State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki and her deputy, Marie Harf, have spent the week being attacked by right-wing media. They have been targets of particularly harsh, personal attacks, using language that demeans both women and is almost never used to describe men in similar high-profile positions, regardless of what they say.
On February 19, the Daily Caller equated Psaki to a game where players take turns kicking a bead-filled ball around, when it was announced she has been tapped by President Obama to be the White House Communications Director: “Hacky Psaki: Obama Spokeslady Kicked Back To WH After Stint At State Dept.”
The National Review's Ian Tuttle called the two women an incapable “hapless duo” with a “Lucy and Ethel routine” (Harf is blonde, Psaki a red head) who were trying to create a version of the comedy film Legally Blonde at the US Department of State. In a separate piece, the conservative journal of record's Kevin Williamson called Harf “cretinous” and a “misfit who plays Messy Marvin to Jen Psaki's feckless Pippi Longstocking.”
It's one thing to disagree with and criticize a strategy or policy, it's another to belittle and undermine a person's intelligence and legitimacy by resorting to misogynist attacks.
I've worked with Jen Psaki, she's no lightweight. While I don't know Harf, according to her bio she spent two years during the Bush administration as a CIA analyst on Middle East leadership issues, has a masters degree in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia, and a Bachelor's Degree in Political Science with concentrations in Russian and Eastern European Studies and Jewish Studies, having graduated from Indiana University with honors.
Despite their credentials, Rachel Campos-Duffy, co-host of Fox News' Outnumbered, mocked the two women by saying they look more like sorority girls than serious professionals. Duffy's comment illustrates that denigrating, sexist comments reducing women to commentary about their looks or their intelligence aren't constrained by gender; nor are they constrained by political party, as attacks leveled from conservatives about Michele Bachmann's migraines illustrated.
The media's absurd 30+ year obsession with Hillary Clinton's appearance and David Letterman's comment that former Governor Sarah Palin had a “slutty flight attendant look” make it clear that almost nothing is out of bounds when criticizing a woman regardless of what she is saying. I say that as someone who -- despite profound substantive differences -- spoke out against the attacks made on both Palin and Bachmann.
What makes the right-wing media attacks against Harf even more egregious -- despite the familiarity of the larger pattern -- is that she is essentially saying the same thing a number of high-profile conservative men have also said previously. Yet those men weren't attacked -- some were even praised.
Harf drew the wrath of conservatives for commenting that “We cannot kill our way out of this war” against the Islamic State during a February 16 interview on Hardball. For this she is being portrayed as a “a damn naïve fool” by conservatives, who ignore her full comments, suggesting that she didn't also talk about the importance of military strikes as well as other tactics:
HARF: We're killing a lot of them, and we're going to keep killing more of them. So are the Egyptians. So are the Jordanians. They're in this fight with us. But we cannot win this war by killing them. We cannot kill our way out of this war. We need, in the longer term - medium and longer term - to go after the root causes that leads people to join these groups.
You're right, there is no easy solution in the long term to preventing and combatting violent extremism, but if we can help countries work at the root causes of this - what makes these 17-year-old kids pick up an AK-47 instead of trying to start a business? Maybe we can try to chip away at this problem, while at the same time going after the threat, taking on ISIL in Iraq, in Syria, and helping our partners around the world.
Rush Limbaugh certainly didn't call Admiral Michael Mullen, then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, a “little girl” or say that he sounded like a “valley girl” when he basically said the same thing about the war in Afghanistan in 2008 testimony:
MULLEN: We can't kill our way to victory, and no armed force anywhere -- no matter how good -- can deliver these keys alone. It requires teamwork and cooperation.
While they were talking about different parts of the world at different times, both Harf and Mullen are making a broader point that given the nature of terrorist threats and the strategies they employ -- from the way they utilize social media, finance their operations, recruit and train from all over the world, targeting those who are most vulnerable to their message -- America must have a strategy that is multi-faceted and multi-national. That strategy includes not only airstrikes but also social media, helping countries build democratic institutions, and stabilizing their economy with the means for people to make a living.
President Bush voiced many of the same ideas, connecting the role that poverty and a lack of democratic institutions plays in creating instability and the spread of terrorism. In a 2002 speech to the UN International Conference on Financing for Development, he said:
BUSH: Many here today have devoted their lives to the fight against global poverty, and you know the stakes. We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror. We fight against poverty because opportunity is a fundamental right to human dignity. We fight against poverty because faith requires it and conscience demands it. And we fight against poverty with a growing conviction that major progress is within our reach.
We will challenge the poverty and hopelessness and lack of education and failed governments that too often allow conditions that terrorists can seize and try to turn to their advantage.
An October 2003 report from the Heritage Foundation also addressed the importance of democratic institutions and civil society in stabilizing regions that can become havens for terrorists, and the connection to U.S. security in the context of Africa, also one of the poorest, regions of the world:
While poverty and instability alone do not breed terrorists or weapons proliferators, African nations with weak civil societies and poor law enforcement and judicial systems are vulnerable to penetration and exploitation by transnational terrorist groups.
And Harf's point that part of our mid- to long-term strategy should address root causes that compel a 17-year old to pick up a gun and fight echoed remarks by none other than former Vice President Dick Cheney.
In his August 2002 speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Cheney also made the connection between the ways poverty and oppression in the Middle East contribute to “conditions that breed despair, hatred, and violence” in young people and the hope of a changed outcome in the long term.
But no one suggested that Cheney's glasses were the smartest thing about him, as the Federalist did about Harf.
It doesn't matter whether you agree with these men or not, or if you agree with what Harf said or not. And none of this is to suggest that critics should go easy on or hold women to a different and easier standard.
What matters is that despite a media culture in which women are already too often under-represented on a myriad of topics, its unacceptable for men and women -- regardless of political persuasion -- to be treated differently for saying the same thing.