March 23 (Bloomberg) -- There’s no better way to make the point that President Barack Obama is indecisive, dithering and prone to bow (literally) and scrape (figuratively) to foreigners than with a flood of reports claiming it was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, watching Colonel Muammar Qaddafi turn back the rebels and strafe his own citizens, who declared war on Libya.
Not by herself, of course, and not “war,” which only Congress can declare, as lawmakers point out ceaselessly.
Rather, this is an “intervention” engineered by Clinton in alliance with two other powerful women: Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Samantha Power, the National Security Council’s senior director for multilateral affairs. On their side was French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who’d been marshalling the international community to join in a stronger military action for days. Only after Clinton made up her mind did the handwringing U.S. Hamlet-in-chief make up his.
Ooh la la! Women and the French leading Obama by the nose. Bring on the freedom fries.
This rendering of events is greatly exaggerated but useful for critics coming at Obama from all sides, from those adamantly opposed to intervention to those who now support his actions but don’t like how he got there. As Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on “Fox News Sunday, “I don’t know how many people have died as we wait to do something. I thank God for strong women in the Obama administration.”
Mired in Stereotypes
The conflict in Libya, as challenging as it may be, has a better chance of ending well than the gender wars. We’re still mired in stereotypes of the roles men and women play, especially in military affairs, despite years of evidence showing that women are as analytic, decisive, aggressive and determined.
There was, of course, the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, to give lie to the weaker sex shrinking from confrontation. In this country, we had National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a proponent of the Iraq War and defender of waterboarding, and, earlier, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who pushed for military action in the Balkans.
Just as Clinton today is at odds with the men on Obama’s national security team, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, Albright was an overwhelming force against a fretting (you break it, you own it) Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Powell recalled in his memoir that Albright asked him in 1993, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Wrote Powell, “I thought I would have an aneurysm.”
Making the Case
Clinton and Susan Rice had to overcome the resistance of Gates and others to a U.S.-led effort in Libya. The New York Times reported that Clinton got a buy-in from the Arab League so that America wouldn’t be going it alone and called Obama with the news from Paris. Rice rounded up enough votes for a toughly worded resolution in the U.N. Security Council to pass, at one point running from the chamber to corral AWOL diplomats.
Coinciding with the convenient and surely temporary meme that women rule the world is a book just published by ABC legal analyst Dan Abrams, who set out to review every study he could find on male-female behavior. The result is “Man Down: Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt that Women Are Better Cops, Drivers, Gamblers, Spies, World Leaders, Beer Tasters, Hedge Fund Managers and Just about Everything Else.”
While judging women superior in many ways, Abrams didn’t find that they are treated (or paid) as such. For instance, just 3 percent of the world’s hedge-fund managers are women. Women make less corrupt and -- according to some studies -- more productive politicians. They also do better in the military, enduring more pain while complaining about it less.
Clinton tried to sell a version of this during the 2008 presidential campaign and got called a “monster” by her now-ally, Power -- more evidence of another Abrams finding, that women are better at getting along and sussing out the competition than men are.
That was the same campaign in which Clinton was down and out until she choked up in New Hampshire. “Emotional” is what those who argue for intervention for humanitarian or moral reasons are labeled, Power wrote in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.” Nobody flung that adjective here.
What a difference two years make. Clinton sheds no tears for Libya or anyone else, while the male speaker of the House chokes up from the memory of sweeping up in his father’s bar.
If the military campaign goes well, White House aides will have time to embellish the roles of their male bosses in the successful removal of a real monster in Tripoli. The Great Man theory of history would have it no other way.
(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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