Roundtable: U.N. Promotes Women, Democrats' Iraq Plan

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Guests discuss a United Nations effort to promote women; and Democrats unveil their plan for Iraq. Joining the panel: Pedro Noguera, professor in the Steinhart School of Education at New York University; Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University; and Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

On today's Roundtable, the U.N. wants to put more women in peace-making positions and Democrats unveil their plans for Iraq; it's tied to funding. Joining the panel today are Pedro Noguera, professor of education at New York University, Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and Nat Irvin, columnist for the Winston-Salem Journal. Welcome everybody, and let's go straight to women and the U.N.

Now the U.N. Security Council announced it wants more women to help with efforts to, quote, "maintain peace and security." In a statement released on Wednesday, which was International Women's Day, the council urged its member states to encourage more female representation at all institutional decision-making levels, prevent, manage resolution of conflict. Now the statement revealed the council's efforts to push U.N. secretary-general to appoint more women as special representatives and envoys.

Professor Berry, this sounds like, I guess, common sense to some folks. But the U.N. isn't really known for…

Professor MARY FRANCES BERRY (History, University of Pennsylvania): Common sense.

Professor PEDRO NOGUERA (Education, New York University): Did you say common sense?

CHIDEYA: Well, the U.N. isn't known for being a generally female-friendly institution. There have been some sexual harassment lawsuits and things like that. What do you think about this new move?

Prof. BERRY: And yesterday, the secretary-general also made a statement - the new secretary general - saying that he would take all of these recommendations under advisement and that he, too, wanted women to have a greater role in everything at the U.N. We'll see how it plays out, because every year for International Women's Day they make nice-nice statements about what they're going to do. And having women more involved is really struggle always at the U.N., like it is everywhere else, when it comes to where the real power is.

Also, all the nice statements they made about stopping genocide and rape and crimes against humanity. If the members of the Security Council would act themselves to help stop genocide in Darfur or other places, and rape and all the rest, it would be stopped or at least it would be less than it is now. So the statements are nice. We'll have to see what happens.

CHIDEYA: Pedro, I can't help but think of Presidents Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia. She is a woman, obviously. She is also someone who has - she really seems to have brought some peace to a troubled land. And there are obviously questions of leadership and whether or not men and women lead differently. That's part of our whole series on women and leadership, the Leading Ladies series we're doing right now. Do you think that there's an inherent value to having women specifically at the table?

Prof. NOGUERA: I think there's a just inherent value in equity that you include women in all spheres, particularly in leadership. I think it's also true that women do bring a different perspective. I think of a number of leaders who are women who have brought like Mary Robinson, for example, the former president of Ireland, who brought a very different set of values and priorities to her role in leadership in the United Nations. At the same time, you can also point to women who really are no different from men in their leadership. I'm thinking of Margaret Thatcher, for example, in England.

And so I think it would be a mistake to conclude that just because you're a woman that you bring a different set of politics and values. Nonetheless, the point of parity and equity is important and should be upheld. And I don't it's all that symbolic. I think it's important for the United Nations to take a stand like this. The real question is what are they going to do? Are they really going to follow through and make sure that something is done to include women and all spheres and in all levels of leadership.

CHIDEYA: Nat, I think that generally there's no question that men are more likely to be combatants in war. But women often are sort of the silent - not just victims, but also collaborators, people who hold together groups of people who are fighting. Are women really inherently more suited to making peace or is this, as Pedro suggests, really a question of equity?

Mr. NAT IRVIN (Columnist, Winston-Salem Journal): Well, I think it's both. And, you know, in terms of your specific question about whether they are inherently geared toward making peace, I think if you were look at major crises around the world, this could be whether it's war, whether it's the aftermath of an earthquake or tsunami, you will see that women are the ones who generally take the lead in rebuilding communities, have an enormous capacity for being able to remake, to look at tragedy and begin to remake the village.

I think one of the interesting issues for me, as we think about the role of women now and in the future, is to look at the extraordinary progress that women are making around the world and how this is being recognized by individual governments. I think the United Nations certainly has a role, and Mary pointed out it's great to make statements. But in fact, you know, they really don't have that much to do, other than for symbolic statements, with what happens in individual countries. I think when you look at the role of women both now and in the future, you want to look at one or two indicators.

One is look at the literacy rate of women. Whenever that's up, you will see that the GDP of countries goes up; whenever that's down, you will see that the issues that we're taught, you know, that causes you to have an International Women's Day today. When you're looking at the educational gaps, you know, the mortality rates, the violence against women, all those are indicators that women are not fully a part of the economic and political system.

But when countries do recognize this, you can see - and there's a report from the World Bank that says that their GDP goes up 19 percent when more women are involved in the economic life of a country. And that's directly tied to parity, it's tied to education, it's tied to women having credit. So, good for the U.N. But, you know, they're really following women in this instance.

CHIDEYA: Well, the question always is, will the execution match the rhetoric? And in case you're just tuning in, this is NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. We're talking with Nat Irvin, columnist for the Winston-Salem Journal, Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and Pedro Noguera, professor of education at New York University.

Prof. BERRY: Farai, before you move on, I just want to make one point on the last segment.

CHIDEYA: Oh please, go ahead.

Prof. BERRY: And that is that women are naturally no more opposed to making war when it's necessary, for good reason, than men are. I mean women don't just make peace just to be making peace. If there's something real to protect, whether it's somebody important to them or some values that are at stake, women are quite willing to lead war, make war, do whatever is necessary. So I don't think it's a natural sort of inclination. Not that anybody said it was. I just want to make that clear. It depends on the circumstances.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, well, I was just in Zimbabwe and I ended up hanging out with one of my old great aunts, Tete Gopo(ph), and she was one of the people who supported the liberation struggle there. Now the country has taken a bad turn recently, but women gave their lives and women fought in the bush and women held their own guerilla camps. And so they're certainly - your point is very well taken.

Moving on to another issue of war and peace. House Democrats challenged President George Bush yesterday, unveiling legislation to pull the U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the fall of next year. Now the White House said President Bush would oppose the plan, veto it. Before the unveiling, members of the Out of Iraq Caucus spoke to the media about their intentions to make good on the promise. Congressman Keith Ellison said the promise was the reason that he and other Democrats were elected in November.

Representative KEITH ELLISON (Democrat, Minnesota): Our troops have done everything that we've asked of them. We've searched for weapons of mass destruction and found that there were none. They found and captured Saddam Hussein. They've remarkably performed in their service. And the path to a secure Iraq is no longer on a battlefield, but in the political arena. It is up to the members of Congress to develop a plan to fully fund our withdrawal from Iraq and plan to diplomatically engage our key allies and countries in the region to bring stability.

CHIDEYA: Now Keith Ellison notably is the first Muslim elected to Congress. It's interesting that they put him out front on this issue. But the Out of Iraq Caucus has existed for a while, has not been able to achieve what they want, which is to get the U.S. out of Iraq. Pedro, are they going to be able to achieve their aim?

Prof. NOGUERA: I don't think so. I don't think the votes are there right now in the Congress, despite what the polls show. But I do think that the stand they're taking is important. It's important for the American public to know that there are elected representatives who are willing to take a tough stand and call for an end to the war. I don't think that they can stop it now. I think that the fact that Bush still is the commander-in-chief and the fact that he has both Republicans and Democrats in sufficient numbers to support him will make it possible for them to continue to pursue this war.

What's going to change things, ultimately, is the continued disaster in Iraq. The American people at some point will get so fed up with seeing so many lives lost - and not just Americans, but Iraqis - and see that country continue to spiral into chaos, because I have seen no evidence at all that this surge is going to lead to stability in that country.

CHIDEYA: Nat, Pedro brings up the very good point that it's not just Americans who are dying. And recently the sectarian violence in Iraq has just increased to an astounding level where before, explosive devises might take 10 or 20 lives, now regularly 100 at a clip. At some point, what is the U.S. responsibility to achieve a certain amount of peace before we leave?

Mr. IRVIN: Well, Farai, the country has changed a lot. I'm talking about our country has changed a lot since November. And you know, we don't think about winning anymore. All we think about is getting out. It doesn't - the only people who are thinking about winning now are the neo-cons.

Right now we're just like - I think Pedro summed it up very well - in fact I will compare it to a chess game where, you know, you have opening, you have middle and you have end game. We're sort of at the end of the middle toward the end game and right now the fact that, you know, the accumulation of the total deaths of the Iraqi people themselves, the enormous amount of the injuries that have been suffered by our veterans, something like 25,000 serious injuries, 3,100 deaths, the accumulative effect of that has moved us to a point as a country where now we are just waiting for this thing to end. I think the thing that helps this resolution is the fact that we now have a new secretary of defense who does have a credible voice. David Petraeus is a credible general, and I think that the tone that they have set is not one, even though the language may still be winning, it is one of negotiate, get our troops out, get America out, get the troops, the veterans - get the veterans the medical treatment that they need, and good riddance, get the hell out of Iraq.

Prof. BERRY: It is a disaster of major proportions, and I was thinking how sad I am about this situation that the United States is in because of the administration's policy - all the deaths and the dying that everyone talks about. But just yesterday, General Petraeus kept talking about how you needed to do more than use the military, and he sounded very depressed about it.

But the lieutenant general on the ground there, Odierno, is talking about asking for even more troops, more Army to come in and about - it should be at least till February 2008. And then the joint chiefs of staff said that the Army is stretched so thin that the Army doesn't have enough troops to send any more troops there. And then you've got all of the news about the Walter Reed and the medical facilities and what's happening to the veterans and the people who've come back.

It is a crisis of major proportions. And the Democrats have a political crisis. They've got some people who were elected because they were against the war. They've got other people who were elected too because of that but not to cut and run, as they say, and they want to keep the majority. So they're - and they want to pass an appropriations bill. So for Pelosi, Nancy Pelosi, I mean she's got to figure out how to balance all that, get something passed.

But we can't get out of this war. I don't think we'll get out of it no matter what happens unless Bush is impeached, and I don't think he will be, because until his term ends he is just stubborn enough - he just keeps going right straight ahead no matter what happens to anybody else and no matter what the votes are. So it's a very sad situation which is likely to get sadder.

CHIDEYA: Well, Mary, let me follow up on that. You have a situation now where the U.S. is spending $2 billion each day in Iraq. So whoever the next president is, since it's the end of the second term of the Bush presidency that's coming up, whoever comes in is going to have to deal with the massive expenditures of the war and making a decision whether or not to continue or not to continue.

What lies ahead? I mean, even once there's a leadership change, what lies ahead for whoever takes over?

Prof. BERRY: Well, there are two problems related to that. During the election cycle candidates have to figure out not only where should I be now but where should I be by the time of the election, since matters are moving. Is it going to be worse? What's going to happen? And they're trying to figure out what the American people will think then, which is hard to tell.

And then, sitting and contemplating what would I do if I got elected. And here we are and they've all said - well, not all of them but some of them have said we'll get out, you know, if that happens. And we'll get out, but as you say, there's an enormous cost and they will be faced with something like Nixon was at the end and Ford when he came in, trying to get the United States out of something that we are in that just keeps getting worse. And Bush will just hand it over and go back to Texas, I guess.

CHIDEYA: Nat, what about that? I mean, at some point aren't we going to have to pay the piper not just in terms of the war but in terms of the expenditures for the war?

Mr. IRVIN: Well, we're already doing that, Farai. And it is a long-term financial - and basically we have adopted Iraq as a state, financially, for some long period of time, you know, never having known that. But you know what I think, I'm with Mary on this. It's the human toll that this is taking on Americans who virtually still are unseen largely by this country.

And that's one thing, I think, that the Democrats are missing, is the human face of this war. You hear it but we don't hear it collectively enough. I hear it - I mean I live in Winston - I actually live in Louisville, which is a small town outside of Winston-Salem. I hear it because Fort Bragg is in North Carolina, but we don't hear enough about the sufferings of families.

I wish more people were paying attention to what our fellow American citizens are having to suffer as a result of the decisions we as a country have made. This is beyond tragic. It is a horrifying paradox for us, a dilemma where there are no good ends of an end when time runs out and somebody else is paying for it with their lives.

CHIDEYA: Pedro, you get the final word in this. Is this really an American problem, and what I mean by that is, are Americans collectively going to have to take responsibility for whatever happens with Iraq, or is this a problem that people will say, well, people in Washington will deal with it?

Prof. NOGUERA: Well, right now I think that because we as America have created this problem, we decided to launch this war, we have a responsibility now as a nation to clean it up. Now, how we clean it up is, I think - it will be a matter that's going to be left to the next administration. Iraq is going to be a problem for many years to come. The civil war that's already been unleashed there is going to breed terrorism and instability throughout that region.

And so for the United States to simply walk away is going to be a problem. Now, how it stays involved I think will largely require very sophisticated diplomatic initiatives with countries that we have not been able to work with before, like Iran and Syria, among others.

Domestically, I think that the bigger question is how can we get the broader public, as Nat was just mentioning, to realize that the sacrifice right now has been borne largely by the poor. Because we have a poverty draft in this country. It's poor people who serve in the war, and I think it's been easy for Americans not to understand and appreciate that tremendous costs have been borne because middle-class Americans to a large degree are not sending their children off to this war.

CHIDEYA: All right. Got to end it there. Pedro Noguera, professor of education at New York University; Nat Irvin with the Winston Salem Journal, WFDD radio was where he was; Mary Frances Berry with me right here in D.C.; thank you all so much.

Prof. BERRY: Thank you.

Mr. IRVIN: Thank you.

Prof. NOGUERA: Thank you, Farai.

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