April 04, 2011

How Much Is a Little Girl Learning to Read Worth?

Kathleen Parker had an op-ed in the Washington Post yesterday lamenting the fact that women's rights are not a priority for the United States and its allies in Afghanistan:

Women, and by extension children, suffer 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 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 repudiated the comment. Even so, the anonymous spokesman’s
opinion, though inartfully expressed, is hardly isolated.

I generally like Kathleen Parker's commentary, but this is the worst kind of op-ed because it completely misses the heart of the debate and leads the reader to believe the key question is something that it is not. There is not, despite what you might think, some group of anti-feminist activists out there in the Obama Administration who do not think the empowerment of women is a good thing. No one is running around arguing that promoting the rights of women is something the United States should not be doing. The real debate is over how much of a priority the promotion of women's issues should be when compared with competing priorities.

Here's a hypothetical: What if Mullah Omar, speaking for all the insurgents of Afghanistan, presented a peace deal tomorrow in which he offered to lay down all the arms of Afghanistan's insurgent groups and renounce al-Qaeda on one condition: that girls in southern Afghanistan would not be allowed to attend school. What should the president do? Should he accept the offer, allowing the war in Afghanistan to end? Or should he say, no, we will stay in Afghanistan and continue to lose American and allied lives and spend billions of dollars each year because we cannot accept an Afghanistan in which women are not allowed to attend school?

My intent here is to demonstrate that it is not a matter of believing the rights of women matter or not. The question is, How much are the rights of women worth to you? Are you willing to accept added cost in terms of blood and treasure?

Parker, apparently, is:

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.

Okay, that's just crazy talk. I'm just going to assume Parker could not think of a better way to end her op-ed and so hastily wrote a powerful conclusion making a really big claim that I do not think she is prepared to back up. Does Parker really think the empowerment of women should be the core of our strategy in Afghanistan and elsewhere? Should the rights of women trump the security interests that led us to war in the first place? Is she willing to go to war, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, over gender equality?

I sure hope not. But as Americans, it's true that we do care about the empowerment of women, and we do believe that a society in which women enjoy something approaching equal opportunities is a more stable and successful society. The question is, how much blood and treasure are we willing to spend to realize such a society -- not in the United States, mind, but in a Central Asian state in which we have struggled to understand the norms and culture despite almost 10 years of occupation?* I would have been more interested to read an op-ed by Kathleen Parker in which she answered that question.

*Oh, and has anyone stopped to ask Afghan women what it is that they want? Should it matter?