Walking Loudly and Carrying a Big Stick

Why women are less inclined to start wars.

The Pew Research Center recently released a new Global Attitudes Project survey based on polling conducted in 39 countries. News headlines derived from the polling echoed the Pew survey's title: "America's Global Image Remains More Positive than China's." However, buried within the top-line results was another revelation: "Wide Gender Divide on Drone Strikes." Of the 12 countries for which Pew provided corresponding data, the female-male gap approving of U.S. drone strikes ranged from 31 percent in Japan to 13 percent in Uganda. When the same question was asked in 2012, the female-male gap similarly ran from 30 percent in Germany to 12 percent in Poland. Within the United States, the divide was 23 percent in 2012, and 17 percent this year. American women are also between 11 percent and 14 percent more likely than men to show concern that drones harm civilians, cause blowback from extremists, are illegal, and damage the reputation of the United States.

This female-male divergence of opinions is an enduring characteristic of polls on the use of military force and generally persists regardless of the weapons system employed, military mission undertaken, whether the intervening force is unilateral or multilateral, and the strategic objective proposed. The gap is also one that is sustained over time and is consistently found whenever or wherever comparable questions are posed regarding prospective military options. Richard Eichenberg of Tufts University, who has written several essential works on gender differences in security attitudes, found: "There are many commonalities in the views of men and women, but the direction of gender differences is always and everywhere that women are less supportive of using military force than men."

Indeed, it is an overwhelmingly global phenomenon found in almost every single country where such questions are asked -- though there are less foreign data as the United States is comparatively over-polled. Nevertheless, for example, 13.5 percent more Australian men than women approved of joining the U.S.-led coalition to depose Saddam Hussein in 2003, 14 percent more French men than women supported the intervention in Mali earlier this year, and 20 percent more German men than women think force is sometimes needed to maintain order in the world.

Since the United States has unmatched conventional military capabilities (and has a comparatively high tendency to attack other countries and non-state actors), it is useful to look closely at polls of American adults. If, like me, you are an observer of opinion polling on the use of force, you find evidence of the female-gap for different missions, no matter which type of military action is proposed, or which party is in the White House. Eichenberg examined 486 surveys of the American public between 1990 and 2003, for which a gender breakdown was provided, where U.S. military force was contemplated, threatened, or used. He found that the average gender difference for supporting the use of force was 58 percent men and 48 percent women. This is roughly consistent with data covering significant U.S. military intervention over the past quarter-century:

  • 8.5 percent more men than women supported U.S. military action in Iraq during the first Gulf War in 1990.
  • 6 percent more men supported intervention in Rwanda in 1994.
  • 7 percent more men supported intervention in Bosnia in 1995.
  • 6.4 percent more men supported cruise missile attacks in Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998.
  • 4 percent more men supported intervention in Kosovo in 1999.
  • 17 percent more men supported the U.S. war in Afghanistan in 2001.
  • 12 percent more men supported military action in Iraq in 2003.
  • 13 percent more men supported military intervention in Libya in 2011.

Beyond historical cases, gender differences are also found if you look at the latest polling regarding uses of force currently under debate:

  • 17 percent more men than women support the United States and its allies using force in Syria.
  • 28 percent more men think the United States should conduct cyberattacks against other countries.
  • 8 percent more men support the United States taking military action to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
  • 15 percent more men think that North Korea is a threat to the United States that requires military action.
  • 6 percent more men think that President Obama should have ordered troops to go to Benghazi, Libya, on the night of the attack on the consulate.

Fifteen years ago, Francis Fukuyama wrote an essay that tried to explain why men are more likely, and women less likely, to support bombing other countries. He contended that "there is something to the contention of many feminists that phenomena like aggression, violence, war, and intense competition for dominance in a status hierarchy are more closely associated with men than women." However, such mostly male characteristics cannot be changed as they are rooted in biology, and since rogue male leaders remain a fact of world politics the "democratic, feminized, postindustrial world" will not be up to the challenge of confronting them. "Masculine policies will still be required, though not necessarily masculine leaders." Responses to Fukuyama's essay essentially accepted his gender dichotomy by defending women's ability to wage war: "women in the past two centuries have more than adequately demonstrated a capacity for collective violence," wrote Barbara Ehrenreich; "Historically, cultures organized around war and displays of cruelty have had women's full cooperation," noted Katha Pollitt.

The question more interesting than why women and men perceive militarized approaches to foreign policy challenges differently is: What might the policy implications of them be today? Unfortunately, many commentators who have written about this phenomenon in the past focus on the gender of combatants themselves, while ignoring the gender of those who actually decide to use force.

For example, within the U.S. military, orders to use force can only originate from the National Command Authority, a term that collectively describes the president and the secretary of defense -- the apocryphal 3:00 a.m. phone call goes to the Pentagon as often as the White House. Within the Central Intelligence Agency -- under guidelines that were first implemented in 2009 -- only the director of the CIA has the authority to sign-off on each drone strike, or similar lethal action. America's history shows that of the 44 presidents, 24 secretaries of defense, and 25 directors of the CIA who could have authorized using force, all were men. Thus, we have zero real-world comparisons within the United States to evaluate whether a female leader would be more or less likely to use force to confront a foreign policy challenge.

Below the level of top decision makers, women are vastly underrepresented in senior uniformed and civilian positions within the Pentagon, as is readily apparent from this picture in March, or this one in June, or this one in June, or this one in June. According to the Pentagon, women make up 20 percent of all official senior defense positions, while they are 31 percent of the CIA's senior intelligence service. However, agency veterans tell me the percentage is much lower in the national clandestine service that is responsible for conducting lethal covert operations.

Within the foreign policy community of think tanks, the academy, and punditry, the underrepresentation of women's voices is readily apparent, particularly wherever "hard" security issues are debated. Despite marginal improvements in the last decade, more than three-quarters of all op-eds in major print outlets are consistently penned by men, including those with a foreign policy focus. At the Aspen Security Forum in June, there were 59 featured speakers, just four of whom were women.

As someone with 15 years of experience in this community at various levels, I have come to recognize that most colleagues agree that there is something inherently wrong with this picture, and that the relative lack of gender diversity (among many other underrepresented voices in U.S. foreign policy discussions) impacts how debates unfold, and probably on what outcomes emerge. However, they are painfully uncomfortable discussing exactly what that impact is, or what should be done to expand the range of perspectives.

There are certainly many methodological problems with attempting to ascertain public attitudes by asking certain people certain questions. For instance, people who haven't attended college or have an annual income under $50,000 tend to be more supportive of military options. And clearly, any person's opinions about the utility and wisdom of military force will be shaped -- and perhaps changed -- once they assume a policymaking position and are granted access to classified information.

But as women and men do have markedly different perspectives about using military force, it is conceivable that less would be used if more women were in leadership positions. Women already in those positions think so: In a 2012 FP survey of 43 female politicians around the world, 65 percent agreed that: "The world would be more peaceful if more women held political office."  When I ask my peers about this gap, three consensus opinions emerge: 1) Women are more likely to see the other side's point of view, 2) are less likely to see the world as a zero-sum game, and 3) are more likely to believe that bombing someone does not ultimately achieve anything.

In a 2011 poll that asked respondents "the best way to ensure peace," 8 percent more men said "military strength," while 9 percent more women said "good diplomacy." Likewise, the undervalued and essential role of women as peacemakers was the core theme of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's landmark December 2011 data-driven speech. Meanwhile, her husband Bill Clinton recently opined that presidents who refrain from using force because of public or congressional opposition "look like a total wuss, and you would be." The time-honored connection between looking "tough," masculine, and bombing others endures, which makes military force the appealing default solution for so many U.S. foreign policy problems.


National Security

If Trayvon Were Pakistani…

Why isn't Obama outraged about a drone war based on profiling?

President Barack Obama surprised the White House press corps on Friday when he preempted the normal daily briefing to offer his unscripted ideas on the Trayvon Martin case.

Obama departed from his usual reluctance to talk publicly about his personal experience with racial bias, reminding viewers that African-American men -- including him, before he became a senator -- experience prejudice based only on their appearance, not their personality or behavior. He added that the African-American community was interpreting the outcome of the case through a "set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away." And he noted that, while the African-American community is not naïve about violence involving its young men -- they are "disproportionately both victims and perpetrators" -- that fact is no excuse for different treatment under the law.

It is striking to compare Obama's deliberate and thoughtful commentary about the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin with the military tactic that will forever characterize his presidency: killing people with drones. The president posits that it is wrong to profile individuals based upon their appearance, associations, or statistical propensity to violence. By extension, he believes that, just because those characteristics may seem threatening to some, the use of lethal force cannot be justified as self-defense unless there are reasonable grounds to fear imminent bodily harm. But that very kind of profiling and a broad interpretation of what constitutes a threat are the foundational principles of U.S. "signature strikes" -- the targeted killings of unidentified military-age males.

The use of signature strikes began in early 2008, when "instead of having to confirm the identity of a suspected militant leader before attacking," the New York Times reported, drones were permitted to "strike convoys of vehicles that bear the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban leaders on the run." By the summer of 2008, as a Bush administration official recollected, "We got down to a sort of ‘reasonable man' standard. If it seemed reasonable, you could hit it." Early in his first-term, Obama actually authorized signature strikes before he knew what they were, as author Daniel Klaidman reported. When Steve Kappes, then the CIA's deputy director, explained to the president, "We can see that there are a lot of military-age males down there, men associated with terrorist activity, but we don't necessarily know who they are," Obama declared, "That's not good enough for me."

Apparently, it was good enough for him, though, since Obama vastly increased the scope and intensity of targeted killings in Pakistan and, in April 2012, expanded the practice into Yemen against unknown men, allowing the CIA to henceforth "hit targets based solely on intelligence indicating patterns of suspicious behavior." As Jo Becker and Scott Shane reported last year, "Counterterrorism officials insist this approach [of signature strikes] is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good." Indeed, transnational terrorist plots directed against the United States have disproportionately originated from Pakistan and Yemen. But, if you apply Obama's logic concerning the Trayvon Martin tragedy, hanging around in the wrong neighborhood or with bad people should not make a person guilty.

Since November 2002, the United States has killed over 3,600 people in non-battlefield settings with drones, cruise missiles, AC-130 gunships, and special operations forces. It is unknown how many of them were unidentified men killed only because of their profile and a U.S. claim that they posed a "continuing and imminent threat." President Obama acknowledged in May that "it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties," though he said that "there's a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties and nongovernmental reports." As first reported by Jonathan Landay, the still-classified CIA assessments of drone strikes conducted in Pakistan over 14 months in 2010 and 2011 found that roughly one-quarter of the 600 people killed were what the CIA termed "other militants," meaning that they were collateral damage or that they were targeted only because of their behavioral profile. Amazingly, no U.S. government official has ever acknowledged that the United States conducts signature strikes.

The day before Obama spoke about Trayvon Martin, Nasser al-Awlaki -- a former Fulbright scholar and Yemeni minister of agriculture and fisheries -- published a powerful op-ed in the New York Times titled "The Drone That Killed My Grandson." His 16-year-old grandson, an American citizen named Abdulrahman, was killed, along with six other individuals, by a U.S. drone strike in October 2011. A State Department spokesperson initially absolved the United States of any responsibility, claiming: "We have not received confirmation of his death from the government of Yemen. We have no additional information at this time." In May, Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee that finally acknowledged that, since 2009, al-Awlaki and two other American citizens had died in U.S. counterterrorism operations, in which they "were not specifically targeted by the United States."

Over time, other officials acknowledged -- always anonymously -- that Abdulrahman al-Awlaki had been either inadvertently targeted or was collateral damage. Princeton University doctoral candidate and Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen wrote that the missile that killed al-Awlaki was actually intended for Ibrahim al-Banna, an Egyptian member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Whatever the reason, the available evidence suggests that a 16-year-old U.S. citizen was the unintended casualty of a signature strike.

Nasser al-Awlaki closed his Times op-ed by asking: "The government has killed a 16-year-old American boy. Shouldn't it at least have to explain why?" For a president invested in showing leadership by setting the tone for discussions of race at home, he should answer that question directly. He should then announce an end to signature strikes, since nobody should ever be killed based on how they look or for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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