08/11/2014 04:53 pm ET Updated Aug 28, 2014

Lanny Davis On How To Handle And Haggle With Nouri Al-Maliki

Leigh Vogel via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- These are tense times for Nouri al-Maliki. Pushing for a third term, the embattled prime minister of Iraq is on the verge of being ousted from office. In a show of force on Sunday night, he dispatched allied troops and security forces to Baghdad’s Green Zone. But his hold on power is tenuous at best. On Monday morning, Iraq’s president Faud Masum nominated Haider al-Abadi to be the next prime minister, all but opening the exit doors for Maliki.

It’s not entirely clear if Maliki will walk through them or drag his country through a trying, likely prolonged, cycle of political chaos. Few can understand his current circumstances or thinking. Among those with at least a modicum of insight, however, might be Lanny Davis.

Known as a crisis-relations maestro and unbending Clinton loyalist, Davis has also been oft ridiculed for representing despots and political strongmen. His clients included the government of Ivory Coast (then run by Laurent Gbagbo); Equatorial Guinea’s longtime dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema; and the Business Council of Latin America (CEAL), which was backing a coup in Honduras. (If you think that’s a reviled list, check out who Davis represents in the world of sports: Penn State University in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal; Alex Rodriguez during accusations of steroid abuse; and Washington football team owner Dan Snyder).

Davis defends his work with a succinct rejoinder: Far from being a lobbyist dipping in and out of the dark corners of the world, he is an emissary, trying to sell his clients on the virtues of engagement and decency. He is not a man without moral boundaries, he adds, noting that he withdrew his $100,000-a-month contract with Ivory Coast when its government declined his advice to talk with the Obama administration.

It’s an odd credential to have –- expertise in advising strongmen in the midst of political turmoil –- but having it makes Davis uniquely situated to comment on Maliki’s current plight. Reached by phone on Monday, he offered a few suggestions for both the Obama administration officials handling Iraq and for the Iraqi prime minister himself -- whom, he said, he would not take on as a client.

"Some sarcastic people, some rather mean people, say I would do work for anyone," said Davis. "But the answer is no. I would say no to Maliki because it is too late for me to help him."

Davis starts with the nub of the problem. The reason people like Maliki grip power more tightly, even as the turmoil engulfs them, Davis said, is that “they go into denial.” He offers up Tiger Woods as an example of someone unwilling to face “the reality of what you know is coming.”

“In this case, Maliki is going to lose that office at some point," Davis said. "It may be now or six months from now. Does he want to wait or get in front of it? Most people instinctively go into denial. ‘I don’t need to face reality. I can work this out.’ Or they stay quiet. Why? Human nature. It is called pain avoidance. It is a human being's trait to procrastinate pain. So what would I do? I would say, ‘Would you rather have worse pain tomorrow or less pain today?' Maliki is enjoying his position and he thinks that if he postpones his decision, it would get better tomorrow.”

Dislodging someone from denial is tough, Davis said. But there are a few options at America's disposal.

It can pose critical questions to Maliki:

Who is really going to be with you? Who is going to stand by your side and fight for you when your options are down to zero, which is what happens next week or next month? Look around the room and decide who will be with you then?

Or it can be direct and dire:

In this case, I would say, "Mr. Maliki, this is your country, this is your life, you are going to get killed … there will be nobody there between you and the bullet.

But there is a third option as well, and it's one that's less confrontational. It involves carrots -- or in this case, a substantial amount of money, a nice island home and the promise of a painless post-political life. Maliki may not be enticed, said Davis, but it helps to float the possibility.

America is filled with historical examples where we’ve done that. What I don’t see happening. ... I don’t see the crisis management effort surrounding Maliki with an easy choice, a face-saving choice. And it looks like he has been put into a corner.

We have done the face-saving way out: a patriotic announcement and a soft cushion quietly arranged ... I don’t know if they are doing that. Kerry is smart and he should be looking for that option. You have to have a face-saving option for your client. You can’t have him live a life of humiliation … but you also have to get through a reality check that if he doesn’t take advantage of the face-saving option it will be a lot worse.

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