Leaders are failing as negotiators

At the start of the recent Syria negotiations, Secretary of State John Kerry said the governing Assad regime must go.

U.S. House Republicans voted more than 40 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage refused to meet Democratic leaders

What these moves show is a distressing lack of ability to negotiate.

While many Americans favor compromise on most issues, leaders find it impossible to produce deals, because they have abandoned the art of negotiation.

Assad’s representatives answered Kerry’s by refusing to speak with the United States. That could make you wonder if the U.S. wanted to torpedo the very talks that it initiated.

Of course, there’s good reason to dislike Assad and want him out. But will his representatives be willing to negotiate a process making that possible, if Kerry insists on the end result even before the talks begin? Not likely.

Much depends on negotiating objectives. We have to understand what we want. Do we want people to stop killing each other in Syria and destabilizing the region or do we accept an ongoing war until Assad leaves? If it’s the second, why bother at all with negotiations?

The Kerry approach to Syria is similar to the U.S. position on Iran’s nuclear development. Clearly, most countries would like to see Iran prevented from producing uranium enriched to the point where it could be used in bombs or missiles.

But the U.S. and some American allies were blocked from even beginning talks by their insistence that Iran agree to get rid of its enriched uranium first. The possibility of talks was going nowhere.

International sanctions finally made Iran willing to talk, and the U.S. and others were willing to negotiate as soon as Iran said it would stop further enrichment. That was not the end of the Iran problem, but it could be the long-missing start of the end game.

Still, some in Congress dislike relaxing any sanctions in return for Iran’s first steps in the right direction. They still want Iran simply to give up, however unlikely it is without a deal.

Negotiations usually won’t work if one side insists on preconditions amounting to the other side giving up. That’s like saying, “Let’s skip the talks, and you just surrender now.”

The GOP has to recognize the ACA won’t be repealed no matter how many times they vote to shut it down. Negotiations depend on the Republicans putting forward their own proposal and showing a willingness to negotiate with the Democrats.

Demanding repeal first and then negotiations ensures nothing happens. Most people realize the ACA needs to be fixed and probably simplified, but that can’t happen without real negotiations unfettered by impossible preconditions.

The outlook for negotiations is not good. The Republican Right is raising vast sums and gearing up to fight members of their own party who want to find reasonable compromises. Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential candidate, is now under attack in Arizona, his home state, for opposing a government shutdown.

These situations show any hope of success in negotiations depends on knowing your objective, but not requiring the other side accept it as a precondition to talks.

Of course, success depends on a willingness to talk in the first place. In Maine, when the Democrats regained control of the Legislature in 2012, Gov. LePage simply refused for months to speak with the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House.

LePage was miffed, he said, by being followed by a cameraman, hired by the state Democratic Party. Maybe, but he was also probably miffed by his party’s loss of both houses of the Legislature.

Not only did his refusal gum up the legislative works, but it brought unfavorable national news coverage of a state struggling to make itself more attractive to outside investment. Neither result is likely to be hugely popular with Maine people.

People can learn from their mistakes and start bargaining. President Obama seems to have overcome his habit of making concessions first and then expecting the GOP to give him something in return.

The farm bill on which representatives from both parties agreed is a good example of how negotiations can work. The Republicans agreed to cut farm subsidies, and the Democrats accepted reducing the number of people getting food stamps. Not a great deal, perhaps, but better than nothing.

And as the farm bill negotiations showed, neither side is likely to get everything it wants. A good compromise is when both sides end up equally unhappy.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and publisher.