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Wicked Men and Peace Processes

May 12, 2010


Back in 1993, Robert Fox wrote, “From Bosnia to Bogota, Lima to Laos, Kurdistan to Kabul, this is the age of the warlord. He is the symbol of our cynical times, the product of our uncertain values in the aftermath of the Cold War. Amid the steady disintegration of civic authority and the power of the state in almost every part of the world, it is the man with the gun who commands the most respect.” [“The Warlords,” The Telegraph Magazine, 17 July 1993]. Looking around the world today, Fox’s words still ring true. Some of the places might have changed, but evil men still rain terror down on the heads of innocent people. As I have written in a number of posts about Enterra Solutions’ Development-in-a-Box™ concept, development cannot proceed when security and stability remain in doubt. Ideally, the international community would like to see conflicts settled peacefully through negotiation. Historically, however, conflicts seldom end that way. Generally, they end when one side gains a clear victory. At least one commentator is so cynical about peace processes that he insists “wicked men are the only winners in this game of self-congratulation and deceit” [“Peace Processes Never Work,” by Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal, 27 April 2010]. Stephens writes:

“Kim Jong Il likes his metaphors to be as literal as possible. When he wants to blow up diplomacy with the U.S., he detonates a nuke. When he wants to torpedo relations with South Korea, he torpedoes one of their ships. Subtlety may not be the North Korean dictator’s strong suit, but look at it his way: Every time he bids to be the Worst Person in the World, some liberal chimes in to explain that he’s just a short, misunderstood man driving a tough peace bargain, badly in need of Jimmy Carter’s TLC. By contrast, the brilliant diplomats of the Obama administration prefer complex, nuanced metaphors. So it’s probably asking too much that they notice that in the raising of the sunken South Korean gunboat off the seabed, one sees a metaphor for their whole approach to peace-making. Let’s just say this ship isn’t going to set sail again.”

That’s a piece of clever writing, but it also reflects what is wrong with politics in America today. Stephens is more interested in targeting those on the opposite side of the political spectrum from him than he is in trying to enlighten us about how to deal with petty dictators like Kim Jong Il. It’s unfortunate that Stephens’ polemic gets in the way of a very serious point he is trying to make — peace processes seldom work. He continues:

“The approach goes by the name of the ‘peace process.’ The term dates to the Kissinger State Department, but its heyday arrived in the 1990s, when the first Bush administration and especially the Clinton administration inaugurated or supported peace processes everywhere. There was the Korean peace process, known as the ‘Sunshine Policy.’ There was the Israeli-Palestinian process—’Oslo’—and the ‘Syrian track’ between Jerusalem and Damascus. There was ‘Good Friday’ for Northern Ireland, ‘Abuja’ for Rwanda, ‘Lomé’ for Sierra Leone. There were peace processes in Colombia and Sri Lanka. Name your intractable conflict, and the U.S. State Department had its handy off-the-shelf appliance to deal with it. Of all these processes, only the Good Friday Accords can be called a success, and it was a success that owed less to George Mitchell’s interventions than to the fact that the conflict—pitting prosperous, English-speaking Irish Protestants against increasingly prosperous, English-speaking Irish Catholics—no longer made sense to the bourgeois terrorists at the helm of the IRA. Elsewhere, the processes invariably ended in humiliation, bloodshed, and sometimes bloody farce.”

Sadly, Stephens is historically correct. To me, however, he appears unreasonably angry at the fact that people who have tried to end conflicts peacefully have been acknowledged for their efforts. He is apparently so cynical that he believes we should give up trying. He continues:

“In the current issue of Foreign Policy, former über-peace processor Aaron David Miller offers a refreshingly honest assessment of what he calls ‘the false religion of Mideast Peace.’ ‘Like all religions,’ he writes, ‘the peace process has developed a dogmatic creed, with immutable first principles.’ He then goes on to enumerate all the reasons why the administration’s current push to midwife a credible and lasting Arab-Israeli peace deal is doomed to fail. Mr. Miller’s case is mostly unobjectionable; indeed, he could have written the same piece about the administration’s failed diplomatic overtures toward Syria and Iran. But he misses a deeper point. Even as peace processes almost invariably fail between the warring parties, they also almost invariably succeed as political theater for the peace processors themselves. Kim Dae Jung, Arafat and Shimon Peres all burnished their prestige with Nobel Peace Prizes. President Obama won one pre-emptively. And Mr. Clinton still basks in an ill-founded reputation as a peacemaker. Ironically, the only real peace he ever achieved, in the Balkans, was through the strength of American arms.”

Does Stephens really believe that the “deeper point” to be made is that peace processes are simply political theater for people hoping their performance wins them a Nobel “Oscar”? I hope not. The deeper point he seemed to skirt over is that the Balkan peace deal was achieved “through the strength of American arms.” Stephens might have forgotten that others equipped with arms also made a significant (and maybe even more important) difference; but, the larger point holds true. Successful conclusions to conflict almost always require military backing. Donald C.F. Daniel and Bradd C. Hayes called such activities “coercive inducement” [Donald C.F. Daniel, Bradd C. Hayes, with Chantal de Jonge Oudraat, Coercive Inducement and the Containment of International Crises, USIP Press Books, March 1999]. Sadly, Stephens doesn’t offer a solution to the conundrum he reveals; he simply stomps of the op-ed page with these angry words:

“So the ship will be hoisted again. The peace processors will bask in the glow of their good intentions. And wicked men, convenient partners in this game of self-congratulation, illusion and deceit, will plot their own advantage.”

Pointing out problems is always easier than devising solutions. Perhaps Stephens doesn’t point a way forward because he truly believes that the problem of “wicked men” is intractable — if true, I guess he reasons, “What would be the point?” If wicked men are really the problem, then removing those men is certainly one solution. Unfortunately, it is not a solution that is always available. In an article about how to deal with obstructionist leaders, Daniel and Hayes addressed several questions: “How does the international community get moderate leaders to remain moderate? How does it get obstructionists to cooperate? How does it then get them to take the next steps toward and then to sustain stabilizing behavior? For example, how does it get them (to return) to the negotiating table? How does it get them to be reasonable in their demands? How does it get them to abide by the terms of an agreement or a mandate? If it cannot succeed at the above, then what should it do?” [“Dealing with Obstructionist Leaders,” Civil Wars, Volume 1, Number 3, Autumn 1998]. Daniel and Hayes concluded there were five macro-options for dealing with obstructionists:


  • abandoning the field to them until the conditions are ripe;
  • working with them;
  • working on or pressuring them while continuing to work with them as the leaders;
  • working against or seeking to remove them; and
  • working above or superseding them.


Stephens appears to favor either the first or fourth options and he seems to believe that all “über-peace processors” favor options two and three. Daniel and Hayes believe that these strategies often need to be tried in a number of combinations. They also point out that not all obstructionist leaders are cut from the same cloth. Some leaders are political, some are military, some are business people, some are tribal (warlords), some are religious, some are rebels, some work from the shadows, etc. Strategies for dealing with these leaders could vary depending upon the source of their support. They lay out a number of different pressure points that can be used against obstructionists (everything from buying them out to killing them) as well as three decision trees to help guide discussions. In the end, Daniel and Hayes are not much more optimistic about dealing with obstructionist leaders than Stephens. They admit “there are no easy answers” and that the challenges faced should inspire “modesty among outsiders especially when they consider what structural changes to pursue to bring about a fair and lasting peace.” They conclude with these words:

“Running through the discussions of how to deal with willful and in-charge obstructionists was the sense that, being proud as well as tough-minded, they ultimately respond only to those who have the will and capability to influence their interests. Without clout and the determination to use it, outsiders can expect to accomplish little. … Indigenous leaders know, and will be encouraged by the fact, that the international community has only occasionally demonstrated a willingness to apply the resources necessary to work its will in the face of sustained resistance.”

They “were not sanguine that [the] trend would change soon”; and, as Stephens’ op-ed piece highlighted, their feelings have been justified. Does that mean that the international community should never seek a peaceful solution to unstable situations? I don’t think so. Just because it is hard doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be tried. Expectations, however, should be realistic. Stephens expectations are low (or non-existent)– and, thus, he is apparently seldom disappointed. One Nobel Peace Prize winner (i.e., one of those award winners who Stephens seems to so thoroughly dislike), Jane Addams, once wrote, “Nothing could be worse than the fear that one had given up too soon, and left one unexpended effort that might have saved the world.” I have just enough idealism left in me to believe that we should pursue peace processes to the point that it becomes clear they aren’t working — then you accept the disappointment and pursue other options.

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