Thursday, January 3, 2013

Negotiating and Training

In the wake of the "fiscal cliff" tax deal that was just passed in Congress a lot of liberals (as usual) are mad at Obama (as usual).  The basic argument goes like this: if Obama was better at negotiating he would get more of what people on "the left" want, unfortunately he's weak and/or stupid as so he keeps giving away the store.  The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates made this typical argument. 

This argument reminds me a lot of what the Bush Administration and the Iraq Hawks said when they talked about "training" as a way to solve Iraq's problems.  It became apparent to me that "training" didn't mean so much teaching Iraqis how to deal with known tasks security personnel or civil servants would have to perform, like how to shoot a machine gun or how to search a house, but rather something else, something almost mystical.  I'd define training as the Bush people used it as "A magical process in which Iraqis are turned in to American military personnel, civil servants and police officers." That is they constantly thought that they could teach Iraqis not just how to fight or provide security better but could teach them to fight for the type of society that Americans would prefer to see in Iraq.  Training would somehow make Iraqis ignore sectarian divides; focus on the betterment of the nation as a whole rather than the group, tribe or family unit and it would teach them to respect the rule of law.  Of course this didn't work very well.  Iraqi leaders stole money meant for rebuilding their society (western contractors did a lot of this as well.  Soldiers used their military training to form death squads and kill other Iraqis.  Everyone ignored things like the rule of law and even the execution of Saddam Hussein turned into a bizarre cell phone video of people cheering for Muqtada al-Sadr, the extremists cleric the US Army had labeled a terrorist.  The failure of "training" to turn people in different societies into Americans who would behave like Americans (or how we thought Americans ought to behave) goes back a very long way in our history.  It's happening in Afghanistan as you read this, it was a hallmark of the American experience in Vietnam, a huge part of our failures in foreign policy in Latin American in the 20th Century and a feature of our failed effort to support the Nationalists in China from the Revolution of 1911 to the triumph of the Communists in 1949.  Training is simply no panacea for political and social problems.

Unfortunately liberals seem to be treating "negotiating" just like how so many American strangers in a strange land treated "training."  A lot of very intelligent liberals seem to be arguing that the reason Obama cuts deals that they don't like is because he's somehow "bad at negotiating."  To be sure, most people who make this point, like Coates, don't really define their terms or explain what they mean very well but what they seem to be arguing is that there does exist a way for Obama to get Republicans to agree to Democratic priorities and vote for Democratic policies, Obama just doesn't know how to do it.  Or can't do it well enough  To start with this is a very problematic way of thinking about the Presidency in general and seems to be a version of what Political Scientist Brendan Nyhan calls "The Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency".  Nyhan was writing in 2009 about liberal anger over the death of the public option and how lots of liberals blamed it on Obama, not the fact that a number of Democratic Senator's decided they were opposed to it:
What he identifies here is nothing less than a Green Lantern theory of the presidency in which all domestic policy compromises are attributed to a lack of presidential will. And, like the Green Lantern theory of geopolitics, this view is nonfalsifiable. Rather than learning from, say, the stimulus vote that Obama faces severe constraints in the Senate, liberal GL proponents have created a narrative in which all failure and compromise is the result of a lack of presidential willpower.
Just substitute "negotiating" for "lack of presidential will" and you got a pretty good description of what's wrong with these arguments.

Negotiating skills matters of course but things like the Constitution, the agendas of political parties and purposes political leaders set for themselves matter a lot more.  Anyone who still thinks the problem is negotiating skill needs to watch this clip from Game of Thrones Season 2 a dozen times until it sinks in.  In it the younger brothers of the dead King Robert are both trying to succeed him and become King.  It might help on the margins if Stannis (the bald guy) was less ornery, if Renley (the younger brother) didn't mock his brother and if Lady Catelyn Stark was a "better negotiator" (she's the woman trying to broker an alliance against their common enemy.)  Ultimately the problem is both of these men want to be king and there can be only one king, no amount of chummy small talk or flattery is going to change that.

The funny thing to me is that while so many people have been criticizing Obama John Boehner has declared he won't ever negotiate with Obama again.  Does that sound like the actions of a man who thinks he just "rolled" the president?        

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