The Age of Woman

January 21, 2009 Topics: Security Regions: Americas

The Age of Woman

Mini Teaser: Can women keep us safe? For all the talk of a rise of women to positions of power, there is still a dearth of the female perspective in national security. With the unprecedented appointment of three women to some of the highest posts in the new ad

by Author(s): Bruce Hoffman

Gina M. Bennett, National Security Mom: Why "Going Soft" Will Make America Strong (Deadwood, OR: Wyatt-MacKenzie, 2008), 180 pp., $24.00.

Peggy Noonan, Patriotic Grace: What It Is and Why We Need It Now (New York: Collins, 2008), 208 pp., $19.95.


A long time from now people will probably look back upon our era as one of the few great turning points-and perhaps the greatest turning point-in history. They will perhaps look at it as the age when the human race rescued itself from collective madness and self-destruction by the skin of its teeth. How? By woman power, entering into all its affairs, its concerns, its ideas, in entirely new ways.
-Konrad Kellen, The Coming Age of Woman Power

KONRAD KELLEN got it right most of the time. He left Germany in 1933-immediately upon Hitler's appointment as chancellor and, by emigrating to the United States, avoided the terrible fate of European Jewry under Nazi rule. Three decades later as a counterinsurgency analyst at the Santa Monica, California, headquarters of the RAND Corporation, assessing Vietcong morale and motivation, he was among the first to conclude-in 1965-that the Vietnam War was unwinnable. Kellen went on to become among the most astute analysts of terrorism, and the reports that he wrote for RAND's U.S. government clients in the late 1970s and early 1980s identified trends that we see clearly manifested today. Yet, as the above quote suggests, his 1972 book heralding a new era of peace and prosperity, unparalleled human and scientific development, and the various other benefits that a world soon to be led and governed by women would surely entail, proved to be one of the few monumental trends of the twentieth century that he got completely, totally and utterly wrong.

Indeed, if Kellen were alive today he would be surprised how marginally the status of women in American society has changed. To be sure, there are far more women in the workplace today than there were thirty-seven years ago. The number of women who now adroitly, if not successfully, balance family and job responsibilities would have been unimaginable then. And, in the past year alone, a woman credibly ran for president and one less credibly for vice president. Finally, three women have been entrusted by President Obama with responsibility for America's foreign policy, homeland security and the conduct of U.S. diplomacy at the United Nations. Yet, it remains undeniable that with respect to both governance and the formulation and execution of policy, the United States remains, if no longer the exclusively male domain it once was, then at least still an overwhelmingly male one. Indeed, a report by the World Economic Forum recently concluded that: "Women still lag far behind men in top political and decision-making roles even though their access to education and health care is nearly equal. . . ." Thus, even in the aftermath of a presidential election where the need for change was the one thing that both candidates unambiguously agreed on and which, moreover, propelled the winner into the White House, the prospect of any significant near-term recalibration of gender governmental responsibilities over matters both big and small beyond these three senior-level nominees is nonexistent. Witness President Obama's first press conference three days after the election, where his much-heralded economic-advisory team was introduced. Three are women. Nearly five times as many, or fourteen, are men. In this respect, it is highly unlikely that the current gender imbalance in force at the State Department, Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Mission to the United Nations will change in any appreciable way soon, despite the formidable women heading each.

With the publication of both Peggy Noonan's Patriotic Grace and Gina M. Bennett's National Security Mom, one is reminded of Kellen's cri de coeur for the different approach that women-and particularly mothers-might bring to typically machismo-laden, muscle-flexing issues involving diplomacy, fiscal policy and especially national security beyond a handful of cabinet appointments. Even if Kellen's "age of woman power" has not yet come to pass, his conviction that women offer a unique and perhaps invaluable perspective on questions of national security and counterterrorism is the cornerstone of both the Noonan and Bennett books.

Noonan is of course widely known as one of the clearest and most perspicacious columnists around today. The most enthusiastic, genuine and compelling cipher of the Reagan Revolution-which she witnessed firsthand as presidential speechwriter-and author of several more books, Noonan now writes a weekly column for the Wall Street Journal, "Declarations." Its devoted readers are drawn to Noonan for the firmly gentle grip that she perceptively has on America's pulse. There is perhaps no one better able to illuminate and elucidate the spectrum of issues, both great and mundane, that concern Americans and define America today. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Noonan, no one can deny that her columns don't cut quickly to the chase: eschewing the snarkiness and self-righteousness that passes for commentary elsewhere and instead cogently identifying exactly where we are as a country and a people at a time when so many others are so completely lost.

No one will likely have ever heard of Bennett nor ever read anything that she's written despite an equally long and distinguished career. This is not surprising since Bennett has worked for some two decades as an analyst in the U.S. intelligence community: one of the nameless heroes in a necessarily faceless bureaucracy whose written work is uniformly highly classified and distributed on a strictly limited, need-to-know basis. But make no mistake-Bennett, in her own unique way and in her own unique, hermetically sealed environment, is as heavy a hitter and trenchant an analyst as Noonan. Indeed, Bennett is among the very few who can accurately claim to have "connected the dots" prior to the September 11, 2001, attacks. And she did so nine years before those planes slammed into the twin towers and the Pentagon and plummeted to earth in a dirt field.

A recently declassified assessment that Bennett wrote in 1993, titled "The Wandering Mujahidin: Armed and Dangerous," is excerpted in her book. It clearly shows that at least someone in the vast, windowless corridors that comprise this community in fact understood the threat and the manner in which it would unfold-with all its tragic consequences. "Numerous wealthy patrons of the Afghan cause," Bennett explained, "particularly from Saudi Arabia and Gulf states, reportedly support the ongoing mujahidin effort as part of their generosity to Islamic movements worldwide. . . . Among private donors to the new generation, Usama Bin Laden is particularly famous for his religious zeal and financial largess." Accordingly, in the assessment Bennett concluded:

The growing perception by Muslims that the U.S. follows a double standard with regard to Islamic issues-particularly in Iraq, Bosnia, Algeria, and the Israeli-occupied territories-heightens the possibility that Americans will become the targets of radical Muslims' wrath. Afghan war veterans, scattered through the world, could surprise the U.S. with violence in unexpected locales.

Lower Manhattan, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, proved to be precisely those locales.

Thus, coming at national security and counterterrorism from two different directions, both authors arrive at the same place: the conviction that something has gone terribly wrong in America and its war on terrorism and therefore that profound changes in our attitude and approach are required. It is difficult to disagree with them. Seven years into a global war on terrorism, the United States is at a crossroads. The sustained successes of the war's early phases (e.g., between October 2001 and March 2003) are now challenged by an al-Qaeda that has regrouped and reorganized along the lawless tribal border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan and is once again threatening. "Today, virtually every major terrorist threat that my agency is aware of has threads back to the tribal areas," Michael V. Hayden, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, lamented in November 2008 in a major public address before a Washington, DC, audience.

Indeed, if 9/11 has taught us anything, it is that al-Qaeda is most dangerous when it has a sanctuary or safe haven from which to operate-as it now indisputably does. Further, al-Qaeda-affiliated and -associated groups, like al-Qaeda in the Maghreb and Lashkar-e-Taiba, are more active and potentially consequential in different areas of the globe. Perhaps most important, however, is that the broader movement's ability to continue to appeal to its hard-core political base (and thus ensure a flow of recruits into its ranks, money into its coffers, and support among its core base for its aims and objectives) guarantees that this struggle will neither abate on its own accord or be easily-and quickly-defeated.

Even though there has been no successful terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11, the confidence and certitude that America was on the right track with the war on terrorism only a few years ago has now mostly eroded. A poll commissioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation shortly before the recent presidential election bears this out. A third of Americans surveyed, for example, believed that al-Qaeda was actually stronger today than it was on 9/11 and another 30 percent thought that the war on terrorism had in fact no effect on it. Even more worrisome is the fact that, seven years after nineteen men hijacked four airplanes and changed the course of history, only 5 percent of voters polled on election day thought terrorism an issue worthy of their concern.

Essay Types: Book Review