Sunday, June 3, 2007

Empathy Part I: Summer of George

After our leaders had decided to continue funding the our occupation in Iraq with no time line for withdrawal, President Bush held a press conference in the rose garden to discuss our future in Iraq. Much attention was given to a reporter asking if the president had any credibility left on the subject. Whether this was an appropriate question or not, I can't imagine what the reporter expected to get for an answer, since this president and his administration have demonstrated time and again their lack of objectivity or self-criticism with regards to our occupation of Iraq. What stood out for me was the president's comments concerning the increase in violence predicted for this Summer:

"Mr Bush said he expected 'heavy fighting in the weeks and months' ahead. 'What they're going to try to do is kill as many innocent people as they can to try to influence the debate here at home,' he said. 'They recognise that the death of innocent people could shake our will . . . So, yes, it could be a bloody - it could be a very difficult August'."

To take a cynical approach, it would appear that President Bush is attempting
to frame the debate that will inevitably resume in September, when General
Patraeus will make his progress report and our legislators will decide how
to proceed with the occupation. By offering this perspective, Bush may
somehow attempt to argue that the surge is not failing because of us but
because of the insurgent violence. But, even if he were to form the argument
in this way, it would be like a coach at halftime telling the losing team
that "we're not scoring as many points as we should because the other team
wants to rattle us and make us rethink our strategy."

Whether this is indeed an attempt by Bush to frame the debate or not, it exposes a lack of objectivity from an increasingly unpopular and defensive president that must realize at some level his administration's many failures in Iraq. This myopic, obdurate mindset is what former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, refers to with the title of his documentary, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. As McNamara argues, the insulating mechanisms of power make the uncanny realities of war incomprehensible even for those in command -- and this is coming from one of the "best and the brightest" -- but after 40 years he offers some sagacious lessons; the first of which is to "Empathize with your enemy": "We must try to put ourselves inside their skin and look at us through their eyes, just to understand the thoughts that lie behind their decisions and their actions."

This point is expounded in both the film and in McNamara's 1995 book, In Retrospect: The Tragedies and Lessons of Vietnam, in which McNamara lists the failures of our leadership in during the Vietnam War:
  1. We misjudged then — and we have since — the geopolitical intentions of our adversaries … and we exaggerated the dangers to the United States of their actions.
  2. We viewed the people and leaders of South Vietnam in terms of our own experience … We totally misjudged the political forces within the country.
  3. We failed as well to adapt our military tactics to the task of winning the hearts and minds of people from a totally different culture.
  4. We did not recognize that neither our people nor our leaders are omniscient. Our judgment of what is in another people's or country's best interest should be put to the test of open discussion in international forums. We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our image or as we choose.
Anything sound familiar? I have only listed a few of McNamara's forthright points, but it is plain to see how today's leaders approach to our present military conflict are strikingly similar to what was happening in Washington in the 1960's and early 70's. Our current administration has time and again displayed this lack of empathy and understanding for both Islamic terrorists and the insurgencies in Iraq. There remains a fundamental misunderstanding of how to engage in "The War on Terror" against an amorphous and stateless enemy whose numbers and resolve are only bolstered by our military actions, as political scientists, James Bill and Rebecca Bill Chavez wrote in 2002: "By dropping bombs and firing missiles, the United States only spreads these festering problems. Violence can be likened to a virus; the more you bombard it, the more it spreads." And specifically in regards to Iraq insurgencies, our empathy is equally lacking, as conservative columnist David Brooks recently wrote after discussing Iraq with John Robb, author of Brave New War:
"It's pointless to decapitate the head of the insurgency or disrupt its command structure, because the insurgency doesn't have these things. Instead, it is a swarm of disparate companies that share information, learn from each other's experiments and respond quickly to environmental signals."
For we Americans to view the struggle in Iraq as insurgents vs. the U.S., or even as Sunni vs. Shiite, is a blatant misreading of the reality on the ground where "there are between 70 and 100 groups that make up the Iraq insurgency". Furthermore, for our president to claim that insurgents are ratcheting up the violence in Iraq this Summer to influence the debate at home -- as if they're all gathered around watching C-SPAN together -- is not only solipsistic, but deleterious to our national debate surrounding our complex and difficult decision on how to proceed. Empathy is not sympathy -- it's not feeling their anger but understanding the motivations behind it -- and when faced with a violent and open-ended conflict, with no definition of victory, it may be a good idea to deploy some.

1 comment:

blockbuster said...

Ok he was my favorite character and i think he was way better than kramer his life made me laugh I guess thats wrong..lol