The Guerrilla vs. The Humanist Negotiator


by Robert Benjamin

March 2008

Robert Benjamin A recent article, “Attack Iran,With Words,” by Reuel Marc Gerecht, appeared in the New York Times (OP-ED page, Feb. 20, 2008; see addendum 1, below), that is of considerable importance for professional conflict management practitioners, both negotiators and mediators. The author, from the American Enterprise Institute, suggests a more sober and hard-edged approach to negotiation with the recalcitrant Iranian administration over their role in the Middle East and alleged pursuit of nuclear capacity that is in stark contrast to the more prevalent view of negotiation as a humanistic and rational enterprise.

Bill Lincoln, a highly regarded international mediator and teacher, shares Gerecht’s concern for the need to press for negotiation with Iran. Both assert that the United States is failing to take fullest advantage of diplomacy in dealing with especially difficult leaders and nations, in general, and Iran in particular, that appear to present a real threat to the security of the world. Lincoln, however, takes strong exception to Gerecht’s views and approach to negotiation.

Lincoln is the co-author of a public statement recently issued by the International Community of Concerned Mediators (ICCM), an organization he co-founded. (see Lincoln, B., Benjamin, R.D., Davis, P., and Kane, S., “Like it or Not, the United States Are Partners: Seven Principles For Moving Forward Negotiations,” http://www.mediate.com/articles/lincolniran.cfm, Feb., 2008). In a subsequent circulated memo, he strongly believes that Gerecht "flirts with misusing the honest intent and credibility of the negotiation process for the prevention, management and resolution of conflict -- even if it were to mean war...,” and fosters “bad faith” that risks the United States as present and future negotiation partner. (see addendum 2, below)

The concerns Lincoln raises go to the heart of the matter how negotiation and mediation are practiced, not just on a geopolitical level, but in all dispute contexts, from the workplace and business, to personal and family matters as well. And, note for this discussion, that negotiation and mediation are essentially the same thing, the only difference being that when a third party is brought in to facilitate a negotiation process he or she must negotiate and draw their authority from the disputing parties. This discussion has, unfortunately, been all too rare at conferences or in the literature.

Gerecht’s opening statement is provocative.

"For those who believe — as I do — that the clerics who rule Iran must never have an arsenal of nuclear weapons, the United States’ course of action ought to be clear: The Bush administration should advocate direct ,unconditional talks between Washington and Tehran. Strategically, politically and morally, such meetings will help us think more clearly. Foreign-policy hawks ought to see such discussions as essential preparation for possible military strikes against clerical Iran’s nuclear facilities."

In a later paragraph, he suggests a motive to negotiate that might appear to some to be likened to a police hostage negotiator setting up a the hostage taker for a kill shot by the SWAT team -- a dubious and arguably unprofessional use of negotiation.

"If the mullahs don’t want to negotiate, fine: making the offer is something that must be checked off before the next president could unleash the Air Force and the Navy. To make the threat of force against clerical Iran again credible, there needs to be a consensus among far more Democrats and Republicans that a nuclear-armed Iran is intolerable. If the White House tried more energetically to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear threat, if it demonstrated that it had reached out to Iranian “pragmatists” and “moderates,” and that again no one responded, then the military option would likely become convincing to more Americans.”

Gerecht clearly displays some affinity for Machiavelli, but that may not be all bad. Contrary to the popular, over-simplistic and reductionist view of the brilliant 16th Century political theorist forever linked to the ‘bumper sticker’ expression of “the end justifies the means,” he was far more subtle and ethical than most might realize. Machiavelli might better be understood as realist and The Prince compared to the Art of War, the text by Sun Tzu, the renowned Chinese General of 2500 years ago.

Gerecht’s strategy is a form of “Guerrilla” negotiation, a notion I have discussed elsewhere. (see “The Guerrilla Mediator: The Use of Warfare Strategies in the Management of Conflict,” r.d.benjamin, www.mediate.com//articles/guerilla.cfm , 1999). While war and negotiation are often framed as polar opposites, they have much in common. Many strategies, techniques and skills of warfare are constructively useful in effective negotiation, and obversely, many negotiative strategies have found their way into manuals of warfare. (see Petraeus, General David, The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Field Manual On Counterinsurgency, Univ. Chicago Press, 2007)

Lincoln suggests that Gerecht,

“... purports to advocate direct negotiations and diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran but it does so with allowance for a possible permissible purpose of entering into negotiations in ‘bad faith’. ‘Bad faith’ in that the true intention of entering negotiations may NOT be to deal with the conflict's substantive issues, but instead possibly to misuse one's own invitation to negotiate as a mere perfunctory gesture or even as a "checked off" pretext for justifying the use of military force against Iran. For anyone to misuse or even to suggest abusing the process’ trust and good faith commitment necessary for candid negotiations to be successful would cheapen and discredited the whole professional conflict resolution field and diplomacy itself. “ (see addendum 2, below)

Peter Adler, another highly regarded negotiator and mediator who works with thorny environmental and public policy matters on a national and international level, and is the President of The Keystone Center, also questioned Lincoln’s parsing of “good” and “bad” faith in negotiation. (see below, addendum 3). He has fostered the notion, applicable not only to conflict managers, but leaders as well, of being “Protean.” That is being capable of shifting, as circumstances might require, between being Gerecht’s competitive, and maybe even somewhat deceptive, warrior, a problem solver, a moral vision setter, and a managing and cooperative head-man. (Adler, P. , "The Protean Leader," in Eye of the Storm Leadership ).

Gerecht is suggesting a classic 'aikido' technique, (he calls it 'ju-jitsu'), of using an opponent's force of resistance to your advantage. Instead of continually pushing, sanctioning and trying to coerce Iran into the behavior we desire, use their oppositional energy to draw them into dialogue by playing on to their belief in themselves as a strong, competent and reputable nation worthy of regard and respect. He is realistic enough to know that it may not work at this time, but at least it is worth trying. While Gerecht may seem to dismissively call this a mere 'checking-off' of an attempt to talk as a justification to rationalize a pre-emptive military action, the tone of his article suggests a serious effort that does not seem to me, to be dis-ingenuous or “flirt with bad faith.'

Curiously, Gerecht suggests his negotiation strategy might work simultaneously on two fronts. Not only is he seeking to engage the Iranians, but at the same time to bring together U.S. Congressional Democrats and Republicans on strategy. If Iran does not respond to a concerted effort by the U.S. to negotiate, then the U.S. political factions might be more willing to coalesce into a united front and seriously consider more severe options. As Adler notes, this “tough” negotiation strategy may well be the best way to avert war.

The humanist negotiator, or mediator, who entertains negotiation only for the 'right reasons, and to be done in 'good faith' without ulterior motive, faces risks that equal to those whose motives are questionable. Beyond the difficulty of presuming to be able to determine a party’s motive, most people possess a jumble of complex motives all at once, the tips of some being more apparent than others depending on time and circumstance. Presuming their motives strictly by their words is folly; few people say what they mean or necessarily mean what they say in their public posturing. In addition, the tendency of many negotiators to stick to only one style of negotiation can be unduly constraining. Sometimes good reasons to negotiate emerge and become apparent only during or after the negotiation. Requiring a litmus test of “good faith” for either party to a negotiation is perilously close to those who would dismiss the use of negotiative strategies to manage conflict unless circumstances are just right and both sides are trusting, cooperative and rational.

Gerecht's suggestion that, "(N)negotiations are likely the only way we can confront this threat (Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons) before it’s too late(.)," is less disturbing than Hillary Clinton’s recent comment that suggests a mis-understanding or misapprehension of what negotiation and mediation are about. Clinton has frequently commented on what she believes is Barack Obama's foreign policy naivete' , noting how "(H)he wavers from seeming to believe that mediation and meetings without preconditions can solve the world's intractable problems, to advocating rash, unilateral military action without cooperation from our allies in the most sensitive region of the world." She intimates that mediation only works with reasonable people and that the offer to negotiate with one’s enemies risks bestowing legitimacy on the adversary.

Despite what appears to be Clinton’s efforts to deprecate Obama’s ability to be ‘tough,’ his notion of ‘power diplomacy fits well with Gerecht’s “Attack With Words” strategy. He discusses negotiation as a sign of strength, not as being weakness as it has traditionally been viewed. By his words, he is willing “... to meet with hostile foreign leaders, " seek “...to rediscover the power of diplomacy...," and "meet not just with our friends but with our enemies, not just the leaders I like, but leaders I don't.” (article) It is neither unethical, disingenuous, or acting in 'bad faith' to approach negotiation in a “realpolitik “manner. To view it as such is, perhaps, the unintended and delimiting consequence of the Getting To Yes/”principled negotiation” thinking frame that has held sway for the last 25 years. In that approach, many practitioners believe mediation is purely a matter of reasoned discussion wherein the parties are encouraged to methodically move from entrenched positions to common interests. Any sophisticated negotiator knows 'it ain't as simple as that.' Negotiation is a hard, tedious, and sometimes, even a dirty business. In all negotiations in all contexts there are always leverages, entitlements, politics and other coercive factors that come into play. Sometimes starting a negotiation for the wrong reasons can still allow for a useful and valid agreement to emerge.

Finally, if negotiation and mediation are to be taken seriously as viable modes of conflict management, and not relegated to the ‘just a bunch of talk” junk heap, then practitioners must sometimes practice as if lives depend on the outcome, because they often do. In some contexts, the negotiators can afford to be concerned about the niceties of process, motives and ethics, in other disputes, it is about the end result----saving lives and helping people to quite literally survive. Terry Waite grappled with such hard realities in negotiating for the release of Anglican Priests taken hostage by Libya’s terroriste’ du jour, Omar Khaddaffi; likewise, George Mitchell was successful in the grueling 5 year process in the brokering the Northern Ireland Peace Accord. While there are limits, the goal needs to be engage the Iranians in real negotiation by (almost) any means necessary.

February 29, 2008

-----

Addendum 1:
Attack Iran, With Words
By REUEL MARC GERECHT
New York Times, OP ED, February 20, 2008

FOR those who believe — as I do — that the clerics who rule Iran must never have an arsenal of nuclear weapons, the United States’ course of action ought to be clear: The Bush administration should advocate direct, unconditional talks between Washington and Tehran. Strategically, politically and morally, such meetings will help us think more clearly. Foreign-policy hawks ought to see such discussions as essential preparation for possible military strikes against clerical Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The consensus among Iran’s ruling elite is that a hard-line stance on the nuclear question has paid off: uranium enrichment, the most industrially demanding part of developing nuclear weapons, has rapidly advanced. And, unexpectedly and gratifyingly, the Bush administration’s National Intelligence Estimate of November, which found that “in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program,” damaged Western resolve to invoke economy-crippling sanctions, let alone the American threat to use force against Tehran.

And perhaps the best news for Iran: the unclassified “key judgments” of the intelligence estimate reveal that the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency did not — and in all probability, still do not — have human and technical sources inside the inner circles of the Iranian nuclear program. The mullahs, who are quite savvy about American intelligence, having made mincemeat of C.I.A. networks in the past, surely see this. The great American debate about what to do about Iran’s nuclear capacity — a debate that may divide Americans from Europeans more than Iraq — could well return with a vengeance before next year. It will quickly bedevil the next administration.

Negotiations are likely the only way we can confront this threat before it’s too late. The administration’s current approach isn’t working. For selfish and malevolent reasons, China and Russia will not back tough sanctions. Neither likely will the trade-obsessed Germans and the increasingly self-absorbed, America-leery British. Washington and Paris cannot play bad cop alone. We must find a way to restore the resolve of all those parties and hit Iran with a tsunami of sanctions if we are to diminish the victorious esprit in Tehran and the centrifuge production at Natanz.

Yet, what has been the response of most American hawks to this mess? Prayer. They are essentially waiting for the clerical regime to do something stupid so that they can galvanize an awareness among Americans that mullahs should not have the bomb. True, the Iranian clerics have often done the wrong thing at the right time, from aiding the bombers of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996 and our African embassies in 1998, to the kidnapping of British sailors and marines last year. It is possible that Tehran, which wants to cause us great harm in Iraq and Afghanistan, could again back a terrorist attack that kills enough Americans to make preventive military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities mandatory.

But the Iranians know this. They know they are in the final nuclear stretch: they will likely play it sufficiently cool to make it difficult for the United States to strike them pre-emptively.

Thus the best reason to offer to begin talks with Tehran is that the regime will almost certainly refuse any offer to normalize relations. In the late 1990s, President Bill Clinton almost begged Iran’s reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, to sit and chat. The mullahs, who knew that Mr. Clinton was playing down Tehran’s role in the Khobar Towers bombing, spurned the offer. Since then, Iran’s internal politics have become more hard-core. In January, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s clerical overlord, re-rejected the idea, quite popular among average Iranians, that the Islamic Republic should re-establish relations with “Satan Incarnate.”

If the mullahs don’t want to negotiate, fine: making the offer is something that must be checked off before the next president could unleash the Air Force and the Navy. To make the threat of force against clerical Iran again credible, there needs to be a consensus among far more Democrats and Republicans that a nuclear-armed Iran is intolerable. If the White House tried more energetically to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear threat, if it demonstrated that it had reached out to Iranian “pragmatists” and “moderates,” and that again no one responded, then the military option would likely become convincing to more Americans.

Critics of any discussions might respond that the Iranians might say yes, but to only low-level talks in Switzerland, not in Washington and Tehran. In so doing, the mullahs could bind the United States to meaningless, stalling discussions while the regime perfected uranium enrichment, increased the range and accuracy of its ballistic missiles and advanced its nuclear warhead designs.

But so what? Minus the direct talks, this is more or less what is happening now. Would a President John McCain tolerate pointless discussions? Probably not. Would Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton? Perhaps. Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton may well prefer to see the clerical regime go nuclear than strike it preventively. But if that is where they would go, their opponents can do little about it. The only thing that could conceivably change their minds would be direct talks on the big issues separating the two countries. The mullahs have a way of driving their foreign interlocutors nuts. Just ask the European negotiators who’ve had to deal with them. Meeting Iranian leaders is perhaps the best way to turn doves into hawks.

For far too long, the United States has failed to wage a war of ideas with the Iranian regime over the proposal that scares them the most: the reopening of the American Embassy. Washington has the biggest bully pulpit in the world, and we are faced with a clerical foe that constantly rails against the intrusion of American values into the bloodstream of Iranian society. There are profound social, cultural and political differences among Iran’s ruling elites, let alone between that class and ordinary Iranians. Some of these differences could conceivably have a major effect on the progress of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. And the way to make these differences increasingly acute is to apply American soft and hard power.

Ayatollah Khamenei needs to be put off balance, as he was in 1997 when Mr. Khatami unexpectedly tapped into a huge groundswell of popular discontent and became president. What we need now is a psychological repeat of 1997: a shock to the clerical system that again opens Iran to serious debate.

When dealing with the mullahs, it is always wise to follow the lead of one of Iran’s most audacious clerical dissidents, former Interior Minister Abdallah Nuri. In 1999, he mocked the regime for its organic fear of the United States. Is the revolution’s Islam so weak, he said, that it cannot sustain the restoration of relations with the United States?

It would be riveting in Tehran — and millions of Iranians would watch on satellite TV — if Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice challenged the regime in this way: Islam is a great faith; the United States has relations with all Muslim nations except the Islamic Republic; we have diplomatic relations with Hugo Chávez and American diplomats in Havana. Why does the Islamic Republic fear us so? Is the regime so fragile? President Khatami repeatedly said that he wanted a “dialogue of civilizations.” The United States should finally say, “O.K., let’s start.”

If the Bush administration were to use this sort of diplomatic jujitsu on the ruling clerics, it could convulse their world. No, this is absolutely no guarantee that Tehran will stop, or even suspend, uranium enrichment. But a new approach would certainly put the United States on offense and Iran on defense. We would, at least, have the unquestioned moral and political high ground. And from there, it would be a lot easier for the next administration, if it must, to stop militarily the mullahs’ quest for the bomb.

(Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.)

Addendum 2: William F. Lincoln memo
Sent: Wednesday, February 27, 2008 5:29 PM
To: Peter Adler
Subject: ICCM Speaks out on N Y Times Op-Ed piece "Attack Iran, With Words"

Dear Peter,

We would like to alert ICCM's attention to the OP-Ed entitled “Attack Iran, With Words” (reproduced below) that appeared in the New York Times on Feb. 20, 2008. We believe it is vital to comment on this piece because at times it "flirts" with misusing the honest intent and credibility of the negotiation process for the prevention, management and resolution of conflict -- even if it were to mean war.

”Attack Iran, With Words” purports to advocate direct negotiations and diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran but it does so with allowance for a possible permissible purpose of entering into negotiations in ‘bad faith’. ‘Bad faith’ in that the true intention of entering negotiations may NOT be to deal with the conflict's substantive issues, but instead possibly to misuse one's own invitation to negotiate as a mere perfunctory gesture or even as a "checked off" pretext for justifying the use of military force against Iran.

For anyone to misuse or even to suggest abusing the process’ trust and good faith commitment necessary for candid negotiations to be successful would cheapen and discredited the whole professional conflict resolution field and diplomacy itself. Not only would the prospect of achieving a durable non-violent solution to the Iran-US conflict become considerably remote, but other future negotiations processes, or even current international commitments, would be rightly scrutinized for ulterior motives and dubious sincerity.

Whenever we see a negotiation or mediation processes being exploited in this manner as a means to tease or to deceive the public and media that all non-violent options were exhausted we as professional mediators and negotiators must speak out in defense of the integrity of the processes and the profession itself. We do not believe that op-ed author Reuel Marc Gerecht's intent was to promote deception, but he planted a very unwelcome and dangerous seed.

William F. Lincoln
CRI Executive Director
ICCM Co-Founder

Addendum 3: Peter Adler:

Bill-
Thanks for sending this. This interests me.It’s a very provocative piece and raises lots of questions, not the least of which are:

  • Exactly what does “good faith” mean in this particular context of extreme distrust? In the chess game going on between the U.S. neo-cons and the Iranian hard core mullahs, how would each side know good faith if they saw it?

  • Exactly what is the code of negotiation ethics that you would propose instead of what Gerecht is describing? What is the violation he is flirting with?

  • Lots of negotiations take place between people who distrust and dislike each other in the extreme. Despite that, people who dislike and distrust each other figure out ways to do business together. Are you saying no negotiations are preferable to what Gerecht is advocating?

  • Why shouldn’t Americans (or anyone else) enter into negotiations to (a) learn more; (b) make demands; and (c) try to prevent stupid and unnecessary military confrontations?

    Bill, I fervently believe, like you and many of our other colleagues, that there are better and smarter ways to resolve these kinds of dilemmas but I actually appreciate the bluntness and transparency of Gerecht’s thinking. I don’t think it flirts with anything. It is “power” talking to “power” which is the lowest equation of negotiation. It would be nice to see that equation raised up a rung or two but, as Churchill said, “Talking jaw to jaw is better than going to war.”

    Peter S. Adler, Ph.D.
    President & CEO
    The Keystone Center
    1628 Sts. John Road
    Keystone, Colorado 80435
    www.keystone.org



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    Biography




    Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care.  A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now  teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and training courses nationally and internationally.  He is a standing Adjunct Professor at  the Straus Institute for Conflict Resolution of the Pepperdine University School of Law, at Southern Methodist University’s Program on Conflict Resolution and in several other schools and universities.   He is a past President of the Academy of Family Mediators, a Practitioner Member of the Association for Conflict Resolution, and the American Bar Association’s Section on Dispute Resolution.    He is the author of numerous book contributions and articles, including “The Mediator As Trickster,”  “Guerilla Negotiation,” and “The Beauty of Conflict,” and is a Senior Editor and regular columnist for Mediate.com. 

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