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Kathleen Reardon Headshot

Nearly As Far-Fetched As The Maverick Lie -- Negotiation Preconditions

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John McCain and Sarah Palin have criticized Barack Obama and Joe Biden for their willingness to talk with world leaders without preconditions. First, it's either naive or a fabrication when McCain suggests Obama will suddenly pop up at a negotiation with the leadership of Iran. There are always a host of preparatory and diplomatic steps taken before such events. McCain knows that.

Negotiation is nearly always a process that begins before the parties actually meet whether the negotiation is between organization senior executives or senior government officials. To think otherwise is indeed naive.

When Barack Obama says he will meet with leaders of countries hostile to the U.S., no doubt he intends to do so with skill and both insistence and persistence as needed. He simply doesn't want to force his ideas down their throats before he even gets on the plane. And he knows that if he lays out publicly what he wants and they can't deliver, he may need to publicly back down. That's never good.

The preconditions that Condoleezza Rice and others in the Bush Administration have publicly proclaimed in the past were based on the increasingly faulty assumption that the U.S. always has the upper hand. But the world has changed. And George W. Bush eventually had to change, agreeing by his actions with Senator Arlen Specter who has long called for negotiations with world leaders without preconditions.

The current economic crisis demonstrates how interdependent countries truly are and with whom they are willing to talk to save themselves. If the U.S. won't budge, if it throws its weight around like a schoolyard bully, insulted countries may turn to China or Russia. To not recognize this is indeed naive.

It's important to point out, too, that stringent preconditions such as the cessation of violence can actually play into the hands of those who have a vested interest in continuing it. They'd like nothing better than a chance to assure the talks never take place by doing more of what they prefer - being violent. In this sense, publicly pronounced preconditions can elicit more of what negotiators hope to stop.

You have to wonder, too, when McCain/Palin claim they'll reach across the aisle to Democrats if they win the election, whether there will be preconditions beforehand then too. If so, a President McCain and Vice President Palin would likely find themselves waiting alone in a room as indignant members of Congress go out for a long lunch.

Prof. Reardon is the author of The Skilled Negotiator and blogs as bardscove.