Reports are circulating that President Bush intends to divide a post-Saddam Iraq into three sectors: north, south and central. Two retired U.S. generals would separately administer the north and south while the central sector, including Baghdad, would be overseen by a woman: Barbara Bodine, a former ambassador to Yemen.
Reaction to this news and to the eventuality itself will be interesting, not only among Arabs but also from the American left, especially from left-wing feminists.
Bodine, 54, has been described as an American diplomat with a taste for danger and an ambition to advance the cause of Arab women. She also shares the Bush administrations belief that most Muslim people want democracy.
Bodines taste for danger is evidenced by the dramatic history of her former posts to the Middle East. During the Iran-Iraq War in the early 80s she was the deputy principal officer in Baghdad. Prior to the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, she was deputy chief of mission in Kuwait and endured a 137-day siege by Iraqi troops of the U.S. Embassy. She was the U.S. ambassador to Yemen in 2000 when the USS Cole was bombed. In 2001, she survived an airplane hijacking.
In short, Bodine is qualified. But she also embodies two other attributes: She is a woman; and, she is right-wing.
Bodines sex may be a problem for some Arab states with whom she would have to negotiate. Saudi Arabia, for example, is notorious for its draconian attitude toward women. Let alone non-Arab, non-Muslim women in positions of power. The Arab League, when informed of the post-Saddam plans, reportedly expressed outrage.
Iraq itself is likely to see Bodines gender as an insult. Although Saddam wooed Western favor by implementing pro-woman policies in the past (for which U.S. feminists have seemed to praise him), those advances collapsed as Western favor became an unachievable goal.
In general, the Arab world does not welcome nor want women in power, especially power over men. Bodines presence may be a stumbling block to the stability of any post-Iraq solution. And Bush may be trading off a foreign advantage for a domestic one.
Because, domestically, the appointment of Bodine is a brilliant move. Left-wing feminists are not going to applaud her, however progressive her goals for Arab women may be. They will either remain silent as they are right now or they will condemn.
The condemnation will be delivered through faint praise with a punchline of criticism. For example, they will say, Bush has sent Bodine into an impossible situation as a sop thrown to Iraqi women while he denies abortion rights to American women. Organizations like NOW hate Bush for his position on abortion and they will be willing to ignore the plight of Muslim women if it distracts one whit from their own domestic goals. (Kay Hymowitz expands on this point in her excellent article entitled, Feminists to Muslim Women: Drop Dead.)
Bushs strategy in appointing Bodine (if rumors are true) is brilliant because it embodies what I call outflanking the opponent on the left. Translation: He is taking the lefts cherished principles and applying them in a manner that benefits him and makes them choke.
The principle: Women should be in positions of power. Appointing Bodine would do that. The principle: Arab women need equal rights. Appointing the pro-woman Bodine would further that.
If left-wing feminists believe in their own principles, they will leap to their feet, applauding madly. But Bodine is right-wing and this guarantees that their posteriors will remain seated, planted firmly on their hands.
The left is good at outrage. It is good at yelling sexist, racist, exploiter, hypocrite . . . fill in the ad hominem blank. They are wretched at dealing with anyone who applies their own principles better than they do because this pulls the moral high ground out from under them.
Consider another outflanking on the left move ... namely, Miguel Estradas nomination as the first Latino on a federal appeals court in Washington. The pro-minority Democrats are opposing him with all their might because he is right-wing. This allows Republicans to counter with the leftist-sounding accusation that Democrats are anti-minority, anti-Hispanic. It is good strategy.
The Bush administrations stated intention to appoint Bodine, in and of itself, does the same thing to left-wing feminists. On what grounds can they object? On what grounds can they not applaud?
The unspoken reason will be that Bodines career is rooted deeply within Republican interests. She has served under Reagan, George Bush Sr. and the current Bush presidency. Bodine has also worked for Bob Dole and Henry Kissinger. And Democrats have criticized her loyalty to Republican administrations before.
The criticism will fall on deaf ears. Bush seems to be positioning Bodine to assume swift control of central Iraq. She has been recalled from her sabbatical at the University of California to serve as the senior civilian on a Pentagon taskforce considering the reconstruction of post-Saddam Iraq.
Playing the Bodine card is an aggressive move by the Bush administration. It is likely to complicate any resolution to post-Saddam Iraq. But it is also likely to solidify Bushs domestic support if only because it clips another feather from left-wingers.