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Barack Obama, Whatever His Faults, Shouldn't Be Criticized for Showing Empathy toward Iran

Debate about the Iran-nuclear-program agreement, signed by the United States and other major powers, has already been fierce and is likely to grow more heated when Congress reconvenes in September. In a previous essay on this website about President Obama’s use of history, historian Robert Shaffer quoted the following presidential words about the deal from New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s interview with the president: 

[E]ven with your adversaries, I do think that you have to have the capacity to put yourself occasionally in their shoes, and if you look at Iranian history, the fact is that we had some involvement with overthrowing a democratically elected regime in Iran [as Shaffer mentions, in 1953]. We have had in the past supported Saddam Hussein when we know he used chemical weapons in the war between Iran and Iraq, and so, as a consequence, they have their own security concerns, their own narrative. It may not be one we agree with…[but] when we are able to see their country and their culture in specific terms, historical terms, as opposed to just applying a broad brush, that’s when you have the possibility at least of some movement.

Not only has Obama spoken of the importance of understanding Iranian history, but in a speech at American University defending the nuclear agreement he often spoke of historical precedents for the present pact. They included deals agreed to with the Soviet Union by Presidents Kennedy and Reagan. 

But the present essay’s concern with history is primarily as it relates to empathy (putting yourself in others’ shoes). It is this quality that we shall examine, and how Obama has often stressed its importance, how it relates to what one historian has labeled “strategic empathy,” and, finally, whether the Iran nuclear deal reflects Obama’s skillful use of such empathy. 

The president’s Friedman-interview words “put yourself occasionally in their shoes” echoed words that he has often earlier uttered. In a previous essay I indicated how he equated the phrase with empathy and quoted from his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, where he wrote that it was a quality he was “appreciating more and more” and was central to his “moral code.” In a 2010 University of Michigan commencement speech, he told graduates: “If we choose to actively seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs, perhaps we can begin to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from.” Such empathy also fosters tolerance and a willingness to compromise, other qualities that the president has demonstrated more often than have his congressional opponents. 

So frequent has Obama’s stress on empathy been—whether talking about our dealings with ordinary citizens, other political perspectives, or foreign nations—that one website has amassed a whole series of Obama video clips in which he speaks of that valued quality and often laments that our country seems to suffer from “an empathy deficit.”  

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote in April 2015: “Obama’s outreach to Iran has been shaped from the beginning by his effort to understand how Iranians see the world—and to distinguish between truly dangerous, aggressive actions and more comprehensible defensive moves. This empathetic view is part of what irks Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But centuries of diplomatic history suggest that such an ability to see the world through the adversary’s eyes is essential for effective negotiation.” 

University of Maryland historian Jeffrey Herf quoted these words of Ignatius, but in an essay entitled “Empathy Does not Equal Understanding: Obama on Iran,” he disagreed with Ignatius’s suggestion that Obama’s empathy for Iran had increased his understanding of it. Rather, he wrote: “There is a difference between empathy and understanding. To empathize is not only to understand another's situations, feelings and motives. . . . It also entails projecting one's own feelings onto others and thus asks how we would act if we were in the situation of the other. Doing that is problematic when dealing with the foreignness of foreign affairs and the otherness of other countries because foreigners and others often think about the world very differently than we do.” 

Herf then goes on to cite the German sociologist Max Weber, who (according to Herf) believed that “to understand what others do, it was not acceptable to put ourselves, with our values and outlooks into their shoes.” Herf thinks that “understanding dispenses with the sentimentality of the empathizer and asks instead to pay close attention to the beliefs of others, whether we find them appealing or not and then to examine the impact of those beliefs on actions. The apparent good will of the empathizer risks the fault of condescension and narcissism because it proves unable to grasp that others truly view the world differently than we do.” 

Herf insists that Iran seeks nuclear weapons to help accomplish “its ideological goals of expanding its version of Islam in the region and around the world and destroying the enemies, such as Israel, which it finds morally repugnant and which stands in the way of its goals.” He believes that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's “unflinching gaze at the Iranian's world view” is more realistic than that of President Obama, who “appears to project his own views onto” them [the Iranians], thus obfuscating the reality of their beliefs and the implications of their stated hostility for Israel.” 

In still another essay, “In Defense of Pessimism,” Herf writes of “a peculiarly Iranian vision of world domination,” of whether “the Iranian regime will use nuclear weapons in the future to attack the state of Israel and, for that matter, perhaps the United States.” And he compares the tension between Obama and Netanyahu to that between those who thought “Hitler could be contained and appeased” and that chief critic of appeasement, Winston Churchill. 

The main problem with Herf’s criticism of Obama’s empathetic approach to Iran is that he characterizes that empathy in ways that the president never has.  Obama hasn’t equated empathy with naïve “sentimentality” and he hasn’t projected his feelings and values onto Iranian leaders. That indeed would be a mistake, but not one the president has made. In his useful book A Sense of the Enemy (2014), historian Zachary Shore refers to such projection as simulation and believes that Stalin, “the great simulator,” was guilty of that error when he failed to realize that Hitler was intending to invade Russia in 1941. But Shore does not equate such simulation with empathy, rather he believes that such projecting prevents “strategic empathy,” a skill that Stalin lacked. 

In still another 2014 work on strategic empathy, Matt Waldman, a Research Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, has written that “Empathy, in this sense, is rational and cognitive.”  It’s a

tool for understanding the way another person thinks, feels or perceives. It enables us to comprehend another’s mindset, driving emotions or outlook, without requiring us to share the other’s thoughts, feelings and perceptions, or, indeed, approve of them. An empathic approach involves the assimilation of diverse information, including social, historical and psychological details, and a conscious effort to see the world through that person’s eyes. Thus, it serves the first demand of strategy: know your enemy. Crucially, empathy can help leaders anticipate how enemies and perceived allies are likely to act and react, and help avoid strategic errors.

That is the type of empathy Obama has in mind. It never rules out disagreement—in writing of empathy in The Audacity of Hope he wrote of the need “to try to see the world through George Bush's eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him.” It is also the type of empathy the president has demonstrated regarding Iran, a type that led American-educated Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to believe that Secretary of State John F. Kerry had negotiated the nuclear agreement with “mutual respect.” 

Reading President Obama’s American University speech one does not sense the sentimentality and naivety that Herf equates with the president’s empathy. 

Among U.S. policymakers, there’s never been disagreement on the danger posed by an Iranian nuclear bomb. . . . It would embolden terrorist groups, like Hezbollah, and pose an unacceptable risk to Israel, which Iranian leaders have repeatedly threatened to destroy. . . . We have no illusions about the Iranian government . . . . Iran supports terrorist organizations like Hezbollah.  It supports proxy groups that threaten our interests and the interests of our allies--including proxy groups who killed our troops in Iraq. . . . The ruling regime is dangerous and it is repressive.  We will continue to have sanctions in place on Iran’s support for terrorism and violation of human rights.  We will continue to insist upon the release of Americans detained unjustly.  We will have a lot of differences with the Iranian regime.

But despite all these differences, Obama added: “This deal ultimately must be judged by what it achieves on the central goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. . . .The deal before us doesn’t bet on Iran changing, it doesn’t require trust; it verifies and requires Iran to forsake a nuclear weapon.” One of the best assessments of the pact concludes: “Despite its imperfections, a careful review indicates that [it] . . . will prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed state for the foreseeable future and serve the security interests of the United States and its regional partners. On that basis, it is worthy of support by Congress and the American public.” 

Shore’s book, A Sense of the Enemy, mentioned above, contains many examples of leaders like Gandhi and the 1920s German Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann who displayed great strategic empathy. It also recognizes that the proper understanding of other nations’ history can aid that empathy and that such empathy can be an important factor in “sustaining peace.” 

This present essay has indicated that President Obama understands and has often stressed the importance of empathy. And while it is true that not all types of empathy are “strategic” —Shore, for example, states that Stalin lacked both “emotional empathy and strategic empathy”—the president’s dealings with Iran suggest an appreciation for strategic empathy and its complexities, and the need for it in preventing war—“The choice we face [regarding Iran] is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war.” 

Reading his American University speech and various interviews he has given about the Iranian pact, and then contrasting them with the words of opposition by Republican presidential candidates, reveals that he understands much more about strategic empathy—even though he does not use the term—than do his opponents. 

Rather than empathy clouding the president’s judgment, as Herf maintains, it is (as I have argued elsewhere) an important characteristic of political wisdom. Contrary to much of our macho political rhetoric, it is not a sign of weakness. It does not prevent a realistic assessment of the “enemy,” but can enhance it. And most importantly, the diplomacy it forwards can help prevent, as the president insists in his American University speech, “the drumbeat of war.”