Corporeality I: The Body Politic and Diplomacy – External Affairs
Corporeality I: The Body Politic and Diplomacy
“Howard, you’re never going to be a diplomat.”
Not that I had ever aspired to be one, but why? Why not me? When a Canadian ambassador addressed me with this comment, Canada was then gavelling the Multilateral Refugee Working Group (RWG) negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians in the early 1990s before the Oslo peace process unravelled with the collapse of the Camp David and Taba peace talks and the al-Aqsa intifada took their place. (Cf. David Goldberg and Tilly Shames (2004) “The ‘Good-natured Bastard’: Canada and the Middle East refugee question,” Israel Affairs: Special Issue: Israel in the International Arena, 10:1-2, 203-220) Though the focus was on the Palestinian refugees before the millions of Syrian refugees became the poster children for Middle Eastern displacement, the RWG performed another role. It served not simply as the venue for advancing the discussion on the Palestinian refugee issue, but as a front for the bilateral talks and a safe place out of the spotlight to debate hot process issues, such as PLO participation and Palestinian representation and identification as a separate delegation independent of the Jordanian one. I was present as a technical adviser.
Could I not become an ambassador because I was too forthright, because I lacked the smooth etiquette of even a junior in the foreign ministry? Either of these elements would have disqualified me, but that was not the explanation the ambassador offered. “You’ve been educated as a philosopher. Ever since Descartes, philosophers have been trained to think in terms of clear and distinct ideas. However, diplomacy relies upon equivocation. Diplomats have to use language that means different things to the different parties in the negotiations.” He was only being partially satirical.
I would not qualify for a number of reasons. On Friday I wrote about Jethro in the Torah and his meeting with Moses and Aaron as an example of the following characteristics of a diplomat:
- Courtesy – Jethro notified his hosts of his arrival to ensure that he was welcome by the leader of the people – something which Netanyahu did not do when Ron Dermer, his American-born Israeli envoy to the U.S., cooked up the scheme with the House of Representatives Republican Majority Leader, John Boehner, to have Netanyahu address a joint session of Congress without informing the President;
- Recognition – Moses and Aaron (not Aaron alone) went out to greet Jethro on what was the tarmac at the time and demonstrated that the head of a nation should greet a visiting envoy;
- Respect – Moses did so by showing the visiting diplomat the highest regard in both his words and body language;
- Jethro was a formidable diplomat because he was a very careful listener and not only heard Moses’ long tale about the Israelite escape from Egypt, but was able to summarize the narrative so that Moses and Aaron could recognize how close Jethro had been listening;
- Jethro demonstrated that he also understood the Israeli position by providing an empathetic summary of the Israelite perspective without ever actually endorsing it;
- Jethro demonstrably came with only one goal in mind – reconciliation and peace;
- The one attitude that was absolutely verboten was arrogance;
- Jethro was the exemplar of the refusal to use force or his position of authority to persuade Moses and Aaron, but relied on words alone to influence his son-in-law;
- Jethro went further and demonstrated his initiative and creative imagination by sacrificing to the Israelite God for the role He played in freeing the Israelites from Egypt, something which the Israelites themselves had not yet done;
- Finally, both Moses and Jethro understood the important role of breaking bread together in a festive meal as a way to cement a relationship.
How do the current parties in Middle East negotiations measure up to these standards? David Remnick, outstanding editor of The New Yorker, in an article on Secretary of State John Kerry in the final double issue for 2015 entitled, “Negotiating the Whirlwind” (pp. 66-77), offered a number of insights into Kerry’s attributes as a negotiator, though the focus was on the possibility of making a break through on Syria rather than Kerry’s role in the last failed effort to get the peace negotiations off the ground in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Kerry is portrayed as having the following characteristics:
- He is a man of exemplary courage “undaunted by risk” having won three Purple Hearts and both a Bronze and a Silver Star in the Vietnam War in spite of George W. Bush’s toadies’, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, attempts to besmirch that military record, the ultimate in irony, for George W. Bush sat out the war stateside as a member of the Texas National Guard;
- Though without question a man of the establishment, Kerry demonstrated a different kind of courage in standing up against the received wisdom as a leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and became for me personally at that time a real hero;
- He is unwilling to go for the jugular if the cost might be undermining the whole diplomatic effort;
- His overriding character as a negotiator is that he is tireless and doggedly relentless;
- He seems to suffer a more serious handicap than being a philosopher dedicated to clear and distinct ideas for he is prone to verbal logorrhea and a propensity to be rhetorically undisciplined;
- Further, instead of being a master of equivocation, he is infected with the disease of the wasp establishment in the United Sates and a betrayal of his forgotten Jewish grandfather as he has mastered the precise contradictory trait of using unboundaried rhetoric to describe raw reality, but doing so in “upholstered platitudes ;“
- He has an abounding faith in the value of personal relationships;
- He believes in the power of persuasion and the importance of influence, though always with the American qualifier of carrying a stick in the other hand;
- He contrasts with Barack Obama’s skepticism because he exudes a “sentimental optimism;”
- Like Jethro, he does understand and has mastered the art of building trust by both understanding the Other and demonstrating that understanding in dealing with contentious parties.
How do these characteristics fit the attributes most desirous in a diplomat such as the exemplary Benjamin Franklin? Courage is irrelevant, absolutely necessary when it comes to fighting a war, but irrelevant at the negotiating table. Nor does being an angry young man and an anti-establishment warrior qualify one as a diplomat speaking from personal experience. Third, tireless optimism is no substitute for caution and careful analysis, but actually gets in the way of the latter two prerequisites for diplomacy. Being relentless may be necessary for a Churchill, and his bulldog, when fighting a life-and-death war against the Nazis, but is irrelevant in diplomatic negotiations and may, as Remnick writes, be like the car buyer who enters the automobile showroom and lets the salesperson know that he is determined not to leave until he has purchased a car.
Kerry with his weak command of linguistic skills has shown that he lacks mastery of the core tool of a diplomat, absolute proficiency in the use of language which must be clear and concise as well as always coherent and non-contradictory. Equivocation is one thing; padded platitudes are another, especially when, instead of demonstrating being in touch with reality, they reveal detachment from it. When this is compounded with a record of contradictions – supporting Bush’s foolish war in Iraq but then voting against appropriations for reconstruction – this is not an outstanding record of achievement to waltz on the stage of foreign diplomacy. This may be the result of relying too much on advisers. This is not helped when later one avoids responsibility for taking that advice and remains critically bitter about the advice Robert Shrum gave him not to take on and challenge the calumnies of the Swift Boat Veterans.
Personal relationships, as Jethro and Moses demonstrated, are key to foreign relations, but as Kissinger noted, Kerry’s “unbounded faith” in the value of such relationships may be misplaced. However, his belief in the power of persuasion, in spite of carrying a big stick, his belief in putting that big stick behind his back instead of waving it in the air, and his comprehension in demonstrating empathetic understanding are exemplary, though marred somewhat by his sentimental optimism unbecoming of a diplomat.
How do those skills and weaknesses reveal themselves when attacking some of the major diplomatic challenges of our time? Cuba was clearly Obama’s doing, largely due to insistence of the Cubans, but this put Kerry’s nose out of joint. One cannot imagine Aaron being disturbed because Jethro as a foreign diplomat wanted to deal directly with Moses. A second success, certainly in my eyes, was the conclusion of the nuclear arms talks with Iran. Kerry’s persistence, his efforts to build personal relationships, his mastery of the material and the core issues while communicating a complete understanding of the position of the Iranians, his refusal to play the military card, all contributed to his success. But with the Iranians, not with his former colleagues in the Senate who were well aware of his unwillingness to trot out America’s military might, of Kerry’s unwillingness to go for the jugular as revealed in his handling of the election results in his contest with George W. Bush, of his sentimental optimism and his unbounded faith in personal relationships. They may have loved John Kerry as a colleague but they distrusted him as a tough negotiator. Well you can’t please everyone all the time, and perhaps never given the force and irredentism of populist Republicans these days.
A lesser known success was Kerry’s efforts to broker a compromise with the contenders for leadership in Afghanistan. When the election results threatened to undermine the country’s feeble democracy, Kerry negotiated a compromise between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani stretching personal relationship diplomacy almost to the breaking point, but sufficient to keep the government together, an absolute prerequisite in fighting the war against the Taliban.
But look at the failures – Egypt, Libya, the partial alienation of Saudi Arabia. But these may have had more to do with Barack Obama than with Kerry, a topic which I will take up tomorrow. The most outstanding failure was the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but this was not a failure of negotiating skills, but of wasting diplomatic capital on a quixotic effort driven by that sentimental optimism and absolute faith in himself if only he could get both parties into the same room. Here taking huge risks was folly for the probability of a fearful Mahmoud Abbas taking the necessary risks for peace can be compared to that of Arafat whose courage amounted to the sliver of a new moon while Abbas’ willingness to take a risk was hidden behind the moon in eclipse. With Abbas on one side and, a bullying, blustering unreliable bull shitter like Netanyahu on the other (I told you I was unsuited to diplomacy), the chances of getting even the wisp of victory out of the negotiations was even less than the chance of winning over a billion dollars in the recent lottery draw in the United States, especially given the intractable positions on both sides.
But the problem goes even deeper. The late intervention in the Balkans and the Dayton Accords were not, as Kerry claimed, a diplomatic success, except in the eyes of Richard Holbrooke and other Americans for it left the shattered parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina patched together like a smashed teacup with the shards glued back together, but in a form useless as a teacup because it will not hold any hot water for long. And Rwanda was not a failure of America to intervene, but a failure of the Clinton administration to support and allow the UN peacekeepers already there to be reinforced and do their jobs. Kerry may demonstrate a capability in empathetic understanding but it is not matched to the same degree in objective understanding.
With the help of Alex Zisman
Tomorrow: Barack Obama as a Political Leader and Diplomat.