Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Best Alternative

Iíve just finished reading Roger Fisherís and William Uryís classic on the art of negotiating, Getting To YES. Originally published in 1981, with a second edition released in 1991 (Iím sure there have been other editions since, but thatís the one I picked off my Dadís shelf in New York), itís as relevant today as it was then.

What I found particularly timely was the discussion of whether to negotiate with terrorists or tyrants. According to the authors, it depends on what they call the BATNA, or Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. Thatís the best possible scenario you could come up with if negotiations either fail or donít take place:

Even with someone like Hitler or Stalin, we should negotiate if negotiation holds the promise of achieving an outcome that, all things considered, meets our interests better than our BATNA. When a war does occur, in many cases it is a move within a negotiation. The violence is intended to change the other sideís BATNA, or their perception of it, so that they will more readily agree to our terms for peace.

Then thereís this :

Governments often make the mistake of assuming that they have a better BATNA than they do Ė for example, when they imply that if "political" and "economic" means fail in a given situation, then there is always the "military option." There is not always a viable military optionÖ

Donít assume you have a BATNA better than negotiating, or that you donít. Think it through. Then decide whether negotiating makes sense. (Emphasis in original.)

I think that captures in a nutshell the mistakes made by the Bush administration, both in invading Iraq and in refusing to negotiate with Iran: It has consistently over-estimated its (our) BATNA.

Experience has shown that the threat of military force to reach a negotiated inspection regime would have been a far more efficient means of containing Saddam Husseinís weapons program (in terms of cost in blood, treasure and regional influence) than the actual use of it has been.

So why didnít we do some last-minute negotiating when our forces were massed on the Kuwait border? Partly because Saddam Hussein had a track record of being an unreliable negotiating partner. But mainly because the Bush administration wildly over-estimated our BATNA. Not in forecasting a quick and decisive military victory (which I donít think anyone doubted), but in ignoring the ease with which our various well-wishers in the area could (and would) spoil the party afterwards.

All of this takes on even more relevance in light of the Bush administrationís refusal to negotiate directly with the Iranians over their uranium enrichment program (the authors consider that setting pre-conditions to negotiations, such as freezing the uranium enrichment process, is tantamount to refusing to negotiate), as well as its refusal to ďtake the military option off the tableĒ.

Both of these tactics are designed to make the Iranians re-consider (ie. downgrade) their BATNA, thereby making negotiations more attractive and concessions more palatable. But they also reflect the Bush administrationís current best thinking on our own. Namely, that in the absence of the Iranians completely caving in on what they correctly consider to be a sovereign right (which is an exceedingly remote possibility, to say the least), we stand a better chance of containing Iranís regional influence (because thatís what this boils down to) through military means than through negotiations.

On the face of it, that seems like a pretty obvious miscalculation. To begin with, the chances of completely crippling the Iranian enrichment program, as the Israelis did to Saddam Hussein's Osiraq reactor in 1981, are pretty slim. At best, we can set it back a bit, but that seems likely to provoke a wider conflict and possibly even all-out war. Again, the danger isn't a defeat at the hands of the Iranian army but the aftermath: A longterm, low-intensity bloodletting with periodic flare-ups that will require an American military commitment for the foreseeable future. Cue the draft, followed not long after by an angry American public and an eventual withdrawal. Like it or not, America is not ancient Sparta, and outside of Hollywood blockbusters, Americans don't have a taste for blood. Contrary to what Dick Cheney thinks, that's a good thing.

Which leaves us with engagement and mutual accomodation. Because despite the neocon tactic of equating any negotiations at all with the Munich Accords (ie. appeasement), effective negotiations allow both sides to maximize benefits and minimize costs. The obvious shortcoming of the Munich comparison is that it assumes that all of our regional rivals/enemies will be negotiating in as bad faith as Hitler was, and that we will be negotiating from as weak a position as Chamberlain was. But the Iranians have actually proven to be pretty reliable negotiating partners, and we're nowhere near as hamstrung as Chamberlain was in 1936, even if the Iraq fiasco has greatly weakened our bargaining position.

Iíll have more on the Bush administrationís emphasis on positional, as opposed to principled, negotiation -- and how this, too, has contributed to its sterling foreign policy record -- tomorrow.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Iraq   

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