2008: year of the Strategy Moms

Unlike domestic policy, the American public is usually willing to leave foreign affairs to the "experts" unless things are seriously off course. According to polling done by Public Agenda, the contemporary anxiety indicator stands at 136 on a scale where 150 indicates a collapse of confidence in the government's foreign policy. In general, over the past two years, Americans have less and less confidence that our present strategies will enhance US security. The kicker: women are especially fatalistic about the US position--they worry the most about terrorist attacks, but at the same time, don't feel strongly that government can do much about it. Sounds like things are indeed off-course.

I worked on Capitol Hill in 2003 during the runup to the Iraq war, and so I empathize with people who feel skeptical about our government. I saw first hand how non-conforming information was ignored, protesting Members of Congress were sidelined and a compliant media rolled over for the President and his allies. They wanted a war, and a war they got.

But I'm going to make the case for why women need to take a second look at American security strategy and rally their hope, energy and problem solving skills. Why? Because your nation needs you! America is at a crossroads on national security. We've realized that the old ways no longer work, but aren't quite clear about positive alternatives. What we do know is that we need a new direction. And women are perfectly suited to influence that choice. Remember "soccer moms" in the 90's and "security moms" in 06? Well, women concerned with our nation's strategy for the future could make a real difference this time around.

Since the terror attacks of 9/11/01, security threats have become unpredictable. Today, menacing nations are actually not as worrisome as failing ones, where desperate populations are vulnerable to extremism. We must also worry about criminal organizations and individuals with violent intent. The tools we need to combat such threats cross the gamut, from humanitarian assistance to deadly force. Many strategic thinkers are questioning the usefulness of force. Indeed, even our military commanders in Iraq estimate that 80% of their challenges require problem solving tools other than the military. In a world where war and peace are difficult to separate, American soldiers deployed to conflict zones could just as easily be convening a town council as engaging in combat. We live in an era that defies traditional notions about power. As we are learning in both Iraq and Afghanistan, our success relies less upon our ability to dominate and more upon our ability to influence the intentions of potential opponents. These lessons have implications for our security strategy as a nation as we move further into this new century.

If we choose to learn from our ongoing experiences, a positive strategy for US security will place the safety of people at the center of a new framework. This means that policies that promote peace and stability --like empowering women and educating girls-- should be considered along with secure borders and a strong Army. Not as a mere afterthought. The key lesson for elected leaders is that the safety of people and the safety of our country are complimentary and inseparable, and we must stop posing them as tradeoffs. That means those of us who care about reshaping policies must refrain from tired old "either/or" language. No more hawks vs. doves, no more guns vs. butter, no more hard vs. soft. Each of these approaches is important. The key decisions for leaders is determining the balance between them.

The legacy of women's priorities already informs this policy discussion. For decades, women the world over have championed the safety of people through positive social change. Women rally support for communities-- needs like health care, clean water, economic justice, safe streets, and education. These "women's issues" now form the centerpiece of our national security debate here at home, and share many values with the recently adopted counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. In contrast to kicking down doors and violent pacification, the central focus of counterinsurgency is civilian protection. In fact, improvement in Iraq and Afghanistan are measured by these social change criteria. Whether or not you support or protest either of these wars, the lessons we learn from them are vital. Our elected leaders--especially Congress and the President-- must witness a prominent public conversation about the topic, and to know that the American people have high expectations for change. Without it, there will be little incentive to think through where we are going in the world and to reformulate a strategy to get us there. We've missed this opportunity before. After Viet Nam, America didn't effectively review successes and failures and change policy accordingly. Then, when the Cold War ended in 1991, important new issues were shortchanged. Our elected leaders funded national priorities based on a bygone era throughout the 1990's. This problem remains with us today. Our priorities are severely out of balance. This year's budget request for international affairs--which funds economic aid, diplomacy, peace corps and other preventive activities-- is a small fraction of what we spend on defense--even when war spending is not included. And within the defense budget are billions of dollars worth of weapons built to fight the Soviet Union--a country that disappeared 17 years ago. Taxpayers are spending more and more on "defense" but, it seems, purchasing less and less safety.

Women's experiences bring important insights to national security policymaking. Since 9/11, relationship-building, international cooperation, and civil society support--activities that form the core of female power-- have become of equal importance to combat operations in our military's mission-planning directives. This change has implications for US policy. It signals an understanding that a host of critical dangers (like nuclear materials or contagious fundamentalism) can be lessened if our policies act early to bolster responsible government, citizen participation and the welfare of societies as a whole. Unfortunately, this kind of support remains ad hoc and not well-explained to the broader public. More problematic is that on both the left and the right, Americans are retreating to a desire for non-involvement and even isolation.

But these negative feelings also provide for a time of reflection and rehabilitation. Increasing numbers of Americans understand that our policies--like the pre-emptive war strategy in Iraq-- have caused our prestige to plummet. And we believe that our security suffers because of it. Scorning cooperation in favor of cowboy diplomacy (shoot first, ask questions later) we've tarnished our greatest source of strength, our reputation for legitimacy. This term applies when there is a widely held belief that everyone plays by the same set of rules. But the US has gone from being a great deal maker to a flagrant rule-breaker. American women want to gain back that lost ground...consistently showing strong preferences for cooperative problem solving on issues like climate change and nuclear non-proliferation.

Women have a real chance to translate this concern into action when they participate in elections. And indeed, women vote. According to a recent exit poll, women accounted for 58% of the turnout on February 5. Unmarried women accounted for fully 25%.

Women, both married and unmarried are concerned about Iraq and also think our country is on the wrong track. However, single women defy the skepticism of their peers, for they still have faith in government's ability to solve problems. This same poll shows that these singles are also more open to the opinion of others. Sounds like these women are perfect candidates to lead a policy discussion about our future.

The key to a new direction for our nation may well lie with unmarried American women--with children and without. I guess the title of this post should have been about how 2008 belongs to them. So move over soccer moms and security moms. its time to make room for the "strategic singles."


In order to comment on BlogHer.com, you'll need to be logged in. You'll be given the option to log in or create an account when you publish your comment. If you do not log in or create an account, your comment will not be displayed.

Trending Now

Recent Posts by LoreleiKelly