The purpose of this blog is not to assess the rationale behind negotiating a nuclear treaty with Iran. I will quickly say that it is a ludicrous exercise facilitated by a foreign policy neophyte with no sense of history (see Korea, North). But, I am also not a foreign policy expert so I’ll leave the analysis of that to others, including Dan Henninger’s excellent piece in today’s Wall Street Journal.
What I’d like to quickly analyze is an area where I am an expert – negotiating deals. I’ve done it my whole career and, frankly, I’m good at it. Entire courses are taught at top business schools on negotiations. President Obama and his team, notably John Kerry, have violated almost every basic rule of Negotiations 101 and have, not surprisingly, failed to produce anything positive for the United States. Looking back on the last 6 years, Obama has basically gotten his ass kicked in every negotiation he’s ever engaged in. He’s the master of getting very little while giving up a lot. I won’t even get into the stupid crap like drawing red lines where everyone knows there isn’t one. A 3 year old would know not to do that in a negotiation for another cookie.
Here are some of the more profound areas in which Obama has floundered as a negotiator.
1. He never uses one of his most powerful weapons – namely the door. Why is John Kerry still in Lausanne? The deadline to reach a deal was Tuesday evening. By my calendar it’s Thursday morning, which makes it almost happy hour in Lausanne. If you’re not willing to walk away from a bad negotiation, nobody will ever take you seriously when you reject their deal. Sometime you have to politely get up from the table, look the other party in the eye, thank them for their time, and walk out the door. If they never call, you were never going to get the deal you wanted anyway.
2. Good cop/bad cop works. It shouldn’t and there’s a way to defuse it (sorry, can’t give away all my secrets), but it does work about 90% of the time. Obama has a perfect bad cop in the Republican-led Congress. You may not like Tom Cotton’s letter to the Iranians and it clearly didn’t sit well with Obama. But, it was a perfect opportunity for him to embrace the fact that he happens to work in a tripartite form of government. By embracing an adversarial Congress as his partner vs. publicly discounting them as soon as the letter was sent, he dismissed a golden opportunity to play a rousing game of good cop/bad cop with the mullahs. I have no idea if it would have worked, but negotiating is like chess. No single move wins the game. It’s a series of well-planned moves that tie together. In my view, he gave up a chance to take the Queen here.
3. His biggest sin is he totally misunderstands the concept of BATNA (best alternative to negotiated agreement). The US BATNA is that we have a despotic government in Iran hell bent on developing nuclear weapons and sponsoring terror and no signed document saying they’ll stop. Please, people, read the Henninger article. Or for that matter, just consult your own common sense. Even if the mullahs sign a document saying they’ll be really really nice going forward, we know it’s all bullshit. So, why take a bad deal when the alternative to no deal is, practically speaking, about the same and arguably better (because we’ll be making concessions in a bad deal). The Iranian BATNA, however, is far worse. If no deal is reached, it is a lock that Congress will impose more harsh sanctions. Even Democrats in Congress support that. These sanctions have worked very nicely over a long period of time and the mullahs know that. Failure to get a deal will be really bad for them. Amazingly, however, Obama not only fails to grasp the weakness of the Iranian BATNA, he actually improves their BATNA for them by threatening to veto any new sanction legislation, including a proposed bill that was co-sponsored by a Democrat.
As I’ve watched Obama get beat up like a schoolyard weakling in negotiation after negotiation, I’ve cringed at his inability to execute on even the most basic skills of negotiation. Whether I agree with his politics or not, and I usually don’t, I am certainly rooting for him in every negotiation he enters. After all, he’s our guy, negotiating for all of us. It is colossally frustrating to me that someone with so much power can be so inept in such an important area. I guess they didn’t teach Negotiations 101 in the Masters of Community Organizing program at Harvard. They sure did teach it in the business school!