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Daily Beast Female Elites Denounce Global Human Rights Violations While Ignoring U.S. Crimes

Promising solutions for international women's rights problems, the Daily Beast's 'Women in the World' conference ended up supporting the status quo for US foreign policy.
 
 
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On the last day ofthe Daily Beast's Women in the World summit in Manhattan, a weekend-long conference offering "stories and solutions" to some of the most serious human rights problems faced by women across the globe, "60 Minutes" reporter Lesley Stahl sat down with Barack Obama's senior adviser and confidant, Valerie Jarrett, for a pleasant conversation. After some initial "hard news" questions on health care -- no mention of Stupak or the public option -- Stahl invited Jarrett to provide some biographical bullet points tracing her early career as a Chicago real estate lawyer (the job made her so "miserable" she would sit in her office and cry), to the Daley administration (she was "scared to death" of the mayor), to the White House, asking her at one point, as a single mom, "How do you do it?"

As a preface to a broader discussion of the White House and its policies, all this would be fine and good. Jarrett is a public figure, and, as some of the conference speakers eloquently demonstrated over the weekend, personal narrative has its value (especially given the tough reality for single moms). But before long, the interview devolved into something resembling a PR show. Stahl gave Jarrett ample room to wax poetic about the great privilege of working for Barack Obama, an "extraordinary" man full of "tenacity," "empathy," "inner strength," and so on, without asking her a single substantive question about the policies his administration has adopted -- policies with significant implications for the rest of the world. "Every day I pinch myself," Jarrett mused.

Yes, Stahl touched on the uncomfortable fact that many Obama supporters are "disappointed" with the president. But she didn't offer much of a hint as to why, and Jarrett took the opportunity to say that it's not about Obama so much as the mess he inherited from George W. Bush. (Never mind that Obama has continued some of Bush's worst policies; the real issue is that the White House has had problems "getting the message out.")

Barack Obama is the most powerful man in the world. Jarrett is one of his closest advisers, "the person who gets the boss," as Stahl put it. This is an administration making life and death decisions every day -- not just on health care, but on Afghanistan and Pakistan as well. A basic question Stahl might have asked at an event titled "Women in the World" could have considered the real-life impact the Obama White House's policies have on women in the world, especially those under U.S. occupation or U.S. drone attacks.

An example: On Saturday, March 13, just one day before this genial conversation in midtown Manhattan, an investigation by Jerome Starkey of the Times of London reported that a "botched" nighttime raid last month carried out by U.S. and Afghan soldiers led to the deaths of two pregnant women and a teenage girl, which NATO then attempted to cover up.

Bibi Shirin, 22, had four children under the age of 5. Bibi Saleha, 37, had 11 children. Both of them, according to their relatives, were pregnant. They were killed instantly.
[...] Shirin was four months pregnant and Saleha was five months. The other victim, Gulalai, 18, was engaged. She was wounded and later died. "We had already bought everything for the wedding," her soon-to-be father-in-law, Sayed Mohammed Mal, the Vice-Chancellor of Gardez University, said.

Not only did this story apparently go unreported in the U.S., thousands of miles away, in the Bizarro World of the Stahl/Jarrett interview, the U.S. is not waging war in Afghanistan, or if it is, it's not worth asking the president's top adviser about it. Aside from an audience member's suggestion that Michelle Obama meet with African first ladies, the single question on U.S. foreign policy came from a different audience member, who asked whether the fact that Jarrett was born in Iran informs her sense of foreign policy.

Yes, Jarrett answered, noting that both she and President Obama spent "our formative years outside of the United States." Reminiscing about when the two first met, she said, "… I think one of the things that we both recognized is just how extraordinary the United States is and sometimes you see that a little bit better when you have some distance from it."

"... When you think of the human rights violations that occur in other parts of the world," she went on, "we are ahead on that."

In the era of U.S. indefinite detention, waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- not to mention drone strikes that kill people at wedding parties -- this claim is more than a little hard to swallow.

To be fair, Jarrett went on to acknowledge that "it's not to say that we don't have our own challenges here, we do." But, she maintained, in the United States, we don't see the sorts of human rights violations described by other women at the conference.

This is true, insofar as the summit focused on such topics as forced marriage, rape as a weapon of war, female genital mutilation in Africa and sex trafficking in India, featuring no small number of impressive, truly courageous women who are battling these things at home. But at the same time, the conference, held in New York City and featuring some of the most influential journalists and government officials in the country, imposed very little scrutiny on the crimes of the United States against women in the world.

'I Believe in the Mission'

As a White House official, Valerie Jarrett was simply doing her job. Not so for Stahl, who is a veteran news reporter and owed her audience more intelligent questions than "Is the president thinking about getting a ranch and clearing brush?" (Yes, she actually asked that.)

The glossy treatment of U.S. foreign policy was present throughout the course of the conference, a fact that had everything to do with its highly visible corporate sponsors -- ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America -- and the experts invited to speak. Some pairings were almost surreal: Former Bush counterterror official (and torture apologist) Frances Townsend presided over a panel titled, "On the Brink: Women in Afghanistan and Pakistan," which kicked off with a one-on-one with Ching Eikenberry, the wife of U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry.

Ching Eikenberry, a USAID representative, told Townsend, "I went to Afghanistan because I believe in the mission," as blunt an endorsement of the U.S. occupation as one could get. (And one that went uncontested.) At another point, she parroted military talking points about the U.S. offensive in Marjah, one of the biggest packs of U.S. war propaganda sold by the military and media in recent memory.

After the Eikenberry interview -- which ended with Ching exhorting her "Afghan brothers and sisters" to talk to each other about their marriages ("Please lift the scarf and look at your wife") -- Townsend moderated a panel discussion on the plight of Afghan and Pakistani women that was bizarrely devoid of context. Not once was the U.S. occupation questioned, let alone civilian deaths or U.S. drone strikes. To any casual observer, the underlying premise would seem to be that the United States is in Afghanistan on a humanitarian mission to save women.

There were some hits that U.S. foreign policy is flawed. Panelist Suraya Pakzad, founder of Voice of Women, called upon the U.S. and Afghan governments to give women a place at the table in discussing reconstruction efforts -- "They only call us when they want to talk about gender equality" -- and Fatima Bhutto, an author, activist and niece of Benazir Bhutto, answering a question from writer Erica Jong -- "What can we [American women], do to help, you?" -- suggested that "maybe it would be useful to ask your government to stop propping up governments like Hamid Karzai's and Asif Ali Zardari in Pakistan, who are infamously corrupt."

Yet the dominant narrative aligned with Ching Eikenberry's view: "I believe in the mission."

"Americans Are the Most Generous People in the World"

Eikenberry was not the only spouse of a major player in current U.S. military misadventures to speak at the conference. "Morning Joe" host Mike Brezenski interviewed Cherie Blair, "Founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women," who also happens to be married to former Prime Minister Tony Blair, our great ally in invading Iraq on false pretenses. (Another infamous Iraq war cheerleader, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, was a featured lunchtime speaker.) Perhaps it's unfair to hold women like Blair responsible for her husband's murderous decisions, but giving them a platform from which to hold forth on women in the world inevitably skews the discussion: how could there be any genuine critique of the Western-led wars that affect them? (Sample alternate question for those Iraq experts among us: Why are so many women in Fallujah having babies with birth defects?)

But perhaps one of the major lows came when Barbara Walters interviewed former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the powerful Clinton-era hawk who pushed for war in Yugoslavia and devastating sanctions on Iraq. In a conversation that began with chit-chat about her decorative pins ("This little number you're wearing right there, what does that represent?" "Breaking the glass ceiling"), Albright cast the rights of women abroad as an issue that has to do with the safety of the American people.

"People are understanding the interconnectedness of our foreign policy, and that everything is a national security issue," Albright told Walters. "… What I've been trying to do -- and my pins are one way of doing it -- is to make foreign policy less foreign. It has to be spoken about in a language that non-experts are interested in." (Soon after this Albright explained, without a hint of irony, that "foreign policy is like a helium balloon: you need the hot air to bring it up and balance to move it" -- a confusing comparison, made as she justified the close ties the U.S. maintains with Saudi Arabia despite the Saudis' notorious treatment of women.)

Discussing Afghanistan and whether it's possible to change the way the Taliban treats women, Albright said "I don't know," particularly given the fact that the U.S. may try to negotiate with the Taliban. She mentioned the possibility of a group of female Marines meeting with Afghan women -- further proof the U.S. is there to save them -- but there was no further talk of the occupation (let alone U.S. drone attacks). Instead, the subsequent discussion touched on "gendercide" in China, human trafficking, genital mutilation and other human rights violations taking place in other countries.

"Americans are the most generous people in the world, with the shortest attention span," Albright said, stressing the need to "stay focused" on these pressing global issues. Yet the very issues for which the United States bears the most direct responsibility were not discussed.

This includes those in which Albright played a role: It is very telling that the former secretary of state was not questioned about some of the policies she personally implemented, most notably, the deadly sanctions against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. When asked (by Lesley Stahl, no less) about the deadly effects of the sanctions (which according to a 1995 United Nations report, were responsible for the deaths of 567,000 Iraqi children under the age of 5 -- "that's more children than died in Hiroshima"), Albright famously responded: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price -- we think the price is worth it."

A 'Revolutionary' Conference?

Taken as a whole, the Women in the World conference was itself, ironically, a microcosm of the systemic reasons women are in dire straights across the globe. Just as its most high-profile featured speakers have been inextricably linked to war crimes and deadly foreign policy, its corporate sponsors have been inextricably linked to the suffering of women -- from the victimization of women in oil-rich nations (sponsored by Exxon), predatory lenders and families losing their homes (sponsored by Bank of America) and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, even as corporate bonuses are doled out (sponsored by Goldman Sachs). The aggressively pro-market message of much of the weekend -- empowering women through entrepreneurship -- made it clear that the "solutions" for women in the world are more neo-liberal economic policies and unchallenged U.S. military dominance.

The Daily Beast describes the conference as "revolutionary," and that might have been true, given the caliber of some of the speakers gathered there, like Leymah Gbowee, who inspired the Liberia documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, or the fearless Sunitha Krishnan, who combats sex trafficking in her native India. As panelist Fatima Bhutto told AlterNet, "there were so many fascinating, compelling women at the summit, Sunitha Krishnan, Hafsat Abiola, Kiran Bedi, Soraya Pakzhad -- so there's no doubt that the summit did something incredible in getting their voices heard."

"Madeline Albright's voice, however, I feel we've heard enough of. In her 30-minute conversation she justified the war in Iraq, a country she strangled with sanctions -- not that we were allowed to ask her anything as there was no Q & A.As someone from a country where U.S. drones fly over our land daily -- today three were killed -- I found it outrageous that not only did Albright not mention the wars that this generous country is forcing upon us, but she also subjected us to a photo montage of U.S. troops handing out lollipops to sad brown children.

"The problem was Madeline Albright," says Bhutto, "not the summit."

In order for such a summit to truly be "revolutionary," figures like Albright -- and Jarrett, who wields so much influence today -- would have to be held accountable for U.S. actions. Unfortunately, on that front, the conference was all about maintaining the status quo. Or, as Obama used to put it, "more of the same."

Liliana Segura is an AlterNet staff writer and editor of Rights & Liberties and World Special Coverage. Follow her on Twitter.