Monday, December 18, 2006


The Iraq Study Group’s call for negotiations with Iran and Syria over Iraq has met with great praise from the moderate press, as well as many politicians and talking heads. After all, it can’t hurt to talk and you negotiate for peace with your enemies, not your friends. I find this argument less than compelling.
Negotiations take several forms. There’s the basic negotiation which dominates labor-management and most international diplomacy – I have something you want, you have something I want, let’s make a deal. There’s also the uneven version of that – you have something I want and I won’t break your legs if you give it to me. We can call that the Godfather school of negotiations, but it sometimes shows up internationally and in labor talks as well – give me wage and conditions concessions or I’ll move your job to India; this is how the U.S. negotiated with the Native American tribes. Then there’s the sham negotiations – where the sides talk, and maybe one of them wants to make a deal, but the other is just buying time and seeing what they can get. Most negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians have been like this, but history is full of these – the U.S. and North Korea in the 1990’s, Chamberlain at Munich, and Roosevelt at Yalta are the best examples. These tend to feature a complete lack of enforceability, with one side happily agreeing to do (or not do) something and then proceeding on its merry way to do whatever it wants. They produces lots of photo ops and good press, but no real results for the side that really cares. That is the most likely result of our dealing with Iran and Syria. If we could stop Iran’s support of the militias with arms and money, we could do it now. But the money comes in suitcases, not wire transfers, and the arms come in the dead of night, not in crates marked “Product of the Republic of Iran”.
There are many positive examples of negotiations between warring sides. But the deal is not struck between the actual fighting sides but between the non-militant representatives of the people the fighters represent. The British (who are the experts at this), negotiated in India with the Congress party of Nehru and Gandhi, not the militants, they negotiated with Ben-Gurion and Meier, not with Begin and the Irgun, and with Sinn Fein, not the provisional IRA. The Middle East lacks the “good guys”, which is why Israel hasn’t been able to really negotiate with the Palestinians – they never trusted Arafat, and surely don’t trust Hamas and Hezbollah. Are we really going to trust Ahmadinejad and Assad when they promise to help us in Iraq, when we can’t enforce anything they agree to?
The ISG pretty much says the negotiations with Iran would be unlikely to succeed, especially since we aren’t going to talk about nuclear issues (which the ISG says should not be on the table). They want them to show the region we’re trying, and it couldn’t hurt to talk, right? But in a media-dominated world, it can hurt to talk. When the Iranians and Syrians agree to help in return for the lifting of all trade sanctions, or removal of support for Israeli settlements, or some other issue which we won’t or can’t give them, the world will see the talks fail because we were unwilling to do anything. Sitting down at a table with your enemy gives him instant credibility. This isn’t the 19th century, when envoys can be sent across an ocean and no one would know about it. We can, and do, talk to Syria – we just do it through back channels, where failure is not publicized. Talking to Iran seems pointless – as long as Ahmadenijad is in power and makes no clear concessions to the world regarding nuclear development, negotiations with Iran should be off the table.

Note: if you find this interesting I strongly recommend the comments, as Sam had a lengthy one with a different point of view and I have a lengthy response.


Blogger samG said...

I could not disagree more.

Your cynical conclusion assumes a black and white, good guy and bad guy universe which is at the core of the failure of the foreign policy of the current administration, possibly the most disastrous in U.S. history, and an explanation for the antipathy towards the U.S. held by an increasing portion of the Muslim and Western world, not limited to Iran, Egypt, Syria, France or Germany.

Diplomacy is an ongoing, everyday, 24/7 process which does not begin or end with a specific agreement or declaration. It is a constant process by which the charicatures formed through distance, language, culture, religion, etc are re-shaped in to a more realistic understanding of the motivation and concerns of your adversaries.

Isn't is possible that those leaders who formed the Soviet Union after WWII were not inherently evil or seeking world hegemony but, rather, motivated by concern over hundreds of years of invasions from Western European powers, a 20th century Great Wall. Isn't is possible that isolating Cuba and Iran for the past 40 and 25 years respectively has done nothing to advance those countries to a level of modernity with which the world can be comfortable.

The point of having dialogue with Iran, Syria, North Korea, Sudan, Venezuela, Bolivia, etc is not only to reach specific agreements in which one trades chips nor is it to convince the other party of our righteousness. Rather, the purpose of dialogue is to unmask the good guy/bad guy charicatures and find the common humanity which will allow us to defuse tensions. It is to reach an understanding of how the other side sees reality. Reality, after all, is a matter of perspective.

We shouldn't have to wait for a Clint Eastwood movie 60 years after the fact to recognize that our 'enemies' are humans filled with pride and a concern for their own well-being. Dialogue offers no legitimacy other than a recognition that we have common goals of survival and sustenance. An absence of diplomacy suggests a good versus evil mindset that is suitable for another realm.

12:27 PM  
Blogger Barry Rubinowitz said...

Dear Pollyanna
You call my conclusions cynical, I call them realistic. The core of the failure of Bush foreign policy is not the division into good vs. bad, but in forgetting that there is a third category -- worse. Saddam was a bad guy, a very bad guy. But he was a useful secular bad guy in a neighborhood of islamist bad guys. The misunderstanding of the nature of Iraq had nothing to do with any characterization of good vs. bad. Kim in N. Korea is an extemely bad guy, running the world's largest prison. Ahmadenijad is an exceptionally bad guy. The antipathy towards us in the Western world is based on Bush and his policies, as it was based on Reagan and his; this too can pass, although the damage to our influence in much of the world may be extremely hard to repair.
Diplomacy has precious little to do with undertsnding the culture or motivations of your adversaries. As Chou En-lai said "Diplomacy is war by other means." Diplomacy among adversaries is the way to get something from them without using force. Although there is, in many cases, the implied use of force if it fails. Absent the threat, negotiations between adversaries rarely bear fruit. Now there are diplomatic things that have nothing to do with negotiations, maintaining contact, establishing relationships with those on the other side, and just showing a certain respect are all valuable. We have that contact with most countries, including Syria, whom we talk to all the time. But that kind of direct contact with the worst of the worst can prove dangerous. I go back to Hitler at Munich and Stalin at Yalta -- there was no real threat of force behind those negotiations and the bad guys just took what they wanted and the good guys went home, happy in their accomplishments. You do not learn Persian culture by talking with Ahmadenijad, any more than you learned German culture by talking to Hitler. I would hate to think that the world is learning about the American people based on what George Bush and Condi Rice think. The Iranian people are unhappy with the isolation Ahmadenijad has caused them, as this week's local elections show. When most of the world is on our side, enforced isolation can have a positive effect. That is the case in Iran. On a moral point, I do not want my government negotiating face-to-face with Nazis -- and that is what Ahmadenijad is.
Your history of the Soviet Union is worng on every point. It was formed after the Russian Revolution -- they took de facto control of various Eastern and Central European countries after WW II, which had little to nothing to do with the protection of mother Russia. And everything we know and we now know a lot, was that the Soviets indeed were after world domination and hegemony -- they failed, but it was what they wanted.
The isolation of Cuba has been a dumb idea, but it mostly has hurt Cubans, not us. It was a bad idea 25 years ago, a moronic one for 15 years, but it is fueled by our domestic politics, not international strategy. As for Iran, it is not isolated and it is modern, Sharia not withstanding. It is a very young country and the young people are very different from the leaders. There is no club scene, that's illegal, but they gather in homes for private parties, women remove the burka, they dance to American hip-hop, and party like it's, well, 1979. They are well-educated and have access to the internet. If there's one country in that region where democracy could take hold it's Iran, as this week's elections show. It is unfortunate that their electoral choices are so limited by the mullahs, but it ain't like we can vote for whomever we want for President either.
Reality is a matter of perspective?? I'm sorry, reality is reality. You can believe in the existence of WMD and the post-war flowering of peace and democracy in Iraq all you want, but that was not the reality and all the misperceptions of that country won't change that. Undertanding the perceptions of your adversary is valuable in determining your course of action. If they are sworn to destroy Israel, then you should not negotiate Israel's future with them. If they host conventions of Holocaust deniers, then we can assume they have no interest in the truth and hate Jews. There are good guys (fewer and fewer) and there are bad guys and to assume this is merely a caricature is wishful thinking of the worst, and most dangerous, kind.
I am certain it won't take 60 years for a film maker to present us with a picture of Palestinians as a poor, downtrodden people, victimized by rapacious Jews, with noble freedom fighters willing to sacrifice their lives in suicide attacks so thier people can be free. It will be just as accurate as the portrayal of one of the most savage armies of modern times as anything but monsters. I'm sure the Japanese will love Eastwood's movie, but the Chinese and Koreans will be a whole lot less enamored of the protrayal of the Japanese soldier as "just like us". In fact, you can't understand the politics of Asia without understanding the brutality of that army. To the extent Eastwood's movie humanizes them, it does us a disservice.

12:20 PM  
Blogger samG said...

Wow, talk about two different views of the human experience. One suggests that people are either good or bad (where have I heard this before); that there are clear right and wrong answers to the most complex of questions. I guess the billions of people who now think that W is a bad and dangerous man are just plain wrong. I suspect that they are probably wrong. I suspect that W is, more than likely, a stupid, naive, easily manipulated man who commited the most egregious act in the history of U.S. foreign affairs and found it necessary and convenient to lie about the rationale.

One of the many lessons I learned in college, in addition to how to play bridge, is that it is important to understand what motivates people to do the things they do; That only when one understands motivation can one effectively address the manifestations. We studied the Versailles treaty and how that created a climate in Germany which contributed to the rise of Nazism. We studied the rationale for the U.S. dropping two atomic bombs on non-military Japansese cities, within 3 days of each other. As Tucker Carlsson and others have said, in the more than 5 years since 9/11, this country has yet to have a serious discussion as to what motivated a small group of men sitting in caves to fly planes in to our buildings. Despite what W would have you believe, Bin Laden did not attack the U.S. because he woke up one morning, read the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution and announced "this can not stand". His attack was no more an attack on our 'way of life' than Hiroshima was an attack on Buddhism. Furthermore, the suggestion that diplomacy poorly exercised in Munich and Yalta somehow discredits the discipline is silly.

I, for one (and I hope not the only one) find right and wrong increasingly difficult to ascertain. Having just seen Blood Diamond, I can't help but wonder how the exploitation of Africa, both South and North, for its natural resources has created the environment for behavior that we now find abhorrent.

Did the Japanese army do brutal things in the 20th century? Absolutely. Did U.S. serviceman commit brtualities during Vietnam? I suspect so. Do either of these condemn an entire people or generation to the scrap heap of evil? I think not although, I must admit, I may never feel comfortable in Germany.

When I was seeing a therapist prior to the end of my first marriage, my wife wanted to visit the therapist to give her side of the story. The therapist, not a marriage counselor, said he wasn't interested unless I wanted it. He wasn't interested in her version of reality but only whether my reality was rationale and to help me deal with it to the extent I needed help. We all live in the center of our own universe seeing the world from a unique perpsective. No two people (except for maybe identical twins) see the world the same way. The challenge for us, from the moment we exit the womb and see that there are other people sharing our space, is to try and understand their universe so that we can make ours a better and safer place. Killing them is not the answer because there is plenty more where they came from.

1:19 PM  
Blogger Barry Rubinowitz said...

I did not say the world divides neatly into good and bad -- reread the first paragraph of my reply. Of course I think Bush is bad, but there are people who could be worse -- one of them being his VP. Sometimes we have to choose the lesser of two evils. It would have been nice if our government (and that of the UK) had realized that there was another evil involved in the Iraq situation.
It would be nice if our leaders spent more time playing bridge, as Eisenhower did. The lessons of preparedness for the vicissitudes of luck, as well as the unpleasant responses of your partner and opponents alike, would help our foreign policy immensely.
As for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, sixty years after the fact historians are still debating the motivation for that, and based on the trends, I would guess that the likelihood of getting it right is slim. The problem is that we filter the other guy's motivations through our own values, using our own view of the world to guide us. When looking at a decision made by people from different eras, or from different cultures, it is unwise to assign them our own world view.
Far from being "silly", Munich and Yalta are excellent examples of the danger of negotiations. In Munich, one side wanted something, the other side took what they could get, and then moved on to take more. It wasn't the result of "poor diplomacy", there was no such thing as good diplomacy with Hitler, as Stalin was to find out later. As for Yalta, that's the perfect example of one side not being able, or willing, to enforce an agreement. There was nothing poorly negotiated there -- we were not going to turn around and fight the Soviets (much as Patton wanted to), so we "let them" stay in Eastern Europe and got promises, in writing, to allow free elections in those countries. There are still Eastern Europeans who resnt us for signing that treaty and never enforcing it. Is there any reason to believe that an unenforceable deal with Iran would be any more useful to us? I am not in favor of killing them, because that, as you say, is not the answer. But if one side enters negotiations with the need to reach a deal (Chamberlain in Munich, Roosevelt in Yalta), while the other just has things they want to accomplish and will walk away if they don't get them, the disadvantage to the first is immense. That is the problem Israel faces with the Palestinians. The minute they sit down at a table, they start making concessions and are unsure what they are getting in return, since they can never be sure the other side really wants to have peace, or like Hitler, just wants to see what they can get before the shooting starts.
AS for those guys in caves, let's take them on their word. They were upset that we have troops in Saudi Arabia and really upset about losing Spain in 1492. What should we do about that?
As for your first marriage, that your ex decided that getting married on a Sunday in October was a good idea, ignoring both your Jets season tickets and the World Series, should have alerted us all to the possibility of her having a "different reality" from us. And I'm not sure negotiations would have helped that one either, Sam.

9:19 PM  
Blogger samG said...

The ONLY reason we have troops in Saudi Arabia and not in Uganda, Rwanda, Somalia, etc is because of oil. What we should do is what Richard Nixon proposed 35 years ago and no one has done since i.e. reduce our dependence on imported oil. Importing oil is not good for our balance of trade, our national security or our environment and there are alternatives. We should set market incentives (including appropriate CAFE standards) to encourage free enterprise along this path.

Regarding my marriage, I suspect the Jets schedule was not out yet when the date was set and who knew the WS would go to a seventh game.

9:16 AM  

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