Our Weekly Discontents, 3/15/2021

In search of some strategic empathy

Thanks for checking out Discontents! Stay updated on what we’re all doing by signing up today for our free newsletter:

Hello friends, I’m Derek, from Foreign Exchanges, and today I’d like to talk to you about empathy. Specifically, strategic empathy. The concept of “strategic empathy” is an outgrowth of cognitive empathy, or the capacity to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, to try to understand what they may be thinking or feeling at any given moment. Where this becomes “strategic” is in putting that skill to use to further a particular aim. The term, sometimes with “tactical” used in place of “strategic,” has been around in the business jargon community for a while now, useful to varying degrees in varying fields. The concept behind the term has been around for much longer than that. It has a particularly rich history in the field of international relations, as Georgetown University’s Anatol Lieven explains:

The great realist thinker Hans Morgenthau stated that a fundamental ethical duty of the statesman is the cultivation of empathy: the ability through study to see the world through the eyes of rival state elites. Empathy in this sense is not identical with sympathy. Thus, George Kennan’s deep understanding of Stalinism led to an absolute hostility to that system.

This kind of empathy has very valuable consequences for foreign policy. It makes for an accurate assessment of another state establishment’s goals based on its own thoughts, rather than a picture of those goals generated by one’s own fears and hopes; above all, it permits one to identify the difference between the vital and secondary interests of a rival country as that country’s rulers see them.

Of course foreign policy isn’t always conducted on a state-to-state level, as has become especially apparent in the two decades since the September 11 attacks launched us into the “Global War on Terror.” But strategic empathy is still highly useful in understanding the behavior of people and organizations that are, well, Not Us. Unfortunately it’s a trait that is sorely lacking in US foreign policy makers. There is a strong tendency when you’ve spent most or all of your career operating on the premise that the United States is both The Shining City On A Hill and The World’s Only Superpower to lose sight of the fact that America is not the only actor on the world stage, and that other actors have their own interests, motives, and perspectives.

At its most embarrassing, a lack of strategic empathy leads insipid leaders to offer insipid statements like “they hate our freedoms” as a reason why someone from the Middle East might decide to attack the United States. At its most harmful, a lack of strategic empathy can lead decision makers to make dangerous, wrong-headed choices, either because they’ve failed to understand how an adversary might react or because it hasn’t occurred to them to care. There is an illustrative case of strategic empathy, or rather the lack thereof, currently unfolding amid the Biden administration’s attempt to recalibrate US policy toward the war in Yemen.

On Friday US Yemen envoy Timothy Lenderking criticized the Houthis and their rebel allies for “prioritizing” their current military offensive in north-central Yemen’s Maʾrib province over a new US push to negotiate a ceasefire and organize new peace talks.

That’s Lenderking on the monitor, being introduced in his new Yemen envoy role at a State Department briefing by spokesperson Ned Price back in February (State Department photo via Flickr)

In one sense this is a fair description of the situation. The Biden administration, having announced last month that it’s ending US support for “offensive” (note that vague qualifier there) Saudi military operations in Yemen, is indeed trying to reposition itself in the role of Yemen peacemaker. And the Houthis are clearly more interested in trying to capture Maʾrib city and its surrounding oil fields than they are in listening to any American ceasefire pitch. But that description also oversimplifies the dynamics at work in Yemen, and it does so because it lacks any semblance of strategic empathy. Put simply, even if we can assume that the Biden administration is making a good faith effort to end the Yemen war, there is no reason to expect the Houthis to believe it.

The United States has spent the past nearly six years supporting a brutal Saudi war effort that has decimated northern Yemen. It’s only been a little over a month since the Biden administration announced that it was ending that support, and only with that aforementioned vague qualifier attached to the announcement. If we can judge by the ongoing intensity of Saudi airstrikes against Houthi fighters and military positions, so far there’s no apparent indication that anything about the US role in Yemen has actually changed. You don’t need any superhuman powers of empathy to see why the Houthis might not really be all that interested in a US-led peace effort. No country can go from being an active combatant (or near-combatant) in an ongoing war to adopting the role of peacemaker and reasonably expect its former adversaries to suddenly take its new position seriously within a matter of days. That’s not how any of this works. One would hope that a veteran diplomat like Lenderking would understand this, but either he personally doesn’t get it or he’s compelled to carry water for an administration that doesn’t get it.

If the Biden administration wants to make peace in Yemen it needs to invest some time and effort in earning credibility as an honest broker with all parties in the conflict. This seems like it should be obvious. But to a US foreign policy establishment that doesn’t really grasp strategic empathy, it can be difficult to understand why the rest of the world doesn’t always respond to the way America wants.

It’s time to see what the rest of the Discontents crew has been doing over the past week, but before I go, we’re hoping you’ll respond the way we want, by signing up for a free Discontents subscription if you haven’t already:

And if you have signed up, please spread the word about our collective and help us continue to grow. Thanks for reading!

Discourse Blog

Jack Crosbie, representing the collective

This week, we’re celebrating the ONE YEAR anniversary of Discourse Blog, which is wild for me to write. We’ve been through a lot this year, from a free, extremely janky Wordpress site, to building an audience through Substack, and then onto our current home, a fully functioning website built by our partners Ally and Lede. Aleks Chan, our publisher, wrote a bit more about that process and what it means, but the long and short of it is none of us ever dreamed that we’d be where we are today. That’s due to everyone who’s read our blogs and through the partnerships and generosity of our peers, like this group at Discontents. The cliche that anyone who’s on the left has heard a million times is that a rising tide lifts all boats, but this past year has driven that home for me at least. The newsletters you’re reading here are all part of something bigger that we’re working toward: a media industry free from the worst aspects of corporate establishment, that can use its platform critically to question those in power. 

I’ll skip the usual summary of our work this week, although we had another great one. This week, all of our subscribers’ only content is free, so we really hope you’ll come through the site and check it out. Paul Blest has led us off with a really good interview with the TimesJamelle Bouie, and we’ve got plenty more to come over the course of the week with a big sale on subscriptions planned for next Tuesday. More on that in the next issue of Discontents. We’ll see you then.

Sick Note

Libby Watson

This week at Sick Note I asked Beatrice Adler-Bolton, host of the Death Panel podcast, to write about her experience getting Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) due to her rare autoimmune disease. It’s a story of complicated administrative tasks, denials, barriers, and plain old cruelty:

Administrative burdens—like bureaucracy, long wait-times for appointments, confusing paperwork, bad web portals, identification requirements, complex eligibility systems, redundant regulations, and more—arbitrarily block individuals from accessing programs which they need and are legally entitled to. The question of “do you qualify for SSDI?” is so much more complex than simply determining medical necessity. I know what it feels like to be someone that the system is intended to protect, who is simultaneously someone that the system is designed to try to weed out—particularly if you don’t easily fit into the categories that have been laid out to mark people for survival or death.

SSDI is rife with hoops and hurdles designed to alienate those who seek welfare and medical benefits, making it very clear to people who need this support that there is a high price that comes with access to any meager type of survival aid. As public policy scholars Pamela Herd and Donald Moynihan explain in their book, Administrative Burden: Policymaking by Other Means, “administrative burdens often disproportionately affect the disadvantaged who lack the resources to deal with the financial and psychological costs of navigating these obstacles.” Speaking from experience, the psychological and financial costs are extreme, and many people die or go bankrupt just waiting for their benefit determination hearing. I did not become a health policy nerd overnight; the application process of SSDI radicalized and transformed both me and my partner through our direct and intimate experiences with the logic of the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) administrative burdens.

I hope Beatrice’s story will help you understand just what we make disabled people go through in this country to receive barer-than-the-bare-minimum help.

Wars of Future Past

Kelsey D. Atherton

Discourse. Discourse never changes.

In my latest newsletter, I hunt for the earliest mention of Future War in Popular Science, and stumble across a debate between a violent jingoistic memoirist and an optimistic civil servant who fired a rebuttal back at him 43 years later.

Here’s a little taste:

“It is acknowledged on all hands that the character of war has changed greatly for the better in modern times,” writes Le Sueur. “It still is a matter of killing and of maiming in the endeavor to kill; but, decade by decade, it has to reckon more and more with the spirit of humanity.

I didn’t set out to find slow discourse, but it’s there, nestled amongst apocalyptic predictions and what it means to write for an enthusiast press with its own storied history.

Welcome to Hell World

Luke O’Neil

This week I spoke with Emma Goodman, a public defender with the the Legal Aid Society in New York, about her anger with the city’s refusal to keep people held in their custody safe from covid, as well as the pressure people are put under to accept plea deals.

“Being in custody, especially pre-arraignment when you don’t even know what’s going on, is very scary and horrible, putting aside covid. It’s very often the worst time in someone’s life. So to add on the fear of dying, literally, to that… And to be looking around at the people who are supposed to be keeping you safe who have no regard for your life or safety, I just can’t imagine.”

I also spoke with Mary von Aue about her experience living with epilepsy. Sometimes almost as scary as the seizures themselves are the medical bills that follow soon after. The first thought she has now when she wakes up is relief at still being alive. The second thought is about how much having lived is going to cost her.

“I’m paying $450 a month for health insurance, and I’m still waking up from seizures thinking that if I didn’t hit my head that hard I’ll just risk it and not go in at all,” she told me. “Or if I did hit my head hard, fine, I’ll go, but I’m taking an Uber.”

The Flashpoint

Eoin Higgins

Be sure to check out my interview with Jake Silberman on YouTube’s removal of his video documenting a Stop the Steal rally in Salem Oregon.

Here are some thoughts on the White House press corps:

When White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on March 9 was asked about the Bidens' new cat, she welcomed the question, telling reporters that they'd know soon enough and that the animal would "break the internet."

The question, asked by Washington Examiner reporter Rob Crilly, was part of a pattern with how reporters are approaching Psaki. With the departure of Donald Trump and his antagonistic press team has come a more genial relationship in the briefing room where Psaki holds near-daily conferences and talks to reporters regularly. 

The press corps has been openly hostile once, after former aide TJ Ducklo's attacks on Politico's Tara Palmeri became public, but that's the exception that proves the rule—and Psaki knows it, using cutesy Twitter videos about Biden's favorite ice cream to reach the resistance base and smacking down questions she doesn't want to answer with so-called "Psaki bombs."

What's been lacking from the interactions has been the necessary level of antagonism that the press and government officials should have. Psaki has repeatedly obfuscated the truth, dismissed questions, and used the kind of deceptive language to describe administration policies—facilities instead of the campaign charge cages to describe CBP detention facilities; shifting blame to the Trump administration for today's immigration crisis—that were they coming from Sarah Huckabee Sanders or Kayleigh McEnany would rightly draw ridicule and anger. 

Reporters shouldn't give the new administration a pass. One of the first steps in doing that is not treating the press office as a friend. 

The Insurgents

Jordan Uhl & Rob Rousseau

This week we’ve got a premium subscriber-only episode, talking about Donald Trump’s new gig as a golf course greeter and how we hate how happy it probably makes him. He’s looking great as well. Very frustrating. We also talk about the PRO Act, how Biden’s entire agenda rests on getting rid of the filibuster, kids still in cages in increasingly desperate conditions, the George Floyd Act doing literally the opposite of what activists were very clearly demanding, we also investigate why Sean Davis of the Federalist tweeted the words “mommy milky” devoid of any context this weekend. Seems like a pretty strange guy!

Hey by the way, on my (Rob’s) other podcast, I talked to none other than Naomi Klein this week! This isn’t a Discontents thing but I’m including it here anyway and hoping no one gets mad at me for it. Better to ask for forgiveness than permission, or whatever.

Perspectives: Past, Present, and Future

Patrick Wyman

Happy Ides of March Day, friends!

The prehistory series on Perspectives is continuing with one of my favorite topics: the hunter-gatherers who are still alive today, and the fact that these people aren’t living fossils or windows onto the distant past. It’s really easy to think that hunter-gatherers are living a pristine way of life similar to that of prehistoric people, but that’s not the case. They’re subject to dramatically different pressures and forces. No less than us, they’re participants in a modern world - even uncontacted groups deep in the New Guinea Highlands or Amazonia - and are shaped by that modern world rather than being relics of a bygone age.

Despite that, we can still learn a ton by understanding these living foragers. The dynamics that shape their lives, the many different ways they find food, and their ingenious methods of survival all tell us scattered pieces about life in the distant past.


A lot of what we grapple with at BORDER/LINES comes down to subtleties in the application of language. Often, it’s legal language, where small differences in how a phrase or even a single word are interpreted can have massive repercussions on the immigration system and can mean the difference between safety and deportation and death. It’s also the language of the public discourse, where the same set of circumstances can be described in wildly different ways depending on the social and political moment and who’s doing the describing.

In recent weeks, the mainstream consensus on the border situation seems to have settled on the notion of “crisis,” with descriptions of the increasing numbers of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum prompting volleys of arguments back and forth over the administration’s handling of it. This whole discussion is parting from the premise that, one, this is measurably a crisis that is somehow uniquely difficult or anomalous, and two, that this was set off in isolation, a series of events that begins when the migrants enter the country, with no prior context.

In last week’s edition, we broke down this state of affairs, including the fact that the current situation was both entirely predictable and set off by conscious policy choices, both by the Trump and Biden administrations. We also took a look at some of the historic precedents here to puncture the narrative that this is a circumstance without parallel, and point out that, despite years of cyclical such “crises,” the systems to humanely accommodate these migrants as required by both our domestic laws and international obligations remain flawed and broken. As long as these meeting these moral responsibilities remains seen as a political question, they might never be fixed.

Foreign Exchanges

Derek Davison

It would be premature to talk about a “new Pink Tide” or the like, but some kind of political shift seems to be happening in South America these days. The election of Alberto Fernández as president of Argentina back in 2019 feels like it happened a lifetime ago, but in retrospect it also feels like the first step in a larger backlash to the wave of conservatism that had washed over the continent in the mid 2010s. The election of Luis Arce, the Movement for Socialism candidate in last year’s Bolivian presidential election, reversed the November 2019 coup that ousted one of the original Pink Tide’s preeminent figures, Evo Morales. Arce is now stretching his wings a bit by pursuing criminal investigations into the key figures in that coup, including “interim president” Jeanine Áñez. Protesters in Chile forced its conservative leader, Sebastián Piñera, to begin a process that could finally see Chile’s Pinochet-era constitution swept into the dustbin of history. And conservative Paraguayan President  is suddenly finding himself the target of public outrage over his management of the pandemic.

But the week’s biggest development in Latin American politics concerns another of the Pink Tide’s eminences, former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Current Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro may well owe his 2018 electoral victory to the dubious 2017 conviction of Lula on corruption charges. That conviction prevented Lula from running in 2018, when polling showed him leading Bolsonaro. On Monday, a Brazilian judge annulled it, which means that a politically vulnerable Bolsonaro may find himself running for reelection next year against the one man who likely would have defeated him in 2018—and who polling suggests could well beat him this time around. To be fair, prosecutors are appealing the ruling so the legal aspects of this case are not over. Moreover, Lula hasn’t actually yet said that he’s planning to run next year. But it sure seems like he is.