Negotiations or surrender?

As that old saying goes, the French have a word for it: déformation  professionelle.  It means to make a judgmental mistake as a result of one’s occupation. Thus, as a first reaction to a problem/crisis a physician who is a surgeon might be more tempted to cut than he should, a lawyer to litigate, a teacher to instruct, etc. Obviously, a diplomat might quickly try to negotiate to solve a geopolitical crisis.

But thereby lies the rub. Negotiations for the sake of negotiations often result in disaster. That is particularly true with U.S. diplomats, steeped in that powerful American ethos to be successful, who see any negotiation as having to have a fruitful outcome, i.e.,  in all probability a compromise between the parties. In a grim scenario, to avoid violence and war of course, the goal is obviously laudatory.

Furthemore, negotiations, often take place in an exotic world — subject to the imitation military hierarchy of the U.S. Foreign Service, in primitive locales or in the world’s fleshpots, in foreign languages, all involving “the parameters” of special diplomatese. The jargon and the “modalities” often intimidate the outsider, especially other Americans whose preoccupation is with domestic affairs rather than the elite world of diplomats. It explains, in part, why so many politicians appointed to Secretary of State have become prisoners of the professional diplomats in Foggy Bottom, turning on their heel against earlier deeply held positions. Mrs. Hillary Clinton is only the latest; even a foreign policy expert like former Pres. George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice succumbed. The stereotypical American, on the other hand, attempts to employ Alexander’s solution of the Gordian Knot with problems – cut through “the BS” and reach a “gentleman’s agreement”. President Barack Obama calls this “a comprehensive solution”. But more often these are traditionally difficult, long term problems, infinitely complex and an overall solution requires too many concessions by too many interests.

Furthermore, if you are negotiating outside the norm of the circle of peaceful and friendly democratic nations, you have a problem. A stonewalling opponent may strengthen his position by stringing along his American counterpart. That simply means that in the end, the U.S. diplomat makes whatever concessions are necessary to get “a successful outcome”, what is perceived at least to be a “settlement”. The end result is not a negotiation but can well be surrender.

Our American diplomatic history, alas! is replete with examples of where we fell into this trap. And at the moment, the Obama Administration appears locked in two such enterprises which bear intense scrutiny for this very reason. This Administration did not create them, of course, nor, indeed, were they created in the eight Bush years. Rather their origins are buried in a long past.

  • The sinking of a South Korean warship by a North Korean submarine has raised the ante in the long-standing dispute on the Korean peninsular. Pyongyang represents a bankrupt regime – both morally and economically. Starvation and malnutrition for its 15 million people has been hallmark of yet another Communist state. Now a new crisis arises from the collapse of a dysfunctional family in the only Communist monarchy. The dilemma for the regime – and for Washington – is that North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Il seems to believe that to move toward proffered help for liberalization of his economy [even “the China model”] would begin a total disintegration much like that which overtook Nicolai Ceausescu’s Romania.
  • Coincidentally – although the two regimes have done as much as they can to reinforce one another – Washington is attempting to negotiate its way out of the threat of an aggressive regime in Tehran developing nuclear weapons. Although the mullahs, in one of the most corrupt regimes in the long history of Persian abuse of power, have managed to enrich themselves, their economy hangs by a thread. Huge exports of oil at prices the former Shah Reza Pavlevi only dreamed of, are not enough to fund an enormous weapons program, a worldwide terrorist and subversion network, a rapidly expanding population, and the dereliction of any real economic development. But the dream of rebuilding the ancient Persian Empire and dominating the Middle East [and its oil resources] are a goal the current rulers may not abandon – without their own demise.

Into this arena, the Obama Administration – led by its FSOs — has plunged. He has apologized for what he sees as past [moral and strategic] mistakes of American policy. And he has launched a wide-ranging effort to initiate negotiations with former and perceived present opponents.

The question is, of course, that old American philosophical one: will it work? Is this American pragmatism or is it an ideological approach to problems doomed to even greater disasters than the sinking of an ally’s ship in time of armistice.



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