Obama's Impressive Beginnings as an Honest Broker in the Middle East: The Psychology of Perspective-taking Where Perspective is Hard to Find

by Drew Westen Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation." 30.01.2009

Watching President Obama's interview on Al-Arabiya this week was striking in multiple respects, not the least of which, of course, was that an American president actually did an interview with an Arab network with a largely Muslim viewing audience -- and did it in the first week of his presidency. But watching him speak with the interviewer -- who the American media actually referred to by name afterwards, something I don't remember hearing before -- and listening to both the content of his communications and the respectful manner in which he spoke to the Muslim world -- made me do a double-take.

It has been so long since a U.S. president exercised in foreign affairs, let alone in the Middle East, that distinctively human faculty that begins in preschool but takes years to develop: the capacity to take the perspective of the other -- to imagine, reflect on, and respond in accordance with inferences about what the other person sees, thinks, and feels. Developmental psychologists call this "theory of mind" -- children's growing awareness that other people have mental states and that the contents of other people's minds are not necessarily the same as their own. Psychologists have used different terms to describe this capacity -- perspective taking, mentalization, psychological mindedness, complexity of representations of people -- but in adults, all of these phenomena are associated with more secure and mature relationships.

Obama knew exactly what he was saying by granting this interview so early in his administration, coming after an Inaugural Address that was so pointedly aimed at saying to the Muslim world, namely that "we will treat you with dignity and respect if you treat us that way." And he knew exactly what it would mean to his listeners when he mentioned, seemingly casually, that he had several Muslim members of his own family. He was telling the Muslim world that they were people to him. And people have conversations with other people when they have differences.

The interview reminded me by contrast of a jarring comment by President Bush in the run-up to the Iraq war. Bush never mastered the skill of imaginatively stepping into another person's mind, which requires setting aside one's own immediate perceptions, ideas, feelings, and values (e.g., that everyone everywhere wants "freedom," and freedom means the same thing to a mullah who would use it to enslave women in his society, whether they share his religious views or not, as it does in the West) to imagine how one's words might be heard by the other. A reporter asked Bush whether the Turks were on board, to which he curtly replied, "The Turks know what we expect of them" -- as if they were his errant teenage children or our unruly U.S. colony. It hadn't occurred to him that he had just immensely complicated the task of any Turkish leader who had any inclination to join his "coalition of the willing," not only because Turkey has a large Muslim population but also because Turkey elects its leaders, and any politician who appears to be taking his orders from Washington is not going to be in power for long. What was so striking was that Bush just didn't seem to understand -- or to care -- how his comments were heard.

This wasn't just swaggering cowboy diplomacy. It was preschool diplomacy, the kind of "I want it, so you give it to me" diplomacy that children practice before they understand that other kids have different feelings than they do or may want to play with the same toy, and that they have to negotiate for what they want when faced with conflicting intentions, desires, or understandings. (My four-year-old still has trouble at times understanding that her friend who doesn't want to "play babies" at the moment she does isn't being bad or obstructionistic, she just has different desires.) The essence of diplomacy, and of all negotiation, is to step out of your own shoes and into the minds of the others around the table, with the goal of achieving your own and hopefully common interests by influencing their minds. If diplomacy fails, there is always brute force. But even nonhuman primates understand dominance hierarchies, and the more direct contact the have with those with those with greater power the better, because they are more likely to recognize it and back off to avoid a losing confrontation.

It's not an accident that a president with a Manichean worldview -- you're either with us or against us, you're either good or evil, you either support our actions or you hate freedom -- would have had such difficulty imagining the mind of another person (or, for that matter, scrutinizing his own mind and reflecting on his own thoughts, feelings, or prior decisions in the way that normally distinguishes adults from young children). If people are either good or evil, there's nothing else to understand about them and certainly no reason to try to get inside their heads. Good people have good intentions and bad people have bad intentions as they rub their evil hands together and cackle. What else is there to know?

The inability to reflect on the mental states of others is probably a mental defect of the 43rd president. But lapses in perspective-taking can afflict any of us when our emotions are strong or our ideologies are rigid and held together by emotional super-glue. A striking example can be seen in American attitudes toward American vs. Israeli responses to terrorist threats or attacks. Last week, on the same day at the same time, the Huffington Post had a banner at the top of the front page, reading, SLIDESHOW: Israeli War Crimes Accusations Mount. Right below it was a banner headline in enormous font, reading, "Commander-in-Chief," followed by a story with the title, First Missile Strikes On Pakistan Since Obama Presidency. The story began, "At least 18 people were killed in a suspected American missile attack in the North Waziristan agency of Pakistan on Friday. It was believed to be the first attack that took place since President Barack Obama took office. Pakistani officials had previously expressed hope that once Obama became president he would stop the attacks. According to local officials, at least three missiles targeted a house in Mir Ali, North Waziristan, killing over ten people, including Arab nationals, and wounding many more."

Oddly, no one seemed to notice the logical inconsistency between the two stories -- either here or in other media outlets, which largely covered the two stories the same way. If Israeli strikes on Hamas militants and leaders that led to the unintended deaths of innocent civilians in response to over a thousand unprovoked and continuing missile attacks on Israeli soil since 2005 constitute war crimes, then surely American air strikes against Taliban or Al Qaeda militants or leaders that led to the unintended deaths of innocent women and children eight years after the last attack on American soil by Al Qaeda constitute war crimes. Hamas, like al Qaeda, is explicit in its goal: the destruction of what it sees as its enemy. Only by suspending our capacity to imagine what we would do if faced with continuous assaults by a neighboring state that endanger our children can we call one act a war crime and the other an act of self-defense. (Would we wait one day or two before launching a nuclear strike if Mexico intentionally sent a single missile into Waco after declaring its intention to destroy the United States? If we decided to restrain ourselves from a nuclear attack, would we heed international calls for a ceasefire after a four-week bombing campaign aimed at destroying Mexico's capacity to attack us, or would we march into Mexico City or at least attack with massive force and countless civilian deaths until the Mexican government surrendered?)

When we see the images or hear the crying of Palestinian children after a raid on militants in Gaza, it is hard not to be moved to say, "Stop, enough!" But the fact that we see those images and hear those sounds every time Israel responds to aggression but never when America does so renders our capacity for perspective-taking unbalanced. Children crying, burned, or searching for their dead mothers are virtually always the visual or auditory backdrops for television and radio stories about Israeli strikes against those who attack Israel, but they are never the backdrop for stories about American attacks, even against those who never attacked us (notably the Iraqis, whose civilian death toll still remains unknown to us, five years after we marched into Baghdad). Indeed, just the opposite. On Sunday on CNN, Barbara Starr reported on the U.S. missile attacks into Pakistan and the emerging details of the civilian deaths they had caused, including at least three children of the militant leader who was apparently their primary target. But instead of seeing images of dead and wailing Pakistani children in the background, viewers watched footage of frightening masked terrorists and the usual training-camp videos, implicitly justifying the attacks, priming a completely different set of associations than the Gaza missile strikes, and essentially deactivating empathic distress mechanisms that are part of our evolutionary heritage. If children died, it was a shame, but they were "collateral damage." The last thing we would want to do would be to see them.

It isn't easy to be an "honest broker" in the Middle East. Israel is our strongest ally and the only democracy in the region, our other allies are largely autocratic rulers of countries whose people despise us or harbor tremendous ambivalence toward us, and Bush's new flagship democracies in the region have had a nasty habit of choosing the leaders of terrorist organizations (Hamas and Hezbollah) as their leaders. How would we have responded if Pakistan had elected bin Laden as their new president? Long ago psychologists studying the social psychology of international conflict identified a tendency of people to hold intensely negative attitudes toward their enemies' leaders but to hold positive attitudes toward their people. During the Cold War, most Americans harbored little ill will toward the Russian people but plenty toward their leaders. This splitting of images into good people/bad leaders can be sustained when the leaders are dictators but not when they are democratically elected.

But if anyone can be perceived as an honest broker in the Middle East, it is President Obama, not only because he is a black leader of a predominantly white country, spent several years as a child growing up in the world's largest Muslim country (Indonesia), and has a Muslim middle name, but because he is already threading the needle remarkably well, and he clearly knows that his unique background offers him unique opportunities. In a statement last week he expressed his compassion and concern for the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza while simultaneously expressing his concern for the security of Israel. You don't get better perspective-taking than that.

Copyright: Drew Westen. The article was first published on the Huffington Post.

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