McMaster's Blinding Contempt for Adversaries

Emma Ashford has written a thoughtful and fair review of H.R. McMaster’s memoir, Battlegrounds. She finds McMaster’s worldview to be lacking in the “strategic empathy” that he so frequently touts, and as a result he ends up taking hard-line positions on practically every issue:

McMaster makes other assumptions, too: The book is full of lengthy discussions of the malicious acts of other nations, yet America rarely missteps. He is entirely correct that some critics of U.S. foreign policy — particularly on the left — are often too willing to attribute everything bad in the world to America. McMaster, however, commits the opposite sin. His commitment to an America that does no wrong is so absolute that he argues at one point that the United States shouldn’t bear any responsibility for the 1953 coup against Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadegh. Thus, for all his praise of empathy and historical understanding, the countries he describes in Battlegrounds are strangely uniform in their implacable opposition to the United States. And for all his opposition to strategic narcissism, he seems curiously unwilling to question whether the United States might sometimes be the problem.

It is fair to conclude from McMaster’s own arguments that he probably doesn’t understand and certainly doesn’t practice strategic empathy. That is what many other writers and scholars have concluded about his thinking, and Ashford’s review confirms it. As Jon Askonas pointed out last year, McMaster relies on Zachary Shore’s A Sense of the Enemy for the concept, but then bungles the application in his own analysis:

Never does McMaster try to get inside the heads of the actual leaders and decision-makers of the countries he is writing about.

Shore’s simplest definition of the concept is “the skill of stepping out of our own heads and into the minds of others.” McMaster fails the test every time. He claims to be doing this, but invariably he is projecting his own hawkish attitudes into the minds of others and assuming that they are the stock villains he believes and wants them to be. Not only does he deny that the U.S. is even partly responsible for provoking hostile reactions, but he attributes everything that adversaries do to ideological obsessions he assumes that they cling to just as tightly as he does to his.

His dismissal of U.S. responsibility for the 1953 coup is a case in point. Like other Iran hawks, McMaster wants to minimize the U.S. role in the coup to deny the claim that the U.S. bears at least some responsibility for the abuses of the shah. This is probably so that he can maintain that Iranians have no real grievances against the United States. As a matter of historical interpretation, this is nonsense, and it amounts to little more than trying to whitewash one of the more egregious outrages that the U.S. committed during the Cold War. Of course, what should matter to someone practicing strategic empathy is the fact that most Iranians have believed that the U.S. bears great responsibility for the coup and have responded accordingly. It is difficult for McMaster to practice strategic empathy when the only thing he seems to be able to feel for these other states is contempt. That contempt blinds him to what he could perceive if he actually tried to enter into the minds of adversaries.

McMaster wants the credit for seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, but he doesn’t want to put in the work or acknowledge that someone else’s way of looking at things might have validity. It isn’t just that McMaster doesn’t accept the interests and grievances of other states as legitimate, but that he can’t even conceive of how the leaders of those states might see them that way. It is no accident that McMaster’s analysis is frequently flawed as a result, and it is why his policy preferences are typically so aggressive and irresponsible.

If you assume every adversary government is run by ideological fanatics hell-bent on destruction and/or global domination, as McMaster usually does, you will see every attempt at negotiation and reduction of tensions as a worthless waste of time. Back in the real world, the leaders of these states may believe in their own systems, but they aren’t committed to spreading them around the world and they aren’t going to commit national suicide by launching insane first strikes. McMaster isn’t seeking to understand what drives adversaries so much as he is seeking to justify maximally hostile policies toward all of these different countries. Aggressive policies will rather predictably generate more hostile behavior from the targeted states, and instead of recognizing his own part in producing these outcomes McMaster will put it down to the other side’s implacable hatred.