Wednesday, June 04, 2008

How to Negotiate with Enemies: Lieberman Edition

Sometimes, Barack Obama says, you have to negotiate with your enemies.

President Bush, being a genius, disagrees. He knows that negotiating with enemies is a sign of weakness, which is why he wouldn't negotiate with North Korea while they were only trying to build nuclear weapons but waited until they had actually built them. That way Bush would have no leverage and could negotiate from a position of sufficient weakness.

This is also, of course, John McCain's model of tough diplomacy, and Joe Lieberman's. They too view Obama's willingness to actually talk to our enemies as a symptom not only of weakness, but of naivete. The fact that Obama is willing to talk to enemies, rather than simply threaten them, is taken as a sign that he's some simple-minded kid who will lose his lunch money to the Iranians before he even gets to the bus stop.

McCain and Lieberman's preferred method for dealing with international enemies, like Bush's, is to make bellicose public threats that they may or may not find themselves able to back up. It's very important that these threats not be made directly to the party being threatened, but to large domestic political audiences in front of international media. The goal is to humiliate one's opponents and make them lose face, while looking more impressive to one's own local admirers; essentially, this is the Gangster Rap School of Diplomacy. McCain or Bush or Lieberman let it be known around the neighborhood that they will give that other kid a beating, as soon as they see him. The plan is to undermine their opponent's standing, and intimidate him through third parties. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in fact uses the same technique all the time, ranting about how he will humble America, and Fidel Castro used to be a past master of it. You see how successful it has been, what with Iran and Cuba bringing us to our knees. And you can see how effectively our stump-speech threats have curbed their behavior.

The main purpose of these public threats is their main weakness: any leader who gives in to them will be humiliated in front of his own power base, and weakened. And because they were made in front of the whole world, the threatened party can't comply without admitting weakness. (If you hide when the neighborhood bully threatens you, you basically have to accept his bullying thereafter.) What American leader can give any concessions to Ahmadinejad, until he changes his tune? Threats like these give the opponent a powerful motivation to defy you, but punishes them for cooperating with you.

The other problem of course, is that when you threaten someone indirectly, they often doubt that you mean it. How often have you lost sleep over Castro's vows to bring us down? How often have you worried that those parade-stand threats were connected to anything concrete he was planning to do? Everybody knows that the neighborhood bully who goes around talking about how he will beat you up when he finds is not the same as the bully who actually finds you and then threatens to beat you up.

Sometimes, and I hope even our most hawkish compatriots would agree, you have to threaten your enemies in person.

That principle of tough diplomacy was seemingly on display in the Senate chamber today, when the naive and dewy pushover from Chicago, Obama, approached the hardened street tough from Connecticut, Lieberman. Roll Call, via the Huffington Post, has the story:

Furthermore, during a Senate vote Wednesday, Obama dragged Lieberman by the hand to a far corner of the Senate chamber and engaged in what appeared to reporters in the gallery as an intense, three-minute conversation.

While it was unclear what the two were discussing, the body language suggested that Obama was trying to convince Lieberman of something and his stance appeared slightly intimidating.

Using forceful, but not angry, hand gestures, Obama literally backed up Lieberman against the wall, leaned in very close at times, and appeared to be trying to dominate the conversation, as the two talked over each other in a few instances.

Still, Obama and Lieberman seemed to be trying to keep the back-and-forth congenial as they both patted each other on the back during and after the exchange.

Afterwards, Obama smiled and pointed up at reporters peering over the edge of the press gallery for a better glimpse of their interaction.

Was Obama threatening Lieberman? I can't say, and neither can you, and we're not meant to. Perhaps the new leader of the Democratic Party was simply giving Lieberman, who now caucuses with the Democrats but campaigns with the Republicans, an enthusiastic restaurant recommendation. Lieberman can certainly deny that any threats were made, which means he can cave in without losing too much face. This, of course, is the point.

Of course, the fact conversation wasn't supposed to be entirely private, although its substance was. The press in the galleries, and the other senators in the chamber, were supposed to notice that Obama was giving Lieberman some personal time, and that Lieberman wasn't enjoying it. It was important to establish that the new boss is, in fact, the new boss. Lieberman got a small taste of public humiliation, as payback for publicly dissing the leader of the party that gives him his committee assignments. But he also knows, and was intended to know, that the small taste could have been a full meal, and that Obama has the power to humiliate him much more publicly and thoroughly. Lieberman was also allowed the dignity of having the substance of the threat (if it was a threat) and the substance of the demand kept private so that he can comply with a minimal loss of position. And the "friendly" body language allows both parties to put the best possible face on things, and to stay in the negotiation. The move gives Lieberman the maximum reasons to cooperate, and the maximum penalty for not cooperating. It is, dare I say it, nuanced.

And that is the man whom Lieberman was calling soft.

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