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About this blog: The Raucous Caucus shares the southpaw perspectives of this Boomer on the state of the nation, the world, and, sometimes, other stuff. I enjoy crafting it to keep current, and occasionally to rant on some issue I care about deeply...  (More)

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Getting to Yes in Syria?

Uploaded: Sep 11, 2013
The Syria serial continues, with this episode focused on a proposal to transcend current posturing at the brink of US military action, which carries twin risks of ineffectiveness and escalation. The learnings contained in a book used mostly by businesses may hold the key.

One of the most valuable things I've ever read is the 1990 business classic "Getting to Yes" (GtY). It's 150 very readable pages by Roger Fisher, a Harvard Professor and founder of its Program on Negotiation. Remarkably, the last time I checked the book was still on the Business Week bestseller list – 20 years later.

In it, he rejects traditional 'haggle-type' competitive or cooperative negotiating strategies as unwise and inefficient – either one leaves value on the table, and risks damaging the ongoing relationship of the Parties. He replaces those approaches with what he calls a 'principled' or 'collaborative' style that can lead to win-win, non-zero-sum outcomes.

Among the several pearls he dispenses, none is more valuable than this: forget arguing over Positions – instead, go behind them to reach Interests – the human needs that animate whatever positions have been staked by the sides. Responding to your counterpart's needs, and understanding your own, opens-up new options to satisfy those needs in ways that may vary the Parties' prior positions, to the benefit of one or both. Usually, an Interest can be identified in the answers to the question "why."

Fisher was deeply involved in the old Camp David Accords in the aftermath of the Egyptian-Israeli War, after which Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula -- a wasteland formerly part of Egypt. Egypt's Sadat demanded that Israel pull out of his country's territory; Israel's Begin refused, and the talks were going nowhere as mutually exclusive positions hardened.

Their respective interests, however, were much more compatible – Egypt wanted the Sinai as a matter of national pride and sovereignty. Israel's interest was security -- they cared little for the territory, except that it provided an early warning buffer against an imminent attack; troops would have to cross it before reaching anything that the Israelis really cared-about.

Comparing those interests provided the basis for a Breakthrough: Egypt would get its sovereign land back, on the enforced promise to maintain it as a demilitarized zone, thus meeting Israel's need for security against attack. Bingo – obvious in retrospect, but hardly self-evident to entrenched bargainers at the time. GtY is an acquired skill (and very often, though not always, equally applicable on an interpersonal level – say, when you and yours want to plan a vacation, or a Saturday night out).

Which brings us to Syria: we 'may' be seeing another GtY example unfold there (BTW, I've seen evidence of a GtY approach in many of Mr. Obama's prior initiatives – unfortunately, the Parties ultimately were not bargaining over the same issues; it's hard to make progress when one side only wants to 'Get to No,' but I digress). There, the US position has been that Assad must be punished for the 'gassacre' of his enemies, and Syria and its allies have promised that they will retaliate against such an attack.

And there we stood until somebody realized that the US interests here include minimizing the chance of future such attacks, not implementing a high-risk/unlikely-reward strategy that could easily fail, and avoiding the risk of being drawn into yet-another land war, far from home. Syria, for its part, needs to avoid the US attack, reduce the risk that their poison weapons will be captured and turned against them by the rebels, and also avoid deeper involvement by the US in a widening war.

And Presto: a solution that addresses all those interests and Just-Might-Work is for Syria to give up that gas arsenal in return for the US remaining on the sidelines, mostly. It's a Eureka! Moment, apparently arrived-at by accident this time, but it has captured the world's imagination.

Now, are there serious practical and logistical problems associated with implementing such a solution in a war zone? You bet. And can we trust that the Syrians even mean it, or is this just a stall tactic? Stay tuned – that proof can only come in whether they'll implement. At minimum, the US will have to maintain a credible threat of a military strike, pending Syrian compliance on its end. But it's fascinating to contemplate, and an ingenious resolution if it works: as Fisher has written elsewhere, there's real [persuasive) power in "an elegant solution."

For that reason, I hold some hope that it can work to resolve this particular conflict. There are certainly forces allied against it, and there's always risk in outreach and trying something new. But I hope it does work – the world, and all its inhabitants, are in need of more elegant solutions -- the kind that Getting to Yes can supply.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Leah Wilson, a resident of San Ramon,
on Sep 18, 2013 at 7:07 am

Yawn as usual----Obama good. Obama brilliant. Obama da man..........drink the purple koolaid. The golfer-in-chief blundered the Syria situation along with the liar of record- John Kerry. These two buffoons were joined by the demented RINO McCain who also bought into a non-vetted "Syrian expert" O'Bay since fired for her public deceptions about her credentials and knowledge. The good people of Arizona need to retire old John---who IS a Vietnam Vet!!!!!!!!!!!!! Kerry has had no credibility since the 60's and Obama needs to stay on the golf courses of the world and in front of every microphone he smells to feed his laughable narcissism.

Posted by Quotemeister, a resident of Blackhawk,
on Sep 18, 2013 at 9:53 am

"Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people."

-- Eleanor Roosevelt

Posted by Ellie, a resident of another community,
on Sep 18, 2013 at 10:13 am

I hope this works though. The last time such a solution was offered was to Iraq and look how that ended. Another war is just not going to help. And these country heads need to get smarter and learn from the other dictators/predecessors.

History, they say, repeats itself. Hope this saying does not stand in this case.Has the human civilisation not learned and evolved from the past still?

Posted by spcwt, a resident of Danville,
on Sep 18, 2013 at 2:54 pm

When Obama took office, the U.S. was involved in 60 wars. Thanks to Obama, we?re now in 75 wars. That?s 15 new wars where Obama is ?helping.? Web Link

Syria would have raised it to 76. Fortunately, Putin was there to save us from yet another Obama blunder.

Putin reminisced about how Russia and U.S. were once allies in WWII and through the years had often worked together for the common good. Obama responded by saying Russia doesn?t share America?s values. Web Link

Nice diplomacy. Not exactly a stellar ?getting to yes? moment.

Obama?s plea to attack Syria was even worse. In one of the worst speeches of his life, Obama said:

To my friends on the right, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America's military might with a failure to act when a cause is so plainly just.

To my friends on the left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain and going still on a cold hospital floor, for sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.

Nice caricatures of left and right. Hey rabid militarists! Here?s a chance to use the military you love so much! Hey hippie peaceniks! Think of the children and stop being so wimpy!? Web Link

Tom?s mentions Obama?s efforts at ?getting to yes? with Republicans. What a joke. Just yesterday, Obama again accused Republicans of an ?ideological agenda? that he called ?the height of irresponsibility.? Obama said, "Are Republicans really willing to hurt people just to score political points? I hope not."

Obama is suggesting that Republicans really do want to hurt people.

If Obama really wants to ?get to yes,? he might start by not demonizing Putin, Republicans and his other ?opponents.?

Posted by Huh?, a resident of Danville,
on Sep 19, 2013 at 4:10 pm

To my friends on the right, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom, dignity, and the ineffable magnificence of the presidency of Ronald Reagan with the images of the men, women and children writhing in pain in the most brutal and deadly use of poison gas since WWI - the gassing of the Kurds during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980's. As evidenced by the photo of a smiling Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with then-ally Saddam Hussein, the US did absolutely nothing. Web Link

Ironically, Iraq's poison gas munitions had actually all been destroyed when we invaded that country ostensibly due to the actually non-existent WMDs.

Posted by spcwt, a resident of Danville,
on Sep 19, 2013 at 4:49 pm

If you want to look at dirty pictures, here?s a recent snapshot of John Kerry having dinner with Assad. Web Link

Here?s a picture of Herbert Hoover sitting with Hitler in 1938. Web Link

The point is, sometimes a face-to-face meeting can help.

As for invading Iraq, it was clearly the wrong choice. Kudos to Obama for having the courage to vote against it back when he was a senator.

On the other hand, sometimes action is required. Clinton could have prevented the murder of 800,000 Rwandans by merely chipping in money to help pay for UN troops from Africa and for military equipment. Yet he refused to act, even though he knew the genocide was occurring.

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo,
on Sep 19, 2013 at 5:54 pm

S-P: You confuse GtY with "being a nice guy" in the negotiating Process. That's not it at all. Instead, GtY approaches the negotiation as an atempt to satisfy respective Substantive interests, by a whole variety of tactics -- some of which are not friendly, at all. So all this stuff about not being nice to Mr. Putin just doesn't matter -- not to the outcome, and certainly not to Mr. Putin (I'm pretty sure he knows he doesn't share our values).

The Russians' interests in Syria and ours overlap in terms of both wanting to keep us away from that conflict. Obama's willingness to risk deeper involvement to punish the Assad regime brought Russia to the table with an excellent alternative. It may or may not work, but the Parties are clearly negotiating collaboratively, if not cordially, for now.

As far as the debt ceiling negotiations are concerned, I think that the Prez is wagering that the country will not stand for being held-up, yet again, by the GOP's refusal to pay the country's bills that have already been incurred. I happen to think he's right -- they are overplaying their hand, and if enough of them either break-rank or absorb electoral blame for their ongoing insistence on 'Getting to No,' well then, problem solved.

In GtY terms, he is 'demonstrating his BATNA' by signalling that he will not bargain away an incipient, permanent improvement in health care availability for another temporary respite in budget tribulations. Again, I agree, and as I indicated in the blog, there may not be a deal that can be struck here -- there often isn't when the interests do not overlap. Since 2009, the GOP's Primary interest has never been anything other than Obama's defeat. It hasn't worked-out too well for them, or the country.

As to your 'all those wars' notion, it's all in the definition -- I would suggest that if you characterize every place we have a spy as a war, then there are even more! I also wonder how many of those 'wars' consist of ongoing counter-terrorism operations -- would you have us 'be nice' to Al Qaeda, too?

Posted by spcwt, a resident of Danville,
on Sep 20, 2013 at 12:33 pm

Obama did not say Putin doesn?t share our values, of course. He said Russia doesn?t. Poor choice of words, in my opinion.

Call me old fashioned, but I still think being nice can help you get what you want most of the time. Maybe not with Putin. Maybe not with Republicans. But I think it worked well for Clinton. I think playing nice, at least in public, would also work better in persuading the public and in reaching agreement on our current fiscal problems, and would be welcomed by most Americans.

The last president with lower average approval ratings than Obama was Carter. Less than half the country approves of Obama. Yet, Obama badgers his opponents like he has an FDR mandate. He doesn?t.

And before you say people don?t like Congress either, let me point out that people love their individual Congressional representatives. Nancy Pelosi and Rand Paul are saints to their home constituents. It?s only when you lump them together with Congress as a whole do their ratings tank.

An no, I don?t think we should be nice to Al Qaeda. But of course Al Qaeda did not exist until George H. W. Bush stationed 50,000 American troops in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War. The Koran has a verse that talks about how it is against Islam to have two religions on the Arabian peninsula. Al Qaeda uses it as a recruiting tool.

Sometimes actions have unintended consequences.

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo,
on Sep 20, 2013 at 2:31 pm

S-P: Wanting to be a nice guy is how most folks approach negotiations, and it leaves them vulnerable to competitive folks who mostly care about immediate outcome -- relationship-be-damned. It's an okay approach in a marriage, but not so much in buying a used car; context is key. And collaborative isn't ALways better, when there's not much joint gain possible. Some negotiations really are zero-sum -- but they are fewer than we tend to think.

Pretty sure I know why you'd choose it, but AVERAGE Presidential Approval Rating is a pretty dull tool, since it masks changes and trends. For instance, Obama's quarterly numbers are remarkably consistent (63-41%, now 48% per Gallup), vs. Clinton's (73-37%, with the low grace of l'Affaire L'ewinsky) and GWB's (90-25%, with a steady decline after 9/11).

And it's a complicated mix of factors that determines it. I suspect that part of Obama's relative stability relates to his polarizing nature -- there's a large core group that hates him viscerally, and another that loves him unconditionally (I believe you call them 'bots,' and no, I'm not one of those).

Posted by spcwt, a resident of Danville,
on Sep 20, 2013 at 3:52 pm

A nice person can also be firm and get what they want.

They do it by taking extreme positions at the outset and then through guile, bluffing, and brinksmanship cede as little as possible before reaching a deal. All with a smile.

Think about Silk Street in Beijing. Ever been there? Those guys are the masters. Yet no matter how hard they bargain, they are always affable. You?d love to have a beer with them when you?re done, even if you suspect you?ve been ripped off. They?re never unpleasant. They?d certainly never call you names, ridicule you, or question your character.

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo,
on Sep 20, 2013 at 4:11 pm

Some competitive bargainers can take you to the cleaners and make you enjoy the trip. Sounds like that's them.

If you are merely firm and nice, chances are you're leaving significant value on the table. Okay by me.

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