, he succeeded in doing that, given I’m talking about it despite not being a big Politico fan. Some of Politico’s tactics for getting traffic seem a tad gimmicky, but, whatever. I know many disagree with my take on the media establishment and what I believe is it’s race to the bottom in an attempt to replace hardcore investigative journalism (more expensive, requires more knowledge, etc.) with infotainment (cheaper, minimal knowledge required).

This article is being discussed around the blogosphere, so I thought I’d highlight it:

There’s been quite a bit of chatter today about the notion that a cadre of human-rights-minded women — Susan Rice, Samantha Power, Hillary Clinton — fought and won an internal debate over Libya. But White House officials and close observers outside government pushed back hard on the idea of a crucial internal split Sunday, arguing that Obama was pressed to action not by the internal dynamic but by the situation on the ground.

The gender war theory, Andrea Mitchell had it:

In the end, it became the women foreign policy advisers against the men. Although Hillary Clinton initially resisted the idea of a no-fly zone, she was persuaded at the beginning of this week by the Arab League’s endorsement of military action. And she had intense meetings with the Arab League leaders and a Libyan opposition leader this week. She … joined U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and two other women in the National Security Council [senior directors Samantha Power and Gayle Smith], who’ve been arguing for some time for more aggressive action

This narrative seems to have its origin in a Cable item, since tweaked, whose initial version had Power and Smith squaring off with their bosses, Denis McDonough and Tom Donilon, and winning in a key meeting last Tuesday. The NSC senior directors, however, weren’t in the meeting. The Times has a similar theory that military action became possible when Clinton, Rice, and Power made the case for action together to Obama. Chait also likes the idea.

But people watching the process closely doubted it Sunday.

“I don think the U.S. government goes to war bc a couple of senior directors at the NSC overrule the National Security Advisor and the Secretary of Defense,” said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch and a long-time ally of officials like Power and Rice. “I think people are making assumptions about where the divide is based on Samantha’s pre-administration public profile,” he said, referring to her writing on genocide and her advocacy for intervention elsewhere.

Malinowski’s view: “Events on the ground increasingly made it clear to the president and everyone else in this administration that inaction would produce a humaniatrian and strategic calamity.”

“It’s being driven by circumstances and by Obama’s attention,” said Steve Clemons, another foreign policy observer who talks regularly to the White House, but who has been more skeptical than Malinowski of the Libya intervention.

As has been reported, the crucial decisions were made at a pair of meetings Tuesday, which an Administration official said were far from the showdowns depicted in some accounts. Power, for instance, was present at a 4:10 p.m. meeting but didn’t speak, an official said; Clinton, overseas, wasn’t patched in to that meeting. Obama, told a no-fly zone wouldn’t be enough to stop Qadhafi, sent Donilon to draw up other political and military options in the Situation Room, the official said; Donilon brought his notes to a 9:00 p.m. principals’ meeting, at which the course was set.

“Everyone started with a healthy degree of skepticism,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said. “But everyone moved toward the final decision based on the president’s urging, but also because of what was happening on the ground, with Qadhafi moving toward Bengazi and [saying] he would show no mercy.”

This isn’t to say that a version of the narrative isn’t true: Some of the prominent women on the foreign policy team, notably — an official said — Rice, did push hard for intervention, and did speak in key meetings. But the notion of an internal battle fought and won, or a shift in the poles of internal politics or Obama’s evolving doctrine, seems to overstate the point.


20 Comments leave one →
  1. Carolyn-Rodham permalink
    March 21, 2011 9:04 am

    In his “joking” remarks at the Gridiron Club dinner, Obama seemed to be suggesting that Hillary was the driving force behind intervention in Libya. To me, this seemed consistent with his willingness earlier to throw her under the bus over Egypt (by allowing a “White House source” — I’ve always assumed it was Samantha Power — to leak that story to the NY Times that he was “furious” she and Gates had dithered over what to do in Egypt. It suddenly occurred to me that Obama let Hillary lead the way in announcing our participation in a no-fly zone operation, then took off for Brazil. That seemed odd at the time (you go to South America when your country’s going to war in North Africa?) but now it makes perfect sense — he was in effect distancing himself from taking full responsibility for the decision, letting Hillary be the “face” for the action — just in case it all went bad. The thing is, if it goes well, and continues a democratic
    domino effect across the Middle East, she’ll come out looking like the visionary statesman, and Obama will look like, well, he was dithering and indecisive. Which is just about right.

    So, when it suited him, I think Obama was playing up the popular media narrative that there has been a “rift” between him and Hillary, and the media, well, the media was doing what it does — spreading gossip, with a bit of a sexist twist to it this time, also not unusual. I wonder if the sexist twist is meant to make Obama look especially “weak,” i.e. he let himself be pushed aroubd by the “girls”? What does gender have to do with any of this, anyway?

    • March 21, 2011 9:25 am

      I think Ben Smith is using the boys vs. girls angle to generate buzz, although he does note that Andrea Mitchell also said something about it. Of course the way he has done it is more provocative.

      I really am tired of the media. They will do anything, say anything to grab people’s attention and generate ratings and revenue.

      To play devil’s advocate- The thing about Brazil- if the trip was planned months and months in advance, he couldn’t really be accused of ducking out during this. Also, if he stayed home just to announce the coalition was doing the no fly zone, he could be accused of not being able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Again, not defending him, just playing devil’s advocate.

      I *do* think he has a tendency to hide from the media and wait to see which way things go before he steps out in public to say anything, which is a weasel way of doing things. Hillary clearly does the heavy lifting and is credited with garnering support from the Arab League. Some say that she felt Arab League support was crucial, without which we couldn’t go ahead with the no-fly zone because it would look like another US led-invasion of a Muslim country. I like to think that is in fact the case because I think Arab support is essential for just that reason. The notion of just running in there with the military without considering the consequences doesn’t seem like Hillary’s nature. That said, I’m sure she had a great sense of urgency and may very well have been working with Rice and Power to get the admin. to act more quickly once it became clear the UN and Arab League might sign on (or to get us to sign on early in order to help ensure Arab League and UN support!).

      There are potential negatives to all of this of course. Already the neocons are saying a no fly zone isn’t enough and we have to go in and taken Gaddafi out by any means necessary if the rebels don’t because then the U.S. will look “weak” and Iran will take advantage. Ever notice it’s always about Iran, even when it’s not? The neocons never met a war they didn’t like, so long as their kids could go to Yale instead of signing on to fight.

      If this drags on and on, and it may, the blame game will start- then those that wanted intervention will be blamed. I’ll say this, if US boots hit the ground in Libya then some Politician needs to get a spine and gather support for a) a war tax or b) a draft. It’s become a bit too easy to sit around in the comfort of our homes and move our troops around on a big chess board while we go about our daily lives. It’s much easier to support military action when you don’t have to give up one single thing- not like the old days when it was considered a patriotic DUTY to help in any way possible. We’ve become really entitled and spoiled in that respect (in my opinion). If a war tax (or draft) was initiated support for these foreign wars would go down, which is why our politicians don’t want a tax or a draft.

    • Bea permalink
      March 22, 2011 12:15 pm

      It’s his way of voting “present”. The state senator with most present votes of his graduation. Obama is about Obama, and will throw anyone under the bus to stay on top.

      Hillary has more guts in her pinky that he will ever have in his entire body.

  2. Thain permalink
    March 21, 2011 11:31 am

    @Stacy- I agree. Obama doesn’t make himself available to the media like Bill Clinton did. He acts more and more like GWB every day. GWB also gave few press conferences. Obama lets Hillary do all the work and waits to see how it turns out before he makes a peep publicly. They say he’s doing a press conference today. Big Whup.

    It’s just as well Hillary is out there explaining all this that is going on with Libya because quite frankly she is better at it than he is. He sucks.

    I also totally agree about the draft and war tax, although I will admit I’d rather not go fight in these wars, but if there was a draft I would leave college and go.

    All that said I still think a lot of people are making too much out of this story of a supposed rift. If there is anything significant it’s that Gates and Clinton for ONCE were not on the same side of an issue and quite frankly I am glad about that. What’s the big deal about people in an administration having differing viewpoints and debating it? I think that’s good management. Bill Clinton always had people with diverse viewpoints and I think he was a better leader because of it. GWB didn’t do that- everyone was a corporatist and/or die hard foreign policy hawk and look what we were left with.

    The more I hear/read about the no fly zone the more worried I get. Some are saying that this won’t be quick and we could very well end up with ground forces having to take out Gaddafi. The hawks will never let us leave if we don’t.

    Some are also saying that we’ve already gone well beyond just a regular no-fly zone and have outright attacked Gaddafi’s forces- I don’t know if that’s true or not.

    In the interest of debate, here are some arguments for NOT going in to Libya:

    Operation Oil Grab?:

    And while I NEVER agree with anything Pat Buchanan ever says, he makes an interesting if uncomfortable point about Libya:

    Before the United States plunges into a third war in the Middle East, let us think this one through, as we did not the last two.

    What would be the purpose of establishing a no-fly zone over Libya? According to advocates, to keep Moammar Gadhafi from using his air force to attack civilians…

    What is the theme, where is the consistency in U.S. policy?

    We backed the dictators Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, who were as autocratic as Gadhafi, whom we demand be deposed.

    We support the dictator in Yemen, the absolute monarch in Saudi Arabia, the king in Bahrain, the sultan in Oman, and the emir in Kuwait, but back pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran, though there have been more elections in Iran than in all those other nations put together.

    America has taken a terrible beating for what she has done and tried and failed to do in that region for a decade.

  3. Carolyn-Rodham permalink
    March 21, 2011 11:53 am

    If we send troops into Libya, we will alienate the Arab League and undo any good we have done towards rehabilitating our image in the Arab world.

    Interestingly, three top generals in Yemen have defected to the opposition, and it looks like
    Saleh is on his way out.

  4. Thain permalink
    March 21, 2011 11:57 am

    Apparently we may have already alienated the Arab League- we have taken out more than some of Gadaffi’s military capabilities and may have exceeded the perameters of the no fly zone and outright attacked Libya, including hitting Gadaffi’s residential compound.

    An excerpt from the HuffPo:

    Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) had been circulating a resolution “[e]xpressing the sense of Congress that the President is required to obtain in advance specific statutory authorization for the use of United States Armed Forces in response to civil unrest in Libya.” The measure was supported by Reps. Michael Honda (D-Calif.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.), among others.

    “In launching over 100 missiles on Libya this weekend, not only did the Defense Department undermine a carefully constructed consensus, which included the Arab League, but it leveled a devastating blow to our legislative-executive checks and balances,” read a statement by Honda, who is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s Peace and Security Taskforce. “For the Pentagon to deliberately circumvent Congressional authority sets a new precedent for war powers authorization and sends the message to the world that American democracy is deeply dysfunctional. Secondly, for the Pentagon to pick its battles based on energy security considerations, which is particularly apparent given Libya’s 7th-ranked oil reserves, sends the message that America cares little about the human rights and freedoms of people in countries, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Western Sudan, or Ivory Coast, without critical energy resources. Thirdly, for the Pentagon to pursue past precedent in employing a shock-and-awe-type invasion, indicates a deliberate disdain for the myriad of smaller pursuable efforts that are possible before pummeling a country with an air assault. I demand a serious conversation in Congress before new countries are incautiously invaded and before America’s legislative branch is eviscerated further.”

  5. rachel permalink
    March 21, 2011 1:14 pm

    The Arab League has done little but talk. I am disappointed in them I knew they would begin backtracking the minute the bombing started.

    • Carolyn-Rodham permalink
      March 21, 2011 1:50 pm

      I understand Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are sending planes, and that the head of the AL issued another statement clarifying the League still supports resolution 1973.

      Also, I disagree with Ron Paul that the US is indifferent to events in Sudan (Hillary actively pushed the referendum and joined the UN in efforts to find a durable peace) or to the violence in DRC or the Ivory Coast. One of her first visits as SOS was to the DRG and she has targeted sexual violence and mass rape there and around the globe repeatedly (of course, the only thing that grabbed headlines was her “losing it” at a town hall meeting). Last Friday, she issued a statement condemning Gbagbo’s continued attacks on unarmed civilians in the Ivory Coast, demanding an immediate end to the brutality. I suppose if the African Union called on the UN to intervene, we’d consider it. We are already providing humanitarian assistance to civilians including $4.5 million food aid and $7.5 million for IC refugees in Liberia. Paul and others can’t have it both ways — condemning the US for intervening in Libya, then whining that we’re not doing anything about other violent hotspots around the globe — especially since that isn’t even true. I think to claim that our intervention in Libya had something to do with their oil reserves is patently absurd.

      • rachel permalink
        March 21, 2011 2:02 pm

        I heard that they were, they haven yet and I am not sure they will follow through. I will be happy to be wrong. If they do send them it won’t be until the west has done all the bombing.

        • Carolyn-Rodham permalink
          March 21, 2011 7:31 pm

          Al Jezeera reported 4 planes from Qatar were on their way.

        • stacyx permalink*
          March 21, 2011 7:45 pm

          @Carolyn – Good. Hillary is probably working the phones reigning in the Arab states and telling them to get their ass in in those 200 million dollar fighter jets we give/sell them. 😉

          Now maybe Saudi Arabia could quit dicking around in Bahrain and lend a hand in Libya? Are they part of this initial assault?

          • Carolyn-Rodham permalink
            March 21, 2011 9:03 pm


            “The United Arab Emirates said its involvement in Libya is limited to humanitarian assistance, after reports it would send warplanes to join Gulf neighbour Qatar in patrolling the no-fly zone.”
            No mention of Saudis.

      • Thain permalink
        March 21, 2011 2:09 pm

        @carolyn- I agree that Hillary totally cares about Sudan, DRC etc. but I don’t think we should personalize Buchanan’s criticism because it’s not aimed at Hillary but at U.S. foreign policy in general. I think the point he is trying to make is specifically about MILITARY intervention and when it’s appropriate, under what circumstances etc. In other words, where is the line we draw where we say “ok, too many civilians have been killed by their govt, we’re going in”? He also makes a good point about some of our allies like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. I sort of agree with him on that. We also can’t ignore the oil factor. It’s no big secret in the human rights community that if you don’t have oil under your sand you have a much less chance of getting much help from the rest of the world when people are being slaughtered.

        With respect to your other point I’d just say there is a big difference between sending $$, visiting a country and speaking out about humanitarian abuses on the one hand and sending in the military on the other. These sorts of debates about when we go in to a country and attack are healthy- it would be crazy not to question it.

        I’m not being critical of Hillary at all btw. If she weren’t speaking out about the DRC, the Ivory Coast etc. no one in the govt would be. She does more than any govt official to keep these issues a priority. She is the only SOS to ever go to the DRC and she did so without any regard for her own personal safety. Obviously these issues are very important to her. But to get all defensive and not ask important questions like the ones being raised in articles and commentary floating around the internet and on the news seems irresponsible. We owe it to the men and women in uniform to ask these questions so we don’t put them at unecessary risk. As Stacy said above it’s easy to support military intervention when we don’t have to be the ones being bullet fodder.

        With respect to Ron Paul- he’s a total noninterventionist so while I disagree with him I don’t think he’s trying to have it both ways. If I understand his extreme libertarian views he is opposed to all foreign aid and is even opposed to humanitarian intervention. He is opposed to Iraq/Afghanistan and now Libya so he’s pretty consistent even if you don’t agree with him. Ron Paul and even some Democrats including Jarold Nadler are questioning whether Obama needed congressional authorization to do what he’s doing or if not, should he have worked more closely with Congress. That’s an interesting question and I don’t know the answer but I think it’s important to ask.

    • Thain permalink
      March 21, 2011 2:11 pm

      @Rachel- You’re being too kind. The Arab League is useless 90% of the time 🙂

  6. March 21, 2011 3:48 pm

    While the Coalition is bombing Libya and the UK is debating whether the Security Council Resolution permits targeting Gaddafi, Saleh’s name may soon be added to the list of Ben Ali and Mubarak, as another leader amazingly overthrown by largely peaceful protests.

    It’s not over until it’s over though, and we’ll see what Saleh does next. We will also see what Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s very powerful and intrusive neighbor, does.

  7. Carolyn-Rodham permalink
    March 21, 2011 4:35 pm

    Sort of OT, but then again maybe not:

    Subsaharan’s Africa’s oil supplies may be small compared to the Middle East but many African countries ARE oil producers (including the DRC, Ivory Coast, and Sudan). Also, many African countries offer rich reserves in natural gas and biofuels ( including DRC and Ivory Coast). There is a strong European business presence in Africa (because of their colonialist history) and of course the Chinese are staking claims like crazy, but American corporations have largely avoided investing in Africa because of perceived risks, corruption, and political instability. But there’s a killing to be made and sooner or later, US companies will cash in — well behind the Chinese who can invest with an eye to the future versus trying to keep shareholders happy.

  8. March 21, 2011 6:00 pm

    This is sort of interesting. This is the letter Barack Obama sent to Congress about the commencement of operations in Libya. But here’s the thing, he didn’t send it until today, after members of Congress started complaining about his taking action without consultation and some are even saying he may have needed congressional approval:

    Begin Text:

    Office of the Press Secretary
    For Immediate Release March 21, 2011
    March 21, 2011

    Dear Mr. Speaker: (Dear Mr. President:)
    At approximately 3:00 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, on March 19, 2011, at my direction, U.S. military forces commenced operations to assist an international effort authorized by the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council and undertaken with the support of European allies and Arab partners, to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe and address the threat posed to international peace and security by the crisis in Libya. As part of the multilateral response authorized under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, U.S. military forces, under the command of Commander, U.S. Africa Command, began a series of strikes against air defense systems and military airfields for the purposes of preparing a no-fly zone. These strikes will be limited in their nature, duration, and scope. Their purpose is to support an international coalition as it takes all necessary measures to enforce the terms of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973. These limited U.S. actions will set the stage for further action by other coalition partners.

    United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 authorized Member States, under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, to take all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in Libya, including the establishment and enforcement of a “no-fly zone” in the airspace of Libya. United States military efforts are discrete and focused on employing unique U.S. military capabilities to set the conditions for our European allies and Arab partners to carry out the measures authorized by the U.N. Security Council Resolution.

    Muammar Qadhafi was provided a very clear message that a cease-fire must be implemented immediately. The international community made clear that all attacks against civilians had to stop; Qadhafi had to stop his forces from advancing on Benghazi; pull them back from Ajdabiya, Misrata, and Zawiya; and establish water, electricity, and gas supplies to all areas. Finally, humanitarian assistance had to be allowed to reach the people of Libya.
    Although Qadhafi’s Foreign Minister announced an immediate cease-fire, Qadhafi and his forces made no attempt to implement such a cease-fire, and instead continued attacks on Misrata and advanced on Benghazi. Qadhafi’s continued attacks and threats against civilians and civilian populated areas are of grave concern to neighboring Arab nations and, as expressly stated
    in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, constitute a threat to the region and to international peace and security. His illegitimate use of force not only is causing the deaths of substantial numbers of civilians among his own people, but also is forcing many others to flee to neighboring countries, thereby destabilizing the peace and security of the region. Left unaddressed, the growing instability in Libya could ignite wider instability in the Middle East, with dangerous consequences to the national security interests of the United States. Qadhafi’s defiance of the Arab League, as well as the broader international community moreover, represents a lawless challenge to the authority of the Security Council and its efforts to preserve stability in the region. Qadhafi has forfeited his responsibility to protect his own citizens and created a serious need for immediate humanitarian assistance and protection, with any delay only putting more civilians at risk.

    The United States has not deployed ground forces into Libya. United States forces are conducting a limited and well-defined mission in support of international efforts to protect civilians and prevent a humanitarian disaster. Accordingly, U.S. forces have targeted the Qadhafi regime’s air defense systems, command and control structures, and other capabilities of Qadhafi’s armed forces used to attack civilians and civilian populated areas. We will seek a rapid, but responsible, transition of operations to coalition, regional, or international organizations that are postured to continue activities as may be necessary to realize the objectives of U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973.
    For these purposes, I have directed these actions, which are in the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States, pursuant to my constitutional authority to conduct U.S. foreign relations and as Commander in Chief and Chief Executive.

    I am providing this report as part of my efforts to keep the Congress fully informed, consistent with the War Powers Resolution. I appreciate the support of the Congress in this action.


    Here’s a description of the War Powers Resolution from Wiki:

    The War Powers Resolution of 1973 (50 U.S.C. 1541–1548) was a United States Congress joint resolution providing that the President can send U.S. armed forces into action abroad only by authorization of Congress or if the United States is already under attack or serious threat. The War Powers Resolution requires the president to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days, with a further 30 day withdrawal period, without an authorization of the use of military force or a declaration of war. The resolution was passed by two-thirds of Congress, overriding a presidential veto.[emphasis mine]

    • StenyG permalink
      March 22, 2011 2:04 pm

      This is why I enjoy this blog and find it so informative- you had this war powers letter from the POTUS up before any other blog or media outlet. Only today is the media talking about the contents of this letter and the growing controversy surrounding it.

      You really should be writing for a wider audience- HuffPo for because you know your stuff and you know what’s important to focus on. A lot of other Hillary sites and even Obama sites are a lot of fluff and defensive posturing where divergent viewpoints are not tolerated. But you don’t do that here.

      Thank you for a wonderful site!

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