Presidential Debate of October 22, 2012: AHA Roundtable

Consistency and Empathy

Leila Fawaz, October 2012

Leila FawazI returned from Beirut, Lebanon this past Sunday, October 21, a Lebanon where a grotesquely huge bomb triggered by cowardly fanatics shattered the tenuous tranquility that the vast majority of ordinary Lebanese crave, in the process murdering some eight people while wounding around 100 civilians – the actual numbers are not yet clear.

And so, despite the seemingly deep differences between the president and the governor, I couldn’t help but reflect during the debate on American democracy. In the midst of such a decisive political moment in American history, with so much at stake for this country and the world, both candidates engaged in a sharp, yet non-violent, exchange of views. In much of the world, rife with endemic corruption and political violence, the enormous stakes discussed last night would instead be settled with the trigger of a bomb, or by the barrel of a gun.

To me, that vigorous political process forces us to grapple with our own assumptions about America’s role in the world. As President Obama and Governor Romney moved through the world, nudged along by veteran Bob Schieffer, I was reminded how important it is for us to try and demonstrate genuine political empathy for our political opponents, and for Americans to show empathy for the rest of the world in its foreign policy. Although it may be a bitter pill for ardent partisans and committed nationalists to swallow, empathy remains the sturdiest bridge to cooperation.  Happily for us, the United States possesses a deep reservoir of foreign experts and diplomats who have spent their life studying a region, issue, or people. 

As an émigré to the United States, I believe training that firepower on the inconsistencies in U.S. foreign policy would play a critical role in shoring up the existing disdain for the United States abroad, and make it easier for foreign populations to look to the United States for leadership. Just recently in the broader Middle East alone, the United States has actively supported the democratic aspirations of Egyptians, while remaining reticent over similar desires by Iranians. In the past, the United States has trumpeted a freedom agenda, except when it did not suit American interests. Such inconsistencies are not confined to any one party or president. They extend across time. And inevitably, such inconsistencies have bred cynicism over United States intentions.  Eliminating them would make the U.S. more intelligible and comprehensible to populations abroad, and ease our task of collaboration. Contrary to a point made during the debate, treating the diplomats of a rival country as “pariah” is not a solution.  Leadership is the opposite; it is to talk to one’s enemies and not only one’s allies, and to listen to counter viewpoints and understand where they are coming from. 

A primary point of emphasis last night was the Middle East.  In that region, both candidates could benefit from understanding that almost all the states of the region are artificially created, with five countries formed out of the Arab territory of the Ottoman Empire, and all five of these artificial creations were given their initial organization by foreign imperial powers. Only the Lebanese accepted this early on. In contrast, by refusing at first to accept the national validity of their given countries as a matter of Arab nationalist principle, the other Arab states paradoxically did manage, in time, to secure an accepted legitimacy for these countries as states. In the absence of a strong regional or international leadership, interstate rivalries persist and resurface at times of crisis.

No matter who wins this election, my hope therefore is that the United States in 2013 draws upon its unprecedented expertise and contacts to construct a strong foreign policy of consistency and empathy. Such a policy, surely, might well win the support of ordinary people the world over, tired of the ravages of war and the brutality of bombs.

Leila Fawaz is Issam M. Fares Professor of Lebanese & Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University.