On a recent trip to Iraq, in July 2008, Kim Kagan, wife of Fred Kagan and herself one of the architects of the surge, did something that she had not done on any of her previous trips. She visited “the headquarters of a small Iraqi political party to learn about its campaign for the upcoming provincial and national elections.” Her host, the leader of this “secular and nonsectarian” party and a member of the Iraqi parliament, greets her “wearing a fine suit,” as if she were visiting “a foreign embassy just off 16th Street in Washington.” With this magical sleight-of-hand, momentarily transforming a street in Baghdad into one inside the Beltway, Kagan begins the rhetorical strategy by means of which she hopes to demonstrate that the people of Iraq are assimilating themselves to the political way of life of the great democratic nation that liberated them from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.
For example, the headquarters itself “is strikingly familiar, reminiscent of hundreds of town and county election headquarters in the United States.” Widescreen televisions are tuned to news channels; a “freshly photocopied stack of flyers” awaits “door to door” distribution; young enthusiasts are busy “writing and designing the party’s newspaper.” During a break for tea, Kagan talks politics with “30 party members,” about half of whom “are in their twenties, like the bright and earnest recent college graduates one finds working for any U.S. election campaign.”
These party members are illustrative of the revolution taking place in Iraqi political life. “Over the past year,” Kagan says, “the struggle for power in Iraq has shifted from military conflict to political competition.” The leaders of the various ethnic and sectarian factions in Iraq “are thinking ever less about how to use armed might to seize or retain control of all or part of the country and ever more about winning votes.” Iraq is becoming precisely what the neocons have always intended it to be: a democratic state in which transfers of power are accomplished peacefully by means of an electoral process that is free, fair, and transparent. More important, the state is founded on, and gains legitimacy from, citizens who place allegiance to the democratic process above allegiance to a faction, whether that faction is a family, a clan, a tribe, a religious sect, or an ethnic group. The party members that Kagan describes are first and foremost liberty-loving Iraqis, dedicated to a politically secular and nonsectarian Iraq in which individuals are free to express their beliefs without fear of government reprisal. The neocon vision of a transformed Middle East is thus being vindicated.
Kagan, of course, is using a very small and selective sample in order to reach her conclusions concerning political life in Iraq. But she is aware, very aware, that there are political forces in Iraq whose view of Iraqi politics diverges radically from that of the party members in the headquarters she visited. One radical force especially concerns her: the movement led by Muqtada al Sadr. She speaks of the Sadrists in this essay, but her evaluation of Sadr and his movement differs fundamentally from her evaluation of the party whose headquarters she briefly explored. It differs because it lacks a quality that she applies to the party members she visits in Baghdad. I’ll return to her treatment of Sadr and his followers later in this post. First, I’ll revisit the ground I’ve covered so far in this series, and then I’ll discuss the quality that is lacking in Kagan’s evaluation of the Sadrist movement: empathy.
1. Cracks in the Neocon Edifice
In Part I of this series I observed that some neocons have been chastened by the Bush administration’s fumbling attempt to introduce into Iraq an American-style liberal democracy. Specifically, they have in retrospect been dismayed by the arrogance and foolishness of Bush and his advisors who swaggered into a major conflict without first assessing its complexities and anticipating its consequences. These neocons are now seeking to return neoconservatism to its ideological roots. Most important, they want to put a renewed emphasis on prudence and caution, and they argue that America’s leaders must thoroughly, with a cool and cautious realism, assess the consequences of a political act, foreign or domestic, before initiating action. Peter Berkowitz, for example, argues that a fundamental tenet of neoconservatism is to transform authoritarian regimes into democratic ones. But, drawing on the classic neoconservative distinction made by Jeane Kirkpatrick between an authoritarian state and a totalitarian one, Berkowitz further argues that such transformation is not to be undertaken rashly but only after the situation into which America intends to intervene is fully assessed and the consequences of intervention realistically anticipated.
The cool-headed realists such as Berkowitz make up only one faction of neoconservatism. Another and no less important faction is made up of the flamboyant idealists who chafe at the restraints that the cautious realists attempt to impose on their visionary mission. Robert Kagan, for example, bases his assessment of America on a simple historical fact. Since the end of the Cold War America has stood alone as the most imposing economic and military power on the planet. And just as powerful nations have done in the past, America, he argues, will use its power to expand its sphere of economic and political influence.
But America, according to Kagan, is not just the latest in a long line of powerful nations intent on using their power to advance their interests. America is also and quite singularly a moral power, the nation that was born into history to accomplish a unique mission: to expand the sphere of liberty until this universal ideal has indeed been universalized. America, Kagan argues in his essay “Cowboy Nation” and in his book Dangerous Nation, has since its inception been an expansive nation, seeking to expand its territory and the reach of its economic power. But the truly dangerous aspect of America as a nation has not been its drive to expand the reach of its economic and political influence, but its drive to expand the reach of its moral influence, to carry the universal gospel of liberty to every corner of the globe.
Powering this drive, giving it its fundamental motivating force, is the spirited energy that the Greeks called thumos. Kagan borrows this idea from the philosopher Harvey Mansfield, and in Parts III and IV of this series I examined Mansfield’s concept of politics, an activity that is powered, according to Mansfield, by anger and thumos. In his Jefferson Lecture Mansfield argues that politics is an arena in which an actor asserts the importance of a cause to which he has become passionately attached. He has attached himself to this cause—a political party, a leader, a nation—by accident of birth or association. Though the attachment occurs by accident, the cause becomes a deeply rooted aspect of his identity and takes on predominant importance in his life. It is his cause—his leader, his party, his nation. Other causes aggressively assert themselves against his cause—other leaders, other parties, other nations—and he reacts against their aggression with the emotion that typifies politics: anger. That which fuels his anger is the irrational animal energy the Greeks identified as thumos. Thus, for Mansfield, the arena of politics is in essence an arena of the irrational, the adherents of one cause striving aggressively and angrily against those who dare to assert in opposition another cause.
2. Reason: an Indispensable Element of Courage
In his book Manliness, Mansfield defines the actor who enters the arena of politics in order to assert the importance of his cause, a cause in whose defense he is prepared to sacrifice his life: the manly man, driven by thumos. The manly man has not rationally assessed his cause and, based upon the best available evidence and sound argument, found it superior to all others. The cause to which the manly man adheres is his cause, and his attachment to his cause, whatever the derivation of that attachment, is sufficient to motivate him in his struggle against alien causes: those causes that are not his cause.
The manly man’s assertion of his cause in the arena of politics is thus an irrational assertion, and Mansfield recognizes that such assertion, if not reined in, can slip over into the excess of tyranny. He does not, however, question the manly man’s assertion of his cause. Such manly assertion Mansfield finds not only necessary in a political arena defined by thumos and anger but also in and of itself praiseworthy and admirable. Nonetheless the self-assertion of the manly man can exceed rational bounds, and Mansfield posits a restraining force external to the manly man: the political philosopher, who has rationally reflected on all matters political and who can persuade the manly man to moderate the irrationality of his temper, his thumos. The manly man, though longing to assert himself and achieve honor and glory, remains susceptible to the advice of the philosopher. He allows his temper to be restrained and his tyrannical tendencies reined in by his advisors, the philosophers whose arena of struggle is the transcendent realm of reflective argument.
Following his master Aristotle, Mansfield relates the energy of thumos to the virtue of courage. The manly man is not only a man who displays an assertive energy in the arena of politics but also a man of true martial spirit, a man of warrior courage. In the Ethics, as I explained in my last post, Aristotle indeed identifies courage as the virtue or excellence that characterizes the warrior in battle. The man of courage, as Aristotle defines it, is the man who confronts without flinching the greatest of all fears, the fear of violent death, and it is in battle that violent death is most typically confronted. But Aristotle is quite explicit about another and indispensable quality of the man of courage: he is a man of reason. Before entering battle the man of courage assesses the situation clearly and realistically. He confronts, that is, the likelihood of his imminent and violent death. He does not irrationally exaggerate the anguish of such a death nor does he irrationally minimize it. He sees it clearly and accurately for what it is and goes to meet it, knowing that his courage will be honored if he does not survive the battle.
Aristotle says nothing about the cause for which the man of courage is prepared to die. He emphasizes rather the fear of violent death and the courageous man’s response to it. The man of courage assesses the situation realistically and prepares to meet it with equanimity and poise. This emphasis on a realistic and accurate assessment of a situation separates Aristotle’s man of courage from Mansfield’s manly man who is not disposed to engage in clear and accurate assessments of the situation at hand but who is driven, instead, by the irrational impulse of thumos to assert his cause against all others.
Aristotle’s concept of warrior courage is, however, related to the realism of those neocons who, in the wake of the Bush administration’s Middle East adventurism, now call for prudence and caution in America’s foreign policy. As Peter Berkowitz has pointed out, the imprudent actors of the Bush administration barged into Iraq without realistically assessing the situation and heedless of the consequences of their act. In this they were abetted by the supposed wisdom of their advisors, the neocon pundits and philosophers (and their confederates, the liberal hawks) who were certain that the cause of universal liberty would find fertile ground in the autocratic aridity of the Middle East.
Berkowitz and other chastened neocons now call for a return to the neoconservative tradition of realism, a tradition of prudence, caution and clear-eyed judgment. I doubt, however, that the neocons can renounce their brand of idealism and their dangerous adventurism. As their continuing adherence to the prospect of victory in Iraq amply demonstrates, an adherence that has been emboldened by the alleged success of the surge, they lack a quality that, though Aristotle does not discuss it, is essential to the courage that without flinching assesses a situation rationally and realistically and then goes out to meet it: empathy.
3. Empathy: Basic and Reenactive
Empathy is often used as a synonym for sympathy, one person’s emotional identification with the suffering and distress of another. This is an appropriate use of the term, but as I am using it, empathy is not a synonym for sympathy. Empathy, rather, enables me spontaneously to recognize other people as minded, that is, as rational agents. I recognize them as rational in the sense that their acts proceed from reasons. These reasons, in turn, spring from long-held beliefs and desires that to them make sense, even though from my perspective those beliefs and desires might be irrational and unmoored from reality. My empathetic response to others then does not mean that I sympathize with the positions they put forward or the acts they perform. It means only that I recognize that their positions and acts spring from reasons that, in turn, are grounded in beliefs and desires that form the ultimate context for their action in the world.
Karsten Stueber, in his book, Rediscovering Empathy, calls this form of empathy basic empathy, the same empathy that the infant displays when it differentiates between minded objects in its environment and unminded objects. Such empathy, Stueber suggests, has its neurobiological foundation in mirror neurons, those neurons that fire both when I experience a specific emotion, such as anger, or perform a specific act, such as reaching for an object, and when I observe another agent display the same emotion or perform the same act. However, though such basic empathy enables me to recognize others as rational agents whose acts proceed from reasons, it does not disclose to me the specific reasons that initiate their acts.
In order to specify the reasons for someone else’s behavior, in order that is to explain his behavior, I engage in what Stueber calls reenactive empathy. “Basic empathy,” Stueber says, “allows us to recognize, for example, that another person is angry, or that he intends to grasp a cup” (21). But that is as far as basic empathy takes us. We also need, Stueber argues, “to understand why that person is angry, or why he responded to a particular situation in a certain manner” (21). In order to explain another person’s behavior, then, we need reenactive empathy as a supplement to basic empathy. Indeed, Stueber argues, “only through reenactive empathy…are we able to conceive of another person’s more complex social behavior as the behavior of a rational agent who acts for a reason” (21).
When I engage in reenactive empathy, I reenact in my own mind the process of thought that took place in the other person’s mind and that led ultimately to his act. There are, however, as Stueber recognizes, limits to such reenactive empathy. We must, for example, “acknowledge certain epistemic limitations in using empathy to interpret agents who are from very different cultures” (196). I might not, for example, have sufficient information concerning the other person’s beliefs and desires to form in my own mind an accurate reenactment of the thought process that occurred in his. Worse, I might project into the other person’s mind beliefs and desires that are not resident there or deliberately erase from consideration beliefs and desires that not only reside in his mind but are the true origins of his behavior.
But though we are limited when dealing with agents from other cultures, we are not without recourse. “In such situations,” Stueber argues, “our attempt to make sense of other agents by trying to reenact their reasons for their actions has to be supplemented by further cognitive strategies” (196), specifically by recourse to “further knowledge about the constitution of an agent’s social surroundings” (201). In order, that is, to construct in my mind as accurate a reenactment of another person’s thinking as possible, I must establish as best I can the context of beliefs and desires that serve as the source of his behavior.
Establishing such a context is especially important when the other person is my opponent in the political arena. As Mansfield says, in the political arena the manly man is motivated by a cause to which he adheres passionately often for no other reason than that the cause is his cause. Conversely, his opposition to other causes has no other motive than that they are not his cause. The concept of reenactive empathy, however, changes the dynamic of this mindless clash of cause against cause. In order to respond to my opponents effectively in the political arena, I must empathetically understand the reasons that initiate their acts. And in order to understand those reasons, I must understand as best I can the personal and historical contexts in which they are embedded. If I do not empathetically understand those contexts, I can misconstrue their reasons and formulate not an effective response to their acts but a woefully ineffective one.
For example, if as a proponent of the surge I want to deal effectively with the faction in Iraq that is adamantly opposing American presence, the Sadrists, I must first establish the reasons for their opposition. In order to specify those reasons, I must explore and investigate the contexts in which the leader of the movement, Muqtada al Sadr, operates. That includes both his personal context and the historical context of the Shia in Iraq. I must also explore and investigate the contexts both personal and historical in which his supporters operate, especially since the reasons that propel their behavior are many and varied. Only then, having filled in these contexts, can I explain their opposition to American occupation and formulate a strategy that will neutralize their influence. Of course, establishing these contexts for Sadr and his followers might compel me to recognize that his influence cannot be completely neutralized and that some strategy which recognizes his continued impact must be devised.
4. Puppets in a Melodrama
We can grant, I think, that in her estimation of the Iraqis whose headquarters she visited in Baghdad Kagan is showing some degree of empathy. Although she seems to be projecting her own cultural preferences on these Iraqis by so blatantly assimilating them into an American context, nonetheless they seem to be as politically secular and nonsectarian as she claims. But when she turns her attention to another group of Iraqis who are openly and adamantly Islamic, her capacity for empathy deserts her completely. And it is no accident that it does so.
In Kagan’s view, one precondition for the transformation of Iraq into a fully Americanized democracy is the elimination of that Iraqi faction most stubbornly opposed to the presence of American troops in Iraq: the Sadrists. Kagan’s wish has, according to her reading of the situation, been fulfilled, at least temporarily. The “destruction of the Sadrist Trend not only as a paramilitary force but also as a cohesive political force” was achieved in the spring when Prime Minister Maliki’s use of Iraqi Security Forces in Basra, Amara, and Sadr City “shattered the Sadrist and Iranian-controlled leadership” not only “of Moktada al-Sadr's Mahdi army” itself but also “of the Special Groups more tightly controlled by Iran.”
By means of the word “control” Kagan performs a magical act of erasure: she deprives of rational agency those Iraqis who support Muqtada al Sadr. The leadership of the Mahdi army, she says, is “Iranian controlled.” The Sadrist leaders do not, that is, author their own acts but submissively follow the script written for them by their Iranian masters. Kagan also deprives of rational agency the Iraqis who compose the so-called Special Groups, whose acts originate not in themselves but in the schemes of their Iranian leaders.
These Iraqis, in Kagan’s view, though native born and raised are not independent initiators of their own actions. They oppose American occupation of their country not for reasons that originate in themselves, in their histories as native Iraqis, but in the nefarious machinations of the theocrats in Tehran and Qom. They are, in other words, mere puppets whose strings are tweaked by faraway Iranian overlords, passive instruments in the hands of those who are the true authors of their acts. Kagan thus blithely rips these Iraqis from the personal and historical contexts that would help her understand the reasons for their opposition to American occupation.
But she has no real desire to empathetically understand the Sadrist opposition. By depriving them of agency, she achieves a standard neocon goal. She reduces an enormously complex economic, political, and cultural situation to a Middle East Melodrama. Rather than a country in which certain native factions aggressively oppose American occupation, Iraq becomes a battleground on which two world-historical forces, and only two, fight for the souls of the Iraqi people: the gallant proponents of liberty and democracy on the one hand, the nefarious advocates of theocracy and tyranny on the other.
For Kagan there is no doubt that in this momentous melodrama the forces of good will vanquish the forces of evil. As provincial and national elections approach, Shia leaders, “eager to appear strong and independent”—independent, that is, of America—“exaggerate their own capabilities” and the capabilities of the Iraq Security Forces. “But even the most extreme of these hubristic Shia advisers strongly favor a partnership with the United States.” Over dinner, one of these hubristic Shia tells her that “Iraq is flying west,” away from the autocratic Iranians and toward the liberal and democratic Americans.
The surge has thus been vindicated, since its goal was from the outset “to transform the conflict over power in Iraq from a military to a political struggle.” The Iraqi people are now “passionate about democracy,” a liberal, American-style democracy in which factional disputes are periodically brought to provisional reconciliation in the arena of politics. In Kagan’s view America cannot now abandon the first fragile shoots of Iraqi democracy and leave the Iraqis vulnerable to the despotic Iranians and their Iraqi minions, those puppets who claim freely to adhere to a fellow Iraqi, Muqtada al Sadr, but who in reality are manipulated and controlled by the theocrats in Tehran.
I’ll return to the surge in a forthcoming series, and I will argue that far from vindicating the neocon narrative of the Iraq War, the counterinsurgency operation referred to as the surge has been a signal failure. In my next post, however, I will return to Robert Kagan and will summarize his neocon view of the Cowboy Nation and its historical destiny.
Crossposted at Progressive Historians