It’s not easy to say which country America will fight in its next ill-advised war. Iran? Or, assuming President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un don’t hit it off at their summit, North Korea? Maybe even Venezuela or Russia?
It’s easier to say what one of the major causes of the war will be: the failure by many Americans — notably politicians, journalists, think tankers, and other elites — to employ a specific mental power that we’re all capable of employing.
That power is called cognitive empathy, and it’s not what you might think. It doesn’t involve feeling people’s pain or even caring about their welfare. Emotional empathy is the kind of empathy that accomplishes those things. Cognitive empathy — sometimes called perspective taking — is a matter of seeing someone’s point of view: understanding how they’re processing information, how the world looks to them. Sounds unexceptional, I know — like the kind of thing you do every day. But there are at least two reasons cognitive empathy deserves more attention than it gets.
First, because the failure to exercise it lies behind two of the most dangerous kinds of misperceptions in international affairs: misreading a nation’s military moves as offensive when the nation itself considers them defensive, and viewing some national leaders as crazy or fanatical when in fact they’ll respond predictably to incentives if you understand their goals.
The second reason cognitive empathy deserves more attention is that, however simple it sounds, it can be hard to exercise. Somewhat like emotional empathy, cognitive empathy can shut down or open up depending on your relationship to the person in question — friend, rival, enemy, kin — and how you’re feeling about them at the moment.
And, to make matters worse, there’s this: In Washington, lots of money is being spent to keep us from exercising cognitive empathy. Important institutions, most notably some we misleadingly call “think tanks,” work to warp our vision. And the reality-distortion fields they generate can get powerful when the war drums start beating.
You may have trouble understanding why Iran would fear an unprovoked attack.
Consider, as a case study, a recent piece about Iran in the New York Times.
It was a front-page story — the lead article in the physical edition of the paper — written by Ben Hubbard, Isabel Kershner, and Anne Barnard. The headline, in the top-righthand corner of the front page, read, “Iran Building Up Militias in Syria to Menace Israel.”
Just about any expert on Iran would agree that, strictly speaking, this headline is accurate. However, a number of experts would add something that these three reporters failed to add: From Iran’s point of view, the purpose of menacing Israel may be to prevent war; having the capacity to inflict unacceptable damage on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv can be a way of keeping both Israel and the U.S. from attacking Iran.
You may have trouble understanding why Iran would fear an unprovoked attack. Most Americans don’t think of their country as wantonly aggressive and most Israelis don’t think of their country that way, either. But Israel has repeatedly threatened to attack Iran — and eight years ago assassinated Iranian scientists on Iranian soil. And America, for its part, has repeatedly signaled that it reserves the right to bomb Iran and that it would stand by Israel in the case of war with Iran.
Against the backdrop of Iranian history — including America’s support for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, which produced hundreds of thousands of dead Iranians — it’s hardly surprising that Iran views both Israel and America as forces to be deterred; or that Iran sponsored anti-American Iraqi militias after a massive American military force invaded and occupied neighboring Iraq in 2003; or that when America and its allies armed Syrian rebels, thus turning a probably doomed insurrection into a full-scale civil war, Iran sent forces into Syria to save its longstanding ally, Bashar al-Assad’s regime, rather than see it toppled possibly by pro-American forces.
If you want this kind of insight into Iran’s perspective, I recommend avoiding the New York Times and checking out the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. There you’ll find a piece by Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, called “Iran Among the Ruins.”
Nasr writes that “the Israeli and U.S. militaries pose clear and present dangers to Iran.” He explains how this threat, along with hostile Arab neighbors and other perceived threats, has given rise to Iran’s policy of “forward defense.” He writes: “Although Iran’s rivals see the strategy of supporting nonstate military groups” — in Syria and Lebanon — “as an effort to export the revolution, the calculation behind it is utterly conventional.” Iran’s foreign policy, Nasr explains, is driven by national interest more than revolutionary fervor and “is far more pragmatic than many in the West comprehend.”
The New York Times reporters don’t seem to have consulted Nasr, or any of the other respected analysts who have similar views of Iran’s strategic perspective. The result is unbalanced reporting.
The Times piece tells us that Israel and the U.S. “fear Iran’s growing influence,” that Israel “fears that it could face a threat” from Iranian proxies in Syria, that “many Israelis” sense “danger,” and that Iran’s behavior “worries Israel.”
All true. But there’s no mention of Iranian “fears” or “worries” or perceived “danger.” There’s also no mention of what, from an Iranian perspective, is a glaring asymmetry: Iranians and Iranian proxies in Syria are there with the permission of Syria’s government. But when Israeli jets routinely enter Syrian airspace to bomb those proxies, Israel doesn’t have the government’s permission and so, is violating international law. So too with the American troops that are stationed in Syria without the government’s permission and that have fought against pro-Assad forces; this is illegal under any but the most tortured reading of international law.
Far from highlighting this asymmetry, the Times story could give the casual reader the idea that the asymmetry points in the other direction. The story opens with this sentence: “When an Iranian drone flew into Israeli airspace this month …” No mention of the fact that this incursion, apparently by a surveillance drone, not an armed drone, was such an aberration that some observers think it was accidental. And no mention of the many Israeli violations of Syrian airspace that had preceded it, sometimes with lethal consequences. (And, at the risk of getting too picky, no mention of the fact that the “Israeli airspace” the Times said was violated was actually over the Golan Heights, which under international law is Israeli-occupied Syrian territory.)
The unbalanced presentation isn’t surprising in light of the Times reporters’ choice of sources.
This unbalanced presentation isn’t surprising in light of the Times reporters’ choice of sources. They quote an American official and an Israeli official and a former Israeli official, but no Iranian officials or former officials. And their selection of D.C. think tanks to rely on for analysis doesn’t exactly skew to the left.
The first Washington think-tank expert quoted in the piece is Amir Toumaj from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. As John Judis noted in a Slate profile of this think tank several years ago, back when the Iran nuclear deal was taking shape, FDD’s “positions have closely tracked those of the Likud party and its leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — not just on the Iran deal, but on the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians and the desirability of a two-state solution.” In its original application for tax-exempt status, FDD — then called EMET, the Hebrew word for ‘truth’ — said its mission was “to provide education to enhance Israel’s image in North America and the public’s understanding of issues affecting Israeli-Arab relations.” FDD has gotten funding from various far-right, “pro-Israel” donors, including Sheldon Adelson, who once seriously proposed dropping a nuclear bomb on Iran — just in the desert, he emphasized, to convey that “we mean business.”
So, naturally, when the New York Times is assembling a story about a conflict between Israel and Iran, it turns for impartial guidance to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
FDD does an impressive job of cultivating experts who can give journalists useful and sometimes hard-to-find information — and who, in return, get quoted a lot in the media. Almost invariably, the quotes strike a balance: They don’t overtly editorialize — and indeed are often defensible observations insofar as they go — yet they carry a subtle slant. The FDD quote in the Times piece is a good example: “The ultimate goal is, in the case of another war, to make Syria a new front between Israel, Hezbollah and Iran. They are making that not just a goal, but a reality.”
It’s no doubt true that if there’s a war with Israel, Iran would rather it not take place in Iran. But nowhere in the New York Times piece is there even consideration of the possibility that from Iran’s point of view the main point of robust proxy forces in Syria and Lebanon is to reduce the chances of war by deterring Israeli and American aggression.
I’m not saying we know that’s the case; I’m just saying this possibility is taken seriously by enough experts to warrant, say, 20 or 30 words in the course of a 1,700-word piece whose headline says Iran aims to “menace” Israel. Yet the Times piece never suggests that Iranian strategy could be aimed at reducing the threat to Iran by any means other than pushing the arena for war away from Iran’s borders.
The Times piece includes a powerful visual aid: a map of Syria showing lots of “long-term positions held by Iranian forces or their allies.” I have no idea how this data was gathered, so I guess we’ll have to trust the source. But if you look at the credit line, you’ll see that the source is the Institute for the Study of War, another D.C. think tank whose objectivity is dubious at best.
The Institute for the Study of War’s ideological profile is clear: Its board members have included various neoconservatives, such as Bill Kristol, and it has gotten money from neoconservative and otherwise hawkish donors (including, in fact, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies), as well as from defense contractors. The institute’s founder and president has argued for U.S.-backed regime change in Syria because, as she put it, the “security of the United States and its allies would be significantly enhanced if Assad fell and Iranian influence over Syria were removed.”
The Times piece does mention one D.C. think tank that isn’t ultra-hawkish. Near the end there’s a quote from an expert at the vaguely centrist Atlantic Council. But it turns out that this particular expert, Ali Alfoneh, was until 2016 at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and before that was at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute.
Alfoneh’s quote is: “Iran has realized that it is actually possible to maintain a front against Israel where there is no war but also no peace.” No mention of the fact that virtually all violent encounters between Israel and Iranian proxies in Syria — the incidents that have meant there is “no peace” — have been initiated by Israel, not the proxies.
Reporters from the Times are relying for “analysis” on sources that, in some cases, seem intent on drawing the U.S. into military conflict with Iran.
The New York Times famously helped get America into the Iraq War with reporting, by Judith Miller and others, that relied heavily on neoconservative and other hawkish sources. This reporting helped keep us from understanding what was going on in Saddam Hussein’s head: He was trying to hold onto power in Iraq and save as much face as possible, not hide a secret weapons of mass destruction program.
This misreading was abetted not just by the Times, but by various media outlets and various think tanks, ranging from the American Enterprise Institute to the “liberal” Brookings Institution.
And now we’re repeating the exercise with Iran. Reporters from the Times and other media outlets are, like Miller, relying for “analysis” on sources that, in some cases, seem intent on drawing the U.S. into military conflict with Iran. And it’s not as if these sources are keeping their agenda hidden. A week before the Times piece ran, Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, tweeted in support of the idea that the U.S. military should attack “vulnerable Iranian forces” in Syria.
One reason the reality distortion field surrounding Iran has gotten so amped up is that Washington’s traditional source of funding for specifically anti-Iran talking points — far-right, “pro-Israel” donors — has increasingly been supplemented by money from Sunni Arab states that are Iran’s regional rivals. Another is that various players in the Trump administration have various reasons for favoring anti-Iran policies.
Still, Iran isn’t the only case of a media-abetted perceptual distortion that could bring war. The extent to which both North Korea’s and Russia’s behavior is defensively driven tends to get underplayed, and the craziness of their leaders — particularly in the case of Kim Jong-un but occasionally in the case of Russian President Vladimir Putin — tends to get overplayed.
In all of these cases — Iran, Russia, and North Korea — the problem is a lack of cognitive empathy, a failure to understand what’s going on inside the heads of adversaries. The good news is that cognitive empathy is often not as hard to muster as emotional empathy; you don’t have to try to feel sorry for leaders who have done horrible things. The bad news is that cognitive empathy is harder than it seems and can be impeded by activating such emotions as fear.
For that reason, it’s understandable that Israelis wouldn’t extend much cognitive empathy toward Iran. Given Israel’s history and the hostility it faces from various neighbors — and the way some Iranian leaders spout anti-Zionism talking points — it’s only natural that many Israelis and many of Israel’s most ardent American supporters dismiss as hopelessly naïve the idea I’ve put forth: That Iran, too, has deep fears about its security and these may explain some of its seemingly threatening behavior. By the same token, it’s understandable that people in Gaza and Lebanon who have endured massive and deadly Israeli military campaigns doubt the Israeli claim that these are motivated defensively, to preserve a security that feels tenuous.
“Think tanks” that actually deserve that name should help us transcend these and other tribal perspectives, not reinforce them; help strengthen, not impede, cognitive empathy. And so should journalists — even if impeding cognitive empathy is good for traffic and conveniently streamlines the reporting process.