Inviting people to a party is not always simple. Besides the logistical problem of deciding exactly how many people should be invited and anticipating how many will come, there is the more subtle problem of anticipating who will get along with who. Are these people friends? Does this couple know this couple? Should we try to introduce this unmarried woman to this bachelor? Who should seat next to whom? And the list goes on.
Peace seems to be breaking out in the Middle East. An agreement has been reached with Iran to curb the development of its potential military nuclear program. The United States and the Islamic Republic are publicly talking. Over thirty years of diplomatic isolation appears to have ended. In addition, and not unrelated, a date has been set for a major conference in Geneva to stop the horrendous civil war in Syria. Diplomacy is working; sabers have been put back in their sheaths. Geneva is back in the news; the Hotel Intercontinental is doing land office business.
There are, however, two countries that are not jumping up with joy over the above.
In March 2009, Hillary Clinton presented Sergey Lavrov with a reset button in Geneva. The symbolic gesture was to usher in a new era of a cooperative relationship between the United States and the Russian Federation. No more missile crisis, no more pounding shoes on a desk at the United Nations. If the fall of the Berlin Wall had symbolized the end of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the gift of the reset button was supposed to symbolize the beginning of positive cooperation.
Things did not work out that way. President Medvedev was replaced by President Putin and the atmosphere surrounding his relationship with Barack Obama has been described as chilly at best. The high (or low) point of that relationship occurred when President Obama canceled a meeting with the Russian President in Moscow before the recent G20 summit in St. Petersburg. The ostensible reason for the cancellation was the Federation’s granting of asylum to Edward Snowden, considered a traitor by the United States for leaking secret information about the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping activities, an obvious poke in the eye to the United States.
How are we to understand the meeting in Geneva between Lavrov and John Kerry on September 12? How are we to understand the U.S./Russian cooperation on Syria? Is this the beginning of a true reset in the relationship?
Western countries are agonizing over what to do in Syria. As Assad’s government troops, with the aid of their allies, continue to pound cities like Homs and appear to be winning the civil war, Great Britain and its allies are hesitating in furnishing weapons to the rebels. Who are the rebels? How can we be sure that the weapons delivered will stay in the right hands? How can we be sure that the weapons will be enough to turn the tide? All these questions remain unanswered as the slaughter continues while hundreds of thousands of refugees - those who are lucky enough not to be trapped - flee the country.
But what about the United States?
What is responsible for the outbreak of anti-American violence in the Muslim world? The obvious first answer is the reprehensible video. But, behind the video there are several theories being floated. Among them are: 1) The protesters are a street minority who do not reflect majority feelings. The distinction between populism and democracy is relevant here; 2) Democracy takes time. It is unreasonable to expect democratic values such as freedom of expression to be assimilated in such a short period of time; 3) A cultural clash is most evident. Western countries are attuned to criticizing and even mocking religious figures that are held sacred and beyond mockery by other cultures and religions; 4) The United States is associated with imperialism, often aligned with Israel. The violent outbreaks are a manifestation of a rejection of foreign intervention.
The other day, protesters stormed over the wall of the United States Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, capturing the American flag and destroying it. The rioters were angry over an amateur American video denouncing Islam. Protesters also attacked the United States consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and killed the U.S. ambassador there. Both events took place around the 11th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11.
Last week, former UN Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Prize winner Kofi Annan resigned as special UN-Arab League Envoy to Syria. The news agency Reuters described him during his Geneva news conference as follows: "A visibly shaken Kofi Annan admitted defeat in his attempts to bring peace to Syria...His voice cracking with emotion as he announced his resignation..."
Should we blame one individual for his failure to stop the bloodshed? When Annan accepted the job 17 months ago, several observers considered it Mission Impossible since the UN Security Council was split over what to do...
Over 100 people were massacred in Syria. Kofi Annan, United Nations and Arab League special envoy said, "I am personally shocked and horrified by the tragic incident in Houla...which took so many innocent lives, children, women and men". Arguments are raging in the United States about the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq; 6,000 service men and women dead, over $1 trillion dollars spent. To what end?
What is tolerable? At what point do we say enough is enough and change behavior? President Obama, it appears, became disenchanted with his military advisors when they asked for more troops and more time in Afghanistan without being able to specify how much it would cost and without clear doable objectives. The civil war in Syria continues to rage with innocent lives lost every day. Even Russia, Syria's ally, has condemned the violence, yet there has been no fundamental change in behavior from the warring parties or the international community.
Kofi Annan has recently been in Syria. The former United Nations Secretary General's mandate from the UN and the Arab League is to reduce the violence if not convince President Assad to relinquish power. A ceasefire and/or allowing humanitarian relief to the stricken were also on the agenda. Having seen other attempts at mediation fail, the international community called upon Mr. Annan to try to convince the Syrian leaders to radically alter their behavior.
One man alone, with enormous prestige including a Nobel Peace Prize, went to Damascus to dialogue with the Syrian authorities and their stubborn leader. Other presidents in the region when confronted with similar outbreaks chose to step down from power. Mouammar Kadhafi was killed, Hosni Mubarak is in prison. For the moment, President Assad has not budged. On the contrary, he seems more determined than ever to crush the opposition even while the negotiations are going on.
We will never know what exactly transpired between Mr. Annan and the Syrian authorities. Mr. Annan said he was "cautiously optimistic" after the two meetings during which he presented "concrete proposals". We do not know the historic relations between the two men, nor the exact nature of the types of proposals Mr. Annan was allowed to present. After all, he was sent with a mandate from two international organizations and was not negotiating only on his behalf. His wriggle room was most circumscribed. We can only try to imagine what was said.
Did Kofi Annan threaten air attacks? Did he say that the international community would arm the rebels? Did he promise clemency with exile in another country? Did he say that if the violence subsided the current regime could stay in power?
Much of the historic training in negotiation simulation has been based on Western rationality. If I do this, then he will do that. Computer programs are even available to walk negotiators through different scenarios, just as there are machines to play chess. However, and this is not irrelevant, negotiations take place between human beings. For the moment, there are no formulas for emotions. Even economists, who had thought that all transactions could be quantified, are beginning to realize the importance of psychology.
Mr. Annan has enormous experience in negotiating across the globe with very different personalities. How will he try to convince the Syrians to stop the atrocities? They have their own logic, their particular rationality. Not only do we wish Mr. Annan success, but I would love to have the transcript of what was said. Peacemaking dialogue is truly the pinnacle of cross-cultural communication.
The recent violence in Syria continues to shock. Thousands of civilians have been killed by their own government. Leaders are supposed to protect their citizens, not bombard them. Attempts by the international community have not changed the situation. Neither the United Nations nor the Arab League has been able to persuade President Assad to stop the assaults. He seems impervious to any form of outside intervention, taking advantage of his privileged relations with Russia and China to divide the international community.
"Politics is the art of the possible" is a famous quotation attributed to the Prussian Otto Von Bismarck. Instead of standing steadfast on one's position, politicians are supposed to make deals which include compromises; they are supposed to be experts at getting things done instead of just arguing or shouting at those who hold different positions.
The other evening at the University of Geneva a large audience was privileged to listen to several speakers who demonstrated what politics should be. Yossi Belin from Israel and Yasser Abed Rabbo from Palestine, the driving forces behind the Geneva Initiative, spoke as one voice of what a future peace might look like in the Middle East.