Why the Time Just Isn’t Right for a Female Secretary of State
By: Dixie Swanson
Things are moving fast in the Middle East. Yesterday’s hero is today’s power-grabbing dictator. Our point person in foreign policy is the Secretary of State, and we make a fundamental error time and again when it comes to this job.
That’s why it’s a good thing U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice withdrew from consideration for Secretary of State. And why Sen. John Kerry would be the better choice.
It has nothing to do with Rice’s comments about the Sept. 11 U.S. embassy attack in Libya and everything to do with the realities of cultural differences.
Diplomacy is all about making the other guy comfortable, so you two can have polite discourse on difficult topics. In the increasingly fundamentalist Arab world, having a female Secretary of State makes the guy automatically uncomfortable … and we wonder why things go badly. Remember, these are guys who treat women as the legal equivalent of a minor child.
After Madeleine Albright, Condi Rice, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, you’d think the Secretary of State position was made for a woman. But for many of the cultures with which we’re negotiating, it simply isn’t. Sure, we want to show off the equality of our women, but more importantly, we want the people she is visiting to be able to agree with her. And if she is visiting a Muslim country, especially one with Sharia law, no one is likely to agree with her.
Part of me wants to say, “Tough noogies, guys. You want to deal with us, you deal with whoever we send. We believe in equality for women, and here she is.”
Another part of me says, “We’d best send someone who will be taken seriously in Islamic countries.”
Until you have encountered a man so fundamentalist that he will not shake your hand, “because in my religion, no man touches any woman except his wife,” it’s easy to assume gender doesn’t matter for a post like Secretary of State. But it matters — a great deal.
That’s their fault, but our problem.
Just as I’d be uncomfortable in the presence of a group of burqa-clad women, newer leaders in the Middle East are put off by powerful women in Western dress. Our Secretaries of State dress modestly by Western standards, but to the Muslim man, she should be robed, not wearing a pants suit. She is emulating Western men. And in a business suit with a skirt, she’s showing too much flesh.
Sen. Kerry might be a good nominee, but it would be nice if President Obama could find a man in the diplomatic corps who is Arab-American and multi-lingual. They do exist. Our Secretary of State should not be a political appointee. We might be better served by a career diplomat. None of the ambassadors to “hot” areas are rich donors or career politicians; they are veteran diplomats. It makes sense that the ambassador to the whole world should be a veteran diplomat of the highest caliber.
Power is the language of the Middle East, like it or not, so if we can’t get a world-class male diplomat, let’s start sending men whose good manners are a thin veneer covering a lethal force. Perhaps an ex-Special Forces operative or a Navy SEAL. Someone whose unspoken message is “We’re going to have peace, dammit, and you’re going to like it.”
For the time being, a woman just isn’t the right man for the job.
About Dixie Swanson
Dixie Swanson was a pediatrician for 10 years and the Family Health Reporter for NBC’s Houston affiliate. She also spent time working for a Washington lobbyist with access to the White House. Dixie is the author of “The Accidental President Trilogy – a Political Fable for Our Time,” an entertaining and thought-provoking series about a non-political woman who finds herself in federal government, www.dixieswanson.com.