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Is Negotiation Even Possible at This Point?

Branding the other side "terrorists," even when correct, has become an excuse for not listening to what they say or learning how they think.
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For the current administration, negotiation is a back-up strategy - something done after the enemy's back is against the wall. Also, it involves telling the other side what must be done and then refusing to speak with them if they don't agree.

Certainly negotiation at this time regarding the Israeli-Hezbollah war is one of the most difficult in history. But a good part of that difficulty results from a rigid view of what constitutes negotiation,

Condoleezza Rice's appearance on Meet the Press yesterday revealed severe limitations in demeanor and strategy likely to lead to failed negotiation efforts. People of all manner and views are calling for talks, and yet the language used to describe proposed solutions reveals a willingness to talk AT but certainly not WITH the people who can facilitate a peace resolution. Uncharacteristically cornered by Russert's question about why Syria is not involved in talks, Rice replied that the U.S. has an embassy there and then, after a list of reasons why Syria shouldn't be involved in talks, said: "But we do talk to Syria, and I want to, I want to just correct that misconception. " Yes, but we don't talk WITH anybody with whom we disagree. Saying things like, "We'll see who's for peace" is an in-your-face, do-as-we-say, you're-with-us-or-against us, unnecessarily provocative challenge. It's an attitude conveyed by statements such as "And I think that once the international community has spoken, you will see that the parties will need to, to come into line." Where one's honor is more important than one's life, being told you'll need to "come into line" doesn't work.

When asked about 87 percent of Lebanese, including 87 percent of Christian Lebanese, supporting Hezbollah, Rice did not reply, "And that is a serious problem, Tim. And we're going to turn that around." Instead, she said, "Well, first of all, it is quite, quite understandable that there is a lot of emotion in Lebanon about what is going on there."

She repeated several times the phrase "Status quo ante," another pithy term used to preclude listening and creative thinking. The choices appear to be the "status quo ante," agreeing to the resolution that was only drafted this weekend without the parties who could make a difference, or more war. In negotiation we refer to this type of approach as "distributive negotiation" or "fixed pie." Your gain is our loss and vice versa,. One side imposes its views on another. We need more "integrative" negotiation, which involves all key parties in attempts to find mutually beneficial solutions. Sometimes both are needed. But distributive alone is not working - it rarely does.

Equally worrisome is Rice's inclination to defend rather than learn. This administration abhors learning as it gets in the way of a sense of being always right. If that's not the case, then little has been done to contradict the impression. We're all left divided on whether they can't negotiate or they simply won't.

Another major obstacle is a willingness to take the heat and change course rather than place the blame and refuse to budge. George Mitchell said on Larry King Live, "I like and respect Secretary Rice but what really surprised me and what I strongly disagree with is her blaming the problems of the Middle East on previous administrations and claiming that this administration has made more progress in the Middle East than did previous administrations." This is not a time for playground games of "you started it." It's time to gather in Washington, and around the world, superb negotiators - many with extensive comprehension of the cultures to be involved in negotiation - the ways they communicate.

And, branding the other side "terrorists," even when correct, has become an excuse for not listening to what they say or learning how they think. You can't outsmart a fox by treating it like all other four-legged wild animals. They're much too clever.

Impasse is inevitable when people's differences run deep and the hatred and hurt they carry has built over generations. If they're driven to greater enmity by arrogance and indifference, no matter how defeated they may appear, negotiations fail. George Mitchell learned this in Northern Ireland when he tried to rescue the peace process from the brink of collapse in November 1999. Faced with deep animus, he decided to give each side a chance to say the "unsayable. "

"He ordered a media blackout to facilitate the airing of views and cloistered the parties in the U.S. ambassador's residence in London away from the media. For two weeks, people who could not stand each other strolled the halls, ate, relaxed, and talked together. Once the proper atmosphere had been created, Mitchell was able to pose questions on positions that had remained unquestioned in their minds. He encouraged them to draft documents they each wanted to have provided by the other side. He essentially broke down the dominant perceptual fields of both sides and worked with them to create one together. The result was not perfect and it took many more years to truly proceed toward peace, but they achieved more than either side anticipated,"

Breaking down "perceptual fields" and then recreating ones that facilitate constructive interaction is the road to peace. Granted, it's a tough road, not one lined with niceties. But, right now, the Bush administration is blinded by its own inflated, misplaced confidence regarding several cultures about which it evidently knows very little.

Complexity in negotiation requires a willingness to set aside the tendency to consider oneself the bearer of all good solutions. Answers are only as good as the questions asked and we do little asking. There is no shame in not knowing all there is to know about complex situations. There is only shame in thinking you do.