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Barack Obama's presidency

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Pragmatic Empathy for One's Enemies

By Ivan Eland
October 6, 2009

Editor’s Note: As the world’s dominant power, the United States is often viewed by other nations as arrogant and self-righteous, but a deeper -- and more dangerous -- problem may be that U.S. leaders disdain the need for understanding other people’s perspectives.

During the Bush administration, self-deluding swagger was elevated to a near cult status while the U.S. people were fed silliness about Muslims “hating our freedoms” -- and then were led like sheep to the slaughterhouse of endless war.

In this guest essay, the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland looks at the value of empathy for one’s enemies:

Empathy is a term that connotes the touchy-feely notion of getting in touch with someone else’s feelings or perspective. That’s what psychotherapists and social workers do.

It obviously has no place in the hard-knocks world of foreign affairs and national security. Or does it?

In world history, the best generals are experts in empathy. They know that to get the advantage, you have to put yourself in your adversary’s shoes, look at things from that perceived perspective, and try to predict what he or she would do under specific circumstances.

So why does the United States have trouble exhibiting empathy?

It’s probably because the United States has been the globe’s most powerful nation since 1945 and is the most dominant military power in world history, both absolutely and relative to its contemporaries. In other words, empires don’t need empathy. Empathy is for sissies or, at least, lesser nations.

In reality, a lack of empathy toward potential adversaries is as dangerous for a superpower as it is for any other country. The United States found that out during Vietnam, but hasn’t seemed to retain the lesson very well.

The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were outnumbered 5 to 1 by the Americans alone (excluding the South Vietnamese), but they fought tenaciously because they were fighting to reunite their divided nation. They regarded the U.S. as reneging on an implicit pledge to have elections in a reunited Vietnam, which the communist Ho Chi Minh would have won.

U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson had the vague idea that communist dominos had to be stopped, feared he would get involved in an unwinnable quagmire, but nonetheless prosecuted the war anyway to avoid being accused by the Republican right-wing of “losing Vietnam,” as Harry Truman was accused of “losing China.”

But LBJ only escalated the war after his Great Society domestic agenda had passed. (Any parallels to Barack Obama’s current situation in Afghanistan are purely coincidental.)

LBJ has been criticized for not letting the U.S. military win the war — in other words, putting too many restrictions on its operations. Yet LBJ’s micromanagement of the military made more sense when his real goals are unearthed.

He did not believe the war was winnable; he merely wanted to put military pressure on the North Vietnamese to get a negotiated settlement, and he wanted to avoid provoking a military intervention by China, as occurred in the Korean conflict.

Where LBJ made his mistake was in a lack of empathy for North Vietnamese persistence in throwing off foreign invaders and reunifying their country. They negotiated, but not seriously, and merely waited until U.S. popular opinion tired of the war.

(Any similarity to the doggedness of the Taliban resistance in Afghanistan and their willingness to wait out the already tenuous U.S. resolve is merely happenstance.)

The U.S. also has lacked empathy with Iran. Iran is a theocratic, authoritarian country (but not entirely, as we’ve seen recently). Its president does make unnerving statements denying the Holocaust, but he doesn’t really have much of a say in national security issues.

But even autocratic countries have legitimate security concerns. Iran lives in a rough neighborhood of hostile nations — the Sunni Arab states and Israel. That’s why any democratic revolution in Iran probably wouldn’t attenuate Iran’s desire for a nuclear program.

Thus, the U.S. policy of trying to negotiate away Iran’s nuclear capabilities lacks empathy and is naïve. And since the Iranians are fairly sophisticated in their foreign policy and know that Israel or the United States could attempt a military strike against their nuclear facilities, they have probably hardened or buried many of them (if secret facilities even exist).

Therefore, U.S. policy should shift to managing a nuclear Iran instead of trying to prevent what is probably inevitable.

For many of the same reasons, it is Pollyannaish and unempathetic to try to negotiate away North Korea’s existing nuclear capability. U.S. policy should take the same approach with the hermit kingdom.

The lack of U.S. empathy in Afghanistan has been covered. In Iraq, a lack of U.S. understanding that ethno-sectarian loyalties will always trump those to an artificial central state did not improve with a change in U.S. administration.

Recognizing the existing partition and devolving more power to local and regional governments, rather than perpetuating the non-viable central government, is probably the only way to avoid a massive civil war.

The most flagrant U.S. denial of reality occurred during the recent Russo-Georgian war.

The U.S. government and media focused on the autocratic Russian government’s “nefarious” intentions of maintaining security in its sphere of influence (after 25 million Russians died in an invasion by a foreign power in World War II, this is hardly a surprise) and ignored the Georgian shelling of a South Ossetian town (what many could call a war crime) to start the war.

The worst and most dangerous case of non-empathy, however, has been the lack of U.S. introspection after the heinous 9/11 attacks. Instead of reading Osama bin Laden’s clear writings to glean his motives for attacking, the American public, to its future peril, simply bought George W. Bush’s demagoguery that the U.S. was attacked because it was an economically and politically free country.

That bin Laden specifically denied this accusation was lost in the drive to do more of exactly what bin Laden was mad about in the first place — U.S. forces invading and occupying Muslim soil, thus making things worse by aiding the recruitment of the anti-U.S. Islamists worldwide.

There are notorious dictatorships and terrorists in the world, but their threat to the United States has been exaggerated as an excuse to fulfill the foreign policy agendas of certain politicians, bureaucracies, or interest groups.

Instead, the U.S. should realize that even these outlaws have security fears and are not just hostile to the United States because it is a relatively free country.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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