Stuart Diamond Headshot

The Cost of Not Negotiating

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Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Two guys cost a trillion dollars. Is there a better way to spend our money?

Most in the U.S. seems happy we got them. What a celebration! But there's not enough money in the world to hunt down all major terrorists this way, let alone all our enemies. Cheaper, less sexy, less emotional ways are available than war, violence and military ops. We've not pursued them well and often not at all. The result is a more risky world in economic crisis.

I'm talking about negotiation. Not with everyone, not all the time, but when we can better meet our goals. And that's most of the time and with most people. With Libya, with Israel-Palestine, with Syria, with North Korea, with the Taliban. And yet, instead of pursuing available opportunities to settle things, we threaten, we bomb, we spend money we don't have. Year after year. It's time to add another path to the mix -- and do it right.

In Getting More, I lay out strategies to accomplish many of our goals better. Here are some of the applications to current crises.

  • Libya. Thirty years ago, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, nicknamed "the butcher," was treating his citizens far worse than Gaddafi is treating Libyans today. The international community wanted Amin out. The U.S. tried covert operations and economic sanctions. Didn't work. Zambia tried force, armed from the global network. Didn't work. Then Saudi Arabia offered Amin a few million dollars and a villa in Saudi. Guess what happened? Amin left for the villa.

    Gaddafi has said he wants to negotiate; he even wrote a letter to that effect to U.S. President Barack Obama. Rejected. One of Gaddafi's sons asked for negotiation. Rejected. Half-hearted attempts have been made to find another location for the Libyan leader in Africa. Instead, the U.S. has spent a billion dollars on bombs and drones and NATA killed one of Gaddafi's sons. Do we appreciate how much a billion dollars is to waste when we are cutting social programs and the other guy is willing to negotiate? And how much harder it will be to get him out now that his son is killed?

    The Allies say with apparent surprise that it's taking longer to force Gaddafi out than expected. Well, duh! It's an element of psychology that people don't go as easily when forced. We should use the Saudi model, praise him as the glorious leader and meet our goals by getting him out of there through negotiation.
  • Israel-Palestine. Substantial groups on both sides are ready to negotiate. The Palestinians have reached agreement on cooperation for a state and a significant intelligentia in Israel has been pushing for negotiation. Several hundred thousand Israelis and Arabs work together peacefully in Israel.

    What the U.S. and Israeli governments need to do is endorse a peace process among these groups and then get out of the way. The wrong people have been negotiating: people who are too emotional and are interested in ceremonial, political peace, not ground-level operational peace: that is, businesses and infrastructure that improves people's everyday lives.

    The settlements issue of Israelis living in Palestine, so prominent a topic among government officials and pundits, is really a non-issue. There are plenty of land swaps available and experts willing to work on it. The issue of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem is also a non-issue. The Vatican runs the worldwide Catholic Church from less than a square mile in Rome; land of suitable size and character could easily be found in East Jerusalem.

    What the parties should do is declare that a State of Palestine will be formed from non-disputed land; an agreement in principle, details to follow. Everything else should be done incrementally. Start from the ground up, with factories that make and export real products demanding both Arab and Israeli support. Examples: pharmaceuticals, Dead Sea minerals, aquaculture. These are not hard issues. They only seem hard because the people addressing them are unable or unwilling to solve problems with obvious answers.
  • Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Etc. Significant elements in each of the countries have expressed a desire for negotiation. Without it, the parties will face a long violent war of attrition, with many dead, billions squandered and an uncertain future. It's happened in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya already.

    Even in places where the parties have changed leadership, such as Egypt, there is no reasonable way forward without the building of institutions: courts, media, government administration, finance. This cannot be accomplished in an inclusive way without negotiation. The international community in general should be focused on processes for this to happen. Since these are Arab countries, leading Arab states with experience, resources and skill in building institutions should be helping: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Dubai.

    Threats and economic sanctions, the primary diplomatic measures, are counterproductive: they just divide the parties further and continue paths of resistance, violence and unmet goals.
  • Afghanistan. There is internal controversy over whether to negotiate with the Taliban, but this is the only way to stop a long war with continual casualties. The Taliban have said they would negotiate. This has been prompted in part by successful U.S. military negotiations with tribal leaders opposed to the Taliban. The military is forming personal relationships by providing toys for tribal kids and otherwise forging ties. This was mentioned in Getting More.What needs to happen is that a negotiation channel should be opened among the government, tribal leaders and the Taliban -- the beginning of a peace process. With advice by the U.S. and others, the more moderate parts of society can begin to freeze out or convert those who are more extreme.
  • North Korea. But for poor negotiation quality by the U.S. and South Korea, the problem of North Korea's nuclear weapons would likely have been solved long ago. Of course the North Korean president won't give up his nuclear weapons. The U.S. called him an axis of evil and threatened unilateral military action. The combination of economic sanctions and threats just stiffens their resolve.

    And yet, almost every time the U.S. and South Korea have made collaborative overtures to North Korea, the North has reopened talks, released prisoners and suggested that peace might be possible. There has even been talk about unification of the Koreas. Indications are that for a rapprochement with the international community, North Korea would be willing to give up its nuclear weapons program. There is precedent for this, with Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union.

    What needs to happen is a mediated negotiation process by people with process skill. The process would be endorsed by the United States, China and the two Koreas. Dredging up the past will simply prolong the armed struggle. The focus must be on the future. The people who want to fight over yesterday should not be involved in this negotiation process, because they will cause it to fail. The past is unchangeable and people usually don't accept blame unless forced to. Effective negotiation is about making tomorrow better.
  • Iraq and Iran. These are treated together because they represent long-term failed policies. Instead of successfully negotiating with Iran, the U.S. has issued threats and economic sanctions and often declined talks. Instead of trying to build negotiated settlements with the various coalitions in Iraq, the U.S. started with a military assault and has not been able to shake this image.

    The U.S. needs the involvement of third parties in both places. In Iran, the U.S. and third parties should be asking for talks every day, and keeping a public record of Iran's refusals. After a couple hundred refusals, Iran will lose the goodwill of its own allies. The U.S. and Israel should not take the bait when Iran's president tries to declare there was no Holocaust in World War II; talks should simply be continually requested. Iran cares about its international image; it doesn't want to be isolated. The U.S., by its own belligerence, has made itself the issue.

    In Iraq, the corruption, the killing of innocents, the fights with the government and the continuing violence in itself shows a failure to effectively negotiate. Three weeks after the World Trade Center destruction, I wrote that a violent war against terrorism was doomed to fail, that negotiation was needed. Iraq is proof of this. It's not too late to start a better process with moderates from all important constituencies.
  • A Process For Change. Each of these areas needs a similar kind of process. First, all the parties need to start meeting and getting to know each other. The varying perceptions need to be communicated and understood. The parties need to understand each other as individuals, whether or not they have been historical enemies. This is the start of effective negotiations.

The parties need to forget the past and start moving incrementally toward solutions that are fair and which meet each other's needs based on the future. Third, the main considerations need to be economic: that is, improving the standard of living for the most people through joint collaboration. It needs to start with investment, not politics or religion. The problems to be tackled first are those that are either easiest to solve or which generate the least controversy: health care, education jobs. As success occurs, this will bring the parties closer together.

This is easier than it seems. It just takes clear thinking. There are already models in Israel of Arabs and Jews working side-by-side.

The alternative is a continuing slide toward violence, ending in nuclear or chemical warfare. Most everyone knows this and experts have been saying it for years. Why do we persist in self destruction? It should be underscored that this path to destruction continues to be assisted by the mass media, which in general seems to make every issue into a conflict, a winner and a loser, in the most unhelpful way. The media need to be educated on better negotiation skills too.

We need people to step back and understand the path that we are really on. We desperately need negotiation, beginning at any level. This means we must understand and value our differences, in order to save ourselves from ourselves. It's time to get off the trolley to termination and do it right.

Visit Stuart on his website. You can also connect with him on twitter -- @Stuart_Diamond -- and facebook.