Note to Obama: Never Negotiate from a Position of Weakness

Not negotiating from a position of weakness is one of the first rules of brinksmanship. However, if one chooses to do so, then that individual has only one weapon left in their arsenal to turn the tables, so to speak: And that is to walk away when met with an unreasonable response or intransigence.

I have had the good fortune to negotiate for a living for three plus decades. My father— Barton “Baruch” Krames—who built up a successful business from nothing, did so because he is a first rate negotiator. I am sure I got the “negotiating gene” from him. It is also the part of my business that I enjoy the most—negotiating the best possible terms for my very valuable clients.

This posting, like the previous half a dozen, is not about publishing but about Syria and how the U.S. had decided to negotiate with Russia in order to obtain a U.N. resolution to remove and destroy the huge Syrian stockpile of chemical weapons. When Secretary of State went to Geneva to negotiate with his Russian counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, he went with a weak hand. President Obama missed his best chance to deal a blow to the Assad regime two weeks earlier. That is when he made the worst mistake of his presidency by deciding that instead of leading, he would delegate a major leadership decision to Congress. We now know what I correctly predicted then: Congress would falter and not support their Commander-in-Chief. Obama learned a valuable lesson that he should have already known: leadership can never be delegated. The War Powers Act of 1973 gave the president ample authority to attack Assad with missile strikes without congressional approval.

There are half a dozen instances of that precedent, starting with Ronald Reagan and most recently used by Obama himself against Libya!

That is why I was so utterly dumbfounded and devastated two weeks ago this day when Obama declared that he would go to Congress for “permission” to attack Assad. He should have known that the wars waged by Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan were too fresh in the minds of most Americans and congressional leaders to grant President Obama anything like a blank check to attack Assad’s war-making targets. Of course, Obama was requesting much less than a blank check.

But no matter. The “mindset” of congress was stuck on the Bush wars and they could not stomach another one. History is full of “fighting the last war” miscalculations. The greatest example is Hitler. He knew that the mindset that existed in the leadership of other European nations [due to World War I] was too vivid for any country to pick up arms against him until he attacked Poland in September of 1939.

Back to Syria. Obama and Kerry should never have agreed to any U.N. resolution that did not include automatic missile strikes if Syria fails to comply with the agreement. First of all, why should Russia or Syria have a problem with that? All they have to do is make sure that they keep their word. And that brings us to yet one more rule of negotiating. Do not negotiate with bad-faith actors that have revealed themselves to be liars and cheaters at every opportunity. Put another way, Kerry is fighting an unfair fight: even though only Russia was in Geneva with him and his team, Assad was in the background making unreasonable demands on Russian television during the negotiations. That is what happens when an honest broker goes up against two dishonest brokers—both which are enemies of the United States.

As I have been writing this piece, word has come that Secretary Kerry has reached an agreement with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov over the Syrian affair. In the agreement Syria has one week to account for all chemical weapons. That is an unexpected “win” for Kerry—right? After all, Assad wanted a month. But, like every aspect of this negotiation, something stinks in Denmark (well, Geneva). The only reason Kerry won that “concession” was because Assad has already moved his chemical weapons—to more than 50 sites by some reports. And since no one really knows how many weapons he possesses, he can “make it up” [the accounting and the location of the weapons] as he goes along.

Assad also knows that it will be nearly impossible to secure and destroy these weapons during his brutal civil war [he has not agreed to cease the war so that inspectors could do their job]. The magnitude of the task and the action on the ground make the logistics of the elimination of those weapons impossible. And even if inspectors get in there, they will need 2,000 inspectors (that many does not even exist) and tens of thousands of troops to protect them in the midst of a war that has already seen Assad slaughter 110,000 people using conventional weapons (which of course are not even being discussed by the U.S., the U.N., or anyone else that have any power to level the playing field).

So what have we learned: the deal just hammered out in Geneva does not include any threat of force if Syria does not live up to their part of the “bargain.” Alternatively, it includes an agreement to agree to revisit the subject of force if Assad does not comply. But any lawyer will tell you that an “agreement to agree” does not constitute anything binding. So while, in the early going, the agreement is being hailed as a “win” for the United States, I beg to differ. I see the entire exercise as a ruse and a stalling tactic that will likely allow Assad to keep a good chunk of his weapons no matter what and allow him to continue to kill thousand more of his own people, albeit with bullets and bombs rather than chemical weapons.

The one key lesson of all negotiations should have been exercised by Kerry: he should have walked away from the negotiation when the opposition failed to agree to our key demand. As soon as it was learned that the threat of force would not be in the resolution Kerry should have gone to the microphones and declared the negotiation “over.” But he simply couldn’t. His hand was too weak. And that is what happens when leaders fail to lead and inaction wins out over action.

I am afraid that history will judge this entire Syrian mess to be a low-point of American leadership—adding to the perception of a “weak America” and an even weaker super power. For what good does it do us to be a super power if we fail to use that power when the world—and the helpless—need it most?
—-Jeffrey A. Krames, September 14, 2013


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