Foreign policy strategy: It’s the women, stupid

NEW YORK — Whether the topic is Libya’s rebels or Afghanistan’s “reconciliation” with the Taliban, the pivotal question is, or should be: What about the women?

During my brief tenure as a CNN anchor, I insistently raised this question and was consistently disappointed by the answer, which mo

re or less went like this:

“Yes, well, the women. Too bad about the women. They’ll suffer.”

Women, and by extension children, are what too many have come to accept as “collateral damage” in theaters of war. We hate it, of course, but what can one do? It isn’t in our strategic interest to save the women and children of the world. Or, as an anonymous senior White House official recently told The Washington Post:

“Gender issues are going to have to take a back seat to other priorities. There’s no way we can be successful if we maintain every special interest and pet project. All those pet rocks in our rucksack were taking us down.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, no stranger to the importance of advancing women’s rights, promptly refuted the comment. Even so, the anonymous spokesman’s opinion, though inartfully expressed, is hardly isolated.

But what if this is a false premise? What if saving women from cultures that treat them as chattel was in our strategic and not just moral interest? What if helping women become equal members of a society was the most reliable route to our own security?

One needn’t be a visionary to accept this simple tenet as not only probable but inescapably true. Without exception, every nation that oppresses women is a failed and, therefore, dangerous nation.

This is not the stuff of stunning revelation, but it is often overlooked or minimized in importance. More typically pressing are armies and artillery. The real fight is in the trenches where men historically have clashed to resolve their differences. Ironically perhaps to those still waiting for the oceans to recede and the planet to heal, President George W. Bush and Laura Bush always understood the necessity of including women in the peace equation. Hence, the historic U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council established in 2002 by Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

At a conference last week hosted by the former first couple — “Building Afghanistan’s Future: Promoting Women’s Freedom and Advancing Their Economic Opportunity” — the Bushes reiterated their commitment to the women of Afghanistan and their belief that protecting women should be at the core of our foreign policy.

“We liberated Afghanistan from the Taliban, because of providing a safe haven for al-Qaida,” George Bush told Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren. “I believed then and believe now we have an obligation to help this young democracy in Afghanistan survive — and thrive. And one of the best and most effective ways to do so is to empower women.”

Such a simple concept, empowering women. Except that in a country where men feel free to throw acid in the faces of little girls trying to attend school, it is not so simple. In a nation where child marriage and “honor killings” are still accepted custom, it is not so easy.

No one underestimates the challenges of helping women become equal participants in a civil society only recently concocted. But allowing progress to recede shouldn’t be an option. Recent negotiations between the Karzai government and the Taliban, in which women’s rights could be diluted, should have all of us worried.

It is too bad, meanwhile, that we are restricted in these discussions by terminology that rings of cliche. “Women’s rights” sounds too much like debates about abortion and subsidized day care. What we’re really talking about is basic human rights. The freedom to work, to make decisions about one’s own life, to seek an education and to be safe to walk on the streets without a male escort. To be fully human, in other words.

Anything less is terrorism by any other name. The insanity that sends jihadists to rain hell on civilized nations is the same that stones women to death for failing to comport to primitive norms of behavior.

As Clinton wrote in Time magazine in 2001, “The mistreatment of women in Afghanistan was like an early warning signal of the kind of terrorism that culminated in the attacks of September 11.”

Women are not collateral damage in the fight for security. They are not pet rocks in a rucksack, nor are they sidebars to the main story. They are the story — and should be the core of our foreign policy strategy in Afghanistan as elsewhere.

Kathleen Parker is a Washington Post columnist. Her email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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