Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Art of the Deal

I’m a great negotiator. It’s something I also enjoy. Since most of my professional life has involved negotiation – that’s a bonus! I’m not sure where the skill comes from – perhaps it’s part of my DNA, perhaps it’s part of the middle-child syndrome. Perhaps it’s something I’ve learned along the way. (Thanks to the 1987 book by the [pre-crazy] Donald Trump which I devoured!) I loved sitting with my Dad negotiating with the car dealer in the 1970’s as a pre-teen on the purchase of their Datsun. Decades later I fumed when I learned my parents had bought a car based on its sticker price, without negotiation. Turns out they were buying the car from a Church friend and the small amount of money that might have been saved through a hard-nosed price discussion was far outweighed by the value they put on the relationship. My parent were right (as always). On occasions when the car needed service or something happened the dealer took exceptional care of them based not on what they paid for the car, but based on their relationship. Would it be that all deals ended so well.

My own negotiating style reflects the heritage of my parents and thrives in the context of my running a charity. It’s a “win-win-win” philosophy where I try to find ways for everybody involved in a deal can walk away with something in the “win” column. I’m also a fervent believer that if a deal is bad, if it causes harm to one of the parties – then it’s up to that party to walk away. It’s right in line with my Libertarian personal-responsibility ethos, but it’s also common sense.

The political world both in the United States and around the world are agog these first weeks of July 2015 with the announcement of a nuclear deal with Iran. Some describe the deal as the biggest diplomatic coup in a generation; others see it as a capitulation to the very core of American strength and power. In reality the critics are both right.

My understanding of the nuances of the months-long negotiations that produced the deal is elementary at best. The overall points make sense – inspections, restrictions and demolition of existing programs to eliminate Iran’s ability to “get the bomb.” In exchange Iran gets some relief from economic sanctions and has a pathway to join the world as an equal.  Is it a good deal? I don’t know. As an anti-war pacifist, any deal where the risk of nuclear annihilation is mitigated is a good deal.


President Obama has been a “take-no-prisoners” negotiator domestically. He may have evolved to that stance after the Republican “our way or the highway” approach to legislation. It may just be his style. The result has been a bitterly divided and unproductive Congressional process that reflects the deep divides of the country. The Obama administration has also had a penchant for war and conflict – opting for killing over compromise (while claiming the opposite in its propaganda). And my particular pet peeve: the President himself maintains a kill list where he alone chooses who lives or dies. So there is a long documented and established practice by this administration/government where diplomacy and peace are at best secondary and often tertiary.


It is difficult enough to negotiate between staunchly opposing parties who don’t trust each other. In this case there were many countries and many interests involved. Now, for the first time, 635 American legislators are going to weigh in. Many will want to re-negotiate elements of the deal that they don’t like. As a passionate advocate and believer in transparency, the more Congress and the American people know the better. As a long time strategist and negotiator it’s unfathomable to have that many people and interests involved in a large complex deal. It’s also not how the U.S. Government is set up to manage international affairs. Congress’ impact on the Iran situation may further complicate the result, but makes the art of any other deal for any other issue in the future nearly impossible. The American Government is set up with branches that have pre-defined roles, for the sake of the country and the sake of the art of the deal, let’s keep those clear.

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