Sunday, March 22, 2009

Obama demonstrates the problem of negotiating against yourself

I used to negotiate collective agreements with labour unions. I took courses in negotiations and communications to improve my skills and I had a lot of hands-on experience over 25 years.

One of the key things you learn is not to negotiate against yourself. There is a strong tendency to make a unilateral offer in the hope that this will instill a movement from the other side on something it is demanding. This never works. The other party interprets this as weakness, takes the offering, and doubles down on its demands for the rest of its shopping list.

One of the best examples internationally was the abandonment of Gaza by Israel, a unilateral move after years of trying to trade land for recognition and peace. Triumphant Palestinian militants claimed victory in their long fight with Israel and promptly promoted two military clashes by bombarding Israel with rockets and kidnapping its soldiers.

We can also see this playing out with President Obama.

First, he gave a television interview to an Arab television network talking about his new deal desires for the Middle East and claiming the U.S. was wrong in its previous policies.

Next, he wrote a letter to the Iranian president saying much the same. The immediate response from Ahmadinejad was that America must first apologize for all its “crimes” against Iran. That is, Obama must do more groveling to Iran – no promise of anything in return, of course.

Obama had already received public criticism for unnecessarily torpedoing long-standing U.S. policy in his television remarks without clearly replacing it. He was told this would have negative consequences. Yet he proceeded with the letter and, guess what, he got the predicted response.

One would have thought by that point a bright, thoughtful chief executive would have considered what his path was yielding and planned it differently; like maybe authorizing secret meetings of senior officials with their Iranian counterparts to explore avenues of cooperation that could be turned into public relations successes and real progress.

That would be a different president than this one, apparently.

He has now ripped a page right out of Osama bin Laden’s playbook and released a video translated into Farsi all about his good wishes for Iran and wanting a handshake and a hug.

And what did this effort yield?

Ahmadinejad’s boss, the Ayatollah Kamenei spoke at a large gathering of the faithful, whose mood was best defined by incessant chanting of “Death to America”, and said that deeds must precede words. In short, Obama must take unilateral steps that favour Iran before Iran will even consider some reciprocity.

Who is advising Obama? Will he listen to anybody, besides the voice in his own head? Let us hope so, because he is clearly naïve.

I worry more about Russia, than I do about Iran. The last time the United States elected a young “hopey-changey” president who went to Berlin and gave inspirational speeches the Russians severely put the U.S. to the test by placing nuclear armed rockets in Cuba. That was a very scary time for those of us who experienced it.

I think it will not be very long, after this Iranian demonstration, that Mr. Putin will be pushing Mr. Obama up against a wall just to see what he is made of.

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