Lessons From Guinness Country

I’ve said before that there are many lessons we can learn from the peace accords between Britain and Northern Ireland which may well apply to various Middle East trouble spots.  Quoting, well, me:

Fighting a war is a young man’s game, and the key, I think, to this problem being solved is that none of the young men really know what they were fighting about anymore. Bloody Sunday was 35 years ago. To a 23-year-old, that’s basically the same as if it happened in neolithic times. And while there has been some violence, it had been cooled to the point that there just weren’t so many 18, 19, 20 year olds who grew up with personal experience of it. Once that level went below some critical mass (either raw number- or population-wise, I’m not sure), then a political solution became viable.

At the time, I was referring to the possibility of cooling off tensions between the Sunnis and Shia in Iraq, but I think a similar, although more problematic, dynamic is also in play between Israeli Jews and the Palestinians, and other difficult issues around the world.  So I was very interested to find an old article from Richard Haass and George Mitchell, who both played key roles in the Northern Ireland negotiations during the 90’s, about “The Irish Lessons for Peace.”

Let’s see some points they make, and refer them to some present-day hot spots around the world.

In the case of Northern Ireland, it was right to make a ceasefire a prerequisite. Killing and talking do not go hand in hand. But it was also right not to require that parties give up their arms or join the police force before the talks began.

Confidence needs to be built before more ambitious steps can be taken. Front-loading a negotiation with demanding conditions all but assures that negotiations will not get under way, much less succeed.

This is a huge deal, and one of the reasons that liberals never felt that the Bush administration was entering into negotiations with so-called Axis of Evil countries like Iran or North Korea with any good faith.  Remember that the Bush adminstration, when negotiating with Iran to try to bring a halt to their nuclear development program, required that they, um, halt their nuclear development program before being willing to sit at the table?  Not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s an insane negotiation strategy – you can’t require that your end goals be reached before you even get started; otherwise, there’s nothing to negotiate!

Including in the political process those previously associated with violent groups can actually help. Sometimes it’s hard to stop a war if you don’t talk with those who are involved in it.

To be sure, their participation will likely slow things down and, for a time, block progress. But their endorsement can give the process and its outcome far greater legitimacy and support. Better they become participants than act as spoilers.

Sometimes it is necessary to take a step backwards in order to take several forward. This is precisely what happened several years ago when Northern Ireland’s hard-line parties eclipsed more traditional, moderate elements.

Bringing them in slowed the pace of diplomacy – but increased the odds that a power-sharing agreement, once reached, would have widespread support and staying power.

Think of this, vs. the current Israeli strategy in Gaza of essentially saying ‘we refuse to speak with Hamas, and we’re going to keep beating the shit out of the populace until they take Hamas out of power’, which serves primarily to further radicalize the population against the whole idea of a peaceful settlement, cementing Hamas’s strength there.  The dual strategy of encouraging elections in Gaza while radicalizing the populace basically guarantees that you’re going to end up with radical parties in charge, which means that you have to either de-radicalize the population, or de-radicalize the party.  I’d love to see a multi-pronged approach in this direction, but at least talking with Hamas would be a great start.

This requires reaching out to civil society and preparing the public for what can and cannot be achieved so that it comes to accept that even partial success is preferable to continued armed struggle. Political leaders are more likely to do the right thing if they sense they also will benefit.

People want and expect to see improvement in their lives. Peace processes cannot thrive in a vacuum. They do best when associated with increased prosperity.

Again, with free elections, you’re in a bit of a bind.  The parties who tell the populace that they can have everything they want – Death to Israel, Arab supremacism, etc. – will win more elections.  I believe you have to give the people something else to vote for, rather than something to vote against.  So I’m back to Peter Beinart’s really excellent idea of absolutely flooding the West Bank with money, food, and resources.  Make it a really great place to live, and try to convince the Gazans that all this, too, can be theirs, if they’re willing to play ball in peace negotiations.

Mostly, though, it’s just great to see really smart, experienced people saying the sort of things I have said before.  Pointing that out was mostly the point of this post.


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