Voice

A Model of American Opacity

How Obama's drone war echoes Egypt's military crackdown.

I can no longer keep track of all the ways the United States has lost the moral high ground when it comes to Egypt.

There was our initial namby-pamby response to the popular uprising against Hosni Mubarak in early 2011: We made vague noises about the virtues of democracy, but we dithered over calling for Mubarak to step down, because we're Dictators R Us -- Mubarak might have been a bastard, but he was our bastard. After Mubarak's ouster, we continued to sit on our hands as Egypt's interim military government grew ever more repressive in the run-up to elections. When the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsy won the presidency in the summer of 2012 and began rapidly consolidating power, we remained dithery, coupling the occasional pious call for increased political freedom with expressions of faint support for the entirely unlovable Morsy and faint distaste for the burgeoning secular protest movement.

Then, when Morsy was ousted in a military coup, we took a leaf from Orwell and insisted there hadn't been a coup, just "an incredibly complex and difficult situation" in which there was "a decision made by the Egyptian armed forces to remove President Morsy from power and to suspend the constitution," which is, of course, nothing at all like a coup.

This week, our response to the news that more than 600 Islamist protesters were killed by Egyptian security forces was to issue a stiff verbal rebuke and cancel a planned joint military exercise with the Egyptians. Yeah, that'll show ‘em. Since we still can't bring ourselves to cut the annual $1.3 billion in military aid we give Egypt, Egypt's armed forces are presumably laughing their way to the bank.

All that's ample reason for shame. But we've also lost the moral high ground for another, less obvious reason: Given the disgraceful lack of transparency surrounding U.S. drone strikes, we no longer have any principled ground on which to stand as we condemn the killings in Egypt.

That's because the Egyptian government's rationale for its recent killings is unpleasantly similar to our own government's rationale for drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

To the international press, the hundreds of Islamists killed in Cairo this week are protesters exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. True, some among those protesters may have committed acts of criminal violence, assaulting police stations and attacking members of Egypt's security forces, but that's no excuse for shooting people down. The security forces should use lethal force in self-defense only and should otherwise respond to the ongoing protests using only non-lethal methods.

Naturally, Egypt's current leadership offers a different version of the story. In their version, they're not dealing with largely peaceful protesters -- they're dealing with violent Islamic extremists committing "terrorist acts" to "demolish the pillars of the Egyptian state," as an Egyptian government statement put it. The terrorists have already demonstrated their commitment and capacity for lethal violence by staging attacks on dozens of police stations, government buildings, and churches, and killing more than 40 security officials. Naturally, non-lethal law enforcement methods are the preferred means of dealing with terror threats, but such methods have been tried and proved inadequate. "It became necessary to finish this thing," Egypt's ambassador to the United States explained sorrowfully in an interview with Foreign Policy.

Because what's a peace-loving state to do when threatened by violent extremists with a demonstrated determination and ability to commit acts of terror? Sometimes, it's necessary to use lethal force. No, it's not pretty, and occasionally, despite a conscientious government's best efforts, errors in intelligence or targeting will be made and the innocent will suffer, but what can you expect? This is war, and war is hell, and kindly mind your own damn business, United States.

To Egypt's military government, American officials condemning the killings are nothing but hypocrites. After all, is there any significant difference between what Egypt is doing in its own streets and what the United States is doing in the streets of other states?

When the United States uses drone strikes to kill alleged terrorists -- strikes that have killed thousands of people, not hundreds -- it doesn't show the world the evidence that led to those targeting decisions. It doesn't offer specifics about the past bad behavior of those it kills, or details of the future damage they would likely inflict if left unmolested. It doesn't acknowledge mistakes or offer a public account of any civilian deaths unintentionally inflicted. On the contrary, the United States does exactly what the Egyptian authorities are doing: It asserts the existence of a threat to national security, asserts its right to use force to counter it, asks the world to trust in the good faith and good judgment of its officials, and otherwise tells critics to buzz off.

True, Egypt is using lethal force inside its own borders, rather than inside the borders of another state. But does this make it worse, or better? The U.S. government does its killing far from its own territory, away from the prying eyes of journalists, judges, members of Congress, and anyone else who might be dismayed by the bloody aftermath of what we're so fond of viewing as "surgical" strikes. Egypt's government is at least doing its dirty work right out in the open, where its population can judge its actions for itself. (So far, many in Egypt seem content: As the New York Times reported today, many in Cairo apparently view the killings as justified. The Times story quotes one source explaining approvingly that Egypt's security forces need to "fight terrorism" and that the military has been transparent in its actions, moving in on protesters during the daytime, rather than under cover of darkness, so that "everything was obvious.")

And don't be too sure the U.S. government wouldn't resort to lethal force to kill domestic terrorists, if it comes to that. Probably not with drones, but weaponized drones are just a convenient way to kill people in regions where it's impractical for the United States to deploy ground personnel. The United States has not yet faced a domestic threat of the magnitude Egypt's authorities claim to be facing, and although American officials insist that they would always abide by domestic legal requirements when countering any terrorist threats at home, the logic of the Obama administration's argument about drone strikes isn't very reassuring. If the United States is legally entitled to kill suspected terrorists in Yemen because they're considered combatants in our armed conflict against al Qaeda and its associates, there's no obvious reason for the United States to refrain from killing suspected enemy combatants operating inside its borders if circumstances render non-lethal law enforcement methods impracticable. As ever in the war on terror, our only real safeguard against government abuse is the good character and self-restraint of American officials.

To be clear, I'm not expecting black helicopters to swoop down on the next Code Pink protest in Washington; I do, in fact, have a great deal of faith in our government's commitment to using only law enforcement methods inside our borders. I'll go further than that: Although I regard most U.S. drone strikes as strategically short-sighted and marred by an appalling disregard for rule-of-law principles, I accept the administration's assurance that strikes are carried out only after an exacting review process.

But although I believe the U.S. government has a far greater commitment to safeguarding innocent lives and exercising self-restraint than the Egyptian authorities, the utter lack of transparency surrounding U.S. drone strikes ensures that no one can prove it.

And that's not good enough. How can our condemnations of the bloody abuses in Egypt have any credibility when we've given the world no basis for believing we're less savage ourselves?

Ed Giles/Getty Images

National Security

Women Are from Mars Too

Why more female leaders won't mean less war.

Micah Zenko obviously doesn't know my mother.

In his Foreign Policy column this week, he cites recent evidence of a gender gap in support for U.S. drone strikes and notes that a "female-male divergence of opinions is an enduring characteristic of polls on the use of military force." Specifically, studies of global polling data suggest that women are consistently less likely than men to favor the use of military force, leading Zenko, with whom I usually agree, to speculate that perhaps "force would be used less" if there were more women in senior national leadership positions.

I'm skeptical on this one. There are plenty of tough, not-exactly-pacifistic gals out there -- have I mentioned my mother? -- and there is a distinct dearth of evidence supporting the idea that "the world would be more peaceful if more women held political office." That's a sentiment apparently held by 65 percent of the 43 women leaders polled by Foreign Policy in 2012, but at the moment it represents wishful thinking more than anything else. This rosy view reflects a misunderstanding of the existing evidence on gender differences and an even deeper misunderstanding of the complex web of cultural and institutional factors that drive decisions about the use of military force.

We hear all the time that men are different from women, and in certain crushingly obvious ways, it's true. There are biological differences between the sexes. The life trajectories of men and women tend to differ in measurable ways. There are male-dominated professions and female-dominated professions. And, as Zenko points out, there are some persistent gender gaps in opinions on numerous issues, from the use of military force to health care policy.

We all know the stereotypes: Men are more "aggressive" than women; women are more "nurturing" than men. Those looking for evidence that these are enduring, hard-wired differences can find plenty of grist for the mill: Men commit the overwhelming majority of violent crimes, for instance, while women make up the overwhelming majority of early childhood teachers and daycare workers. See? Men are violent; women are kind.

Ah, but not so fast. It's a big mistake to go from patterns of individual behavior to assumptions about inherent gender differences -- and a bigger mistake to assume that gender differences translate predictably into different policy outcomes on the scale of an entire nation.

Recent research on gender suggests that men and women are far less different in their psychological makeup than most people think. In 2005, psychologist Janet Shibley Hyde analyzed dozens of prior meta-analyses of studies looking at gender differences in aggression, leadership, moral reasoning, communication, cognition, and a range of other psychological traits. By and large, she found, the effect of gender differences on most psychological variables was small: In fact, "78% of gender differences are small or close to zero."

In Hyde's analysis, there were a few areas in which gender differences loomed larger, but these mostly related to physical difference, such as throwing speed and distance. Hyde also found "large" gender differences in "some, but not all, measures of sexuality," including attitudes towards casual sex outside of committed relationships (men were more in favor).

When it came to aggression, the evidence was more ambiguous: Hyde found a "moderate" gender difference in physical aggression (men were, on average, moderately more physically aggressive than women), but the picture was more complex when other forms of aggression were factored in: Women, for instance, may be slightly more "relationally aggressive." In certain contexts, different studies suggest, women may be as (or even slightly more) physically aggressive than men, although men's greater strength makes them more dangerous when they become aggressive.

A study in the February 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology generally confirmed Hyde's findings. It noted that even when there are mean differences between men and women when it comes to certain characteristics, such as physical aggression, those differences are poor predictors of how any given individual is likely to behave.

Thus, note study authors Harry Reis and Bobbi Carothers, "The statement that men are more aggressive than women, for example, implicitly" -- but wrongly -- "assumes that there is one group of people who are high in aggression (men) and another group of people who are low in aggression (women)." Such an assumption would lead us to think that "Knowing only that a person was male, we could also infer that he would be relatively aggressive" -- and that he would demonstrate other qualities on which there are, on average, small differences between men and women. For instance, he would be "good in math, poor in verbal skills, primarily interested in short-term mating, less agreeable, and so on."

But this, Reis and Carothers argue, is not the case: Any particular man may be far less aggressive than many women, and "Those who score in a stereotypic way on one measure do not necessarily do so on another." In other words, psychological traits are poor predictors of an individual's gender, and an individual's gender is a poor predictor of his or her psychological traits.

When it comes to aggression, the picture becomes even more complex if we take away the social context and cues that powerfully affect behavior. In one study, participants who believed that researchers would not know their names or genders defied standard assumptions about gender and aggression. In a simulated conflict setting, men chose to drop more bombs than women when they believed researchers knew their identities, but when study subjects believed themselves to be anonymous, women actually dropped more bombs than male participants.

Richard Eichenberg, whose research Zenko cites, looked at attitudes towards the use of military force during six recent U.S. conflicts (from the Gulf War to the war on terror), and found that, on average, 51 percent of men and 43 percent of women supported the use of force. Consider these numbers in the context of recent psychological studies, however: This means that 49 percent of men did not support the use of force, while 43 percent of women did. That's a lot of men opposed to force, and a lot of women who favor it. Would this relatively small difference truly translate into significant differences in national policy if there were more women leaders? That's anyone's guess.

We also don't know the degree to which context and cultural norms influenced the answers of those polled (perhaps more women than men felt they were "supposed" to tell pollsters that they opposed force, given prevailing stereotypes about women). If the same women who were polled in these surveys were sitting in a room full of military and national security officials, would that affect their responses?

This, too, is anyone's guess -- and it has some bearing on the assumption that more women leaders would bring us a more peaceful world, since at the moment, any given woman leader operating at the national level will find herself in a male-dominated setting. In such a setting, will a woman with "average" female attitudes about aggression and force be driven by those attitudes? Or will women leaders find themselves influenced and co-opted by the contexts in which they find themselves, and end up, like the women in the study mentioned above, choosing to drop more bombs than the men?

Yet another thing we don't know is whether those women who seek and obtain national leadership positions have psychological traits that differ in measurable ways from those of the "average" woman. Maybe women foreign policy and national security leaders will think and act just like women who choose to be preschool teachers or doctors or accountants -- but maybe the women who seek out national leadership positions are less likely to conform to "typical" gender norms than other women.

Certainly, history is replete with examples of women leaders who presided over aggressive foreign policies (consider, for instance, Britain's Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria, neither of whom were noted for their pacifistic, nurturing approach to decisions about military force).

Ah. It's time to get back to my mother.

Not just because she's a woman who rarely shies away from a scrap (she's pretty tough), but because her own work on the origins of war (Blood Rites, by Barbara Ehrenreich, a.k.a. "Mom") offers a final important reason to be skeptical of claims that more women leaders would make the world more peaceful. Zenko briefly quotes her assertion that "women in the past two centuries have more than adequately demonstrated a capacity for collective violence," but he overlooks her more important point: You just can't extrapolate from individual personality to the actions of nations.

As she wrote in the article cited by Zenko, "There is little basis for locating the wellspring of war in aggressive male instincts -- or in any instincts, for that matter. Wars are not bar-room brawls writ large, but, as social theorist Robin Fox puts it, ‘complicated, orchestrated, highly organized' collective undertakings that cannot be explained by any individual impulse."

In other words, nations don't use military force simply because individual policymakers, male or female, happen to be "aggressive": Wars are the products of thousands of individual decisions that are driven and enabled by complex institutional arrangements and patterns of behavior. Leaders don't operate in a vacuum, imposing their individual preferences on national decisions large and small. Instead, they are shaped and constrained by past decisions and practices, by politics and ideology, by the availability of different capabilities and resources, by the decision-making structures they create or inherit, and by path-dependent bureaucracies.

That is to say: President Obama doesn't preside over drone strikes because he's a naturally aggressive male. He presides over drone strikes because the United States has developed an elaborate military and paramilitary structure designed to use military force against terrorists. An array of past decisions about research, development, training, resource and personnel allocations, law, and targeting procedures lies behind current U.S. drone strike policy. Could President Obama change course? Yes -- but he, like any other leader who wants to change an entrenched practice, will find himself working against the tide.

In the end, of course, I wholeheartedly agree with Micah Zenko that the underrepresentation of women in senior national leadership positions is a crying shame. As a card-carrying member of the female sex -- and frankly, as a citizen -- I'd love to see more women in national leadership positions. For one thing, there are a whole lot of talented women out there, and the complex structural factors that keep most women out of senior positions deprive the nation of talent we surely need. It's also about basic fairness: Right now, for reasons I've written about previously, it's just harder for most women to gain entry to the highest echelons of power.

But let's not kid ourselves: There's no solid evidence supporting the notion, pleasing as it is, that more women leaders will translate into a foreign policy that's all sweetness and light.

Can you say "Margaret Thatcher?" Or, for that matter, "Dianne Feinstein," or "Sarah Palin"?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images