Inside Story

Edging through the fog

A diplomat and a psychologist have produced a remarkable guide to dealing with intransigent conflicts, writes Graeme Dobell

Graeme Dobell 13 November 2014 2202 words

“One does not need to agree with how a group thinks, but it matters to understand why they think as they do,” says co-author Gabrielle Rifkind.

The Fog of Peace: The Human Face of Conflict Resolution
By Gabrielle Rifkind and Giandomenico Picco | I.B. Tauris | $78.95

Blessed are the peace-makers, for they must look deep into brutality, bastardry and blood lust. And pity the peace-makers as they grapple with nationalism, religious fervour and spiralling cycles of retribution and revenge.

The horrors of the twentieth century demanded new ways of peace-making, and The Fog of Peace follows the craft into some of the toughest places. Echoing Clausewitz’s famous reference to “the fog of war,” this is a jargon-free meditation on how “psycho-politics” can be applied to geopolitics. Mercifully stripped of multilateral diplobabble, it is partly a how-to-do-it guide built on experience and wonderful stories.

The two authors are veterans of the craft they describe. Gabrielle Rifkind, a director of the Oxford Research Group, is a psychotherapist and specialist in conflict resolution who has long been immersed in the politics of the Middle East. For two decades, Giandomenico Picco was a UN negotiator, working on the Iran–Iraq war and spending eight years seeking to end the Afghan–Soviet war. As a UN undersecretary, he led the initiative known as the Dialogue Among Civilisations.

Offering himself as both captive and negotiator, Picco helped release eleven hostages in Lebanon in 2001. Taken by masked men and bundled into a car at 2 am in Beirut, he felt the sweaty hands of one of the men who’d grabbed him: “I could see the kidnappers were frightened, so I took his hand and helped him feel safe, as he was looking at me through the mask he had always worn in my presence. No words were uttered but much was said.”

Rifkind and Picco’s central argument is that simple humanity – the effort to seek the humans hidden inside rigid hierarchies of power and bureaucracy – is the strongest way through the quagmire of conflict. This is idealistic but it is not naive. The proof is in the scars of failure they carry as well as the wins they’ve achieved.

Picco describes this book as a collaboration between “a manual worker of war and peace” and a professor of the human mind. To edge through the fog is to have faith in the ability of humans to surprise even themselves, to seek to unlock the hardest heart: “We believe we need to understand our own minds and our own potential for arrogance, vanity or puffed-up pride, and how for all of us our own ego may sit in the way of progress if not properly managed.”

While realpolitik and power are usually seen as the drivers of international conflict, Rifkind and Picco bring an understanding of human relationships and emotions into the elite world of economic and military calculations, strategic options and alliances:

Politics is not about therapy and politicians and states cannot be placed on the couch; nevertheless, human motivation and psychology need to be part of the strategic calculations of decision makers. For it is man who both creates and ends wars, and destroys his environment. Institutions do not decide to destroy or kill, or make peace or war; those actions are the responsibility of individuals. So to try and understand the root causes of conflict only in terms of power politics and resources, without also understanding human behaviour and what exacerbates the fight over resources, undermines our effectiveness in preventing war and making peace.

The first section of The Fog of Peace is an anecdote-rich discussion of Picco’s and Rifkind’s experiences. Instead of war stories, these are peace stories, and they are fine yarns.

Picco starts as a UN political officer arriving in Cyprus two years after the 1974 war. He lands on Sunday and by Monday, before he has spoken to anyone, he is being accused of bias by both sides. The distraught young man from the United Nations learns his first lesson: in a conflict, no side ever buys the myth of the “impartial” outsider.

That lesson hardened into a permanent truth during the long negotiations to end the Iran–Iraq war. Iraq stormed out of the UN talks in 1988, believing that after eight years of war it had at last gained the strength to make battlefield gains. Then Picco showed the traits the book prizes in peace-making – the ability to spring a surprise and the capacity to try something new, based on a deep understanding of all the players. If Iraq would not stay at the table, the United Nations would invite Iraq’s banker, Saudi Arabia, to negotiate in its place. The Saudi willingness to stop the flow of weapons and cash to Iraq, and the Saudi king’s pressure on Saddam Hussein halted the rush back to battle and unlocked a surprise ceasefire that became permanent.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, it was widely predicted that the war “would never end,” that it would be fought “to the last Afghan.” Instead, Picco describes a seven-year UN gamble – initially with “no political support or encouragement from any quarter” – that wove together an extensive agreement for Soviet withdrawal. Institutions always matter, he writes, but they can be pushed and shifted by individuals at key moments.

Rifkind worked as a political therapist in the Middle East, applying the lesson of Northern Ireland: peace is achieved not by moderates but by getting hardliners involved in a process that move the language from violence to politics. That meant looking with fresh eyes at Hamas and Hezbollah, and treating them as religiously inspired nationalist groups even if they were deemed terrorists by the European Union. “It is very important to differentiate Hamas from groups like al Qaeda, who have a nihilistic philosophy and no clear political agenda beyond the destruction of the West,” she writes.

Engagement with Hamas offered the chance of a slow, IRA-style evolution of its political and ideological position, tapping into “a degree of pragmatism about what they want for their people and how to achieve it.” Most Israelis, Rifkind notes, see the attempt to engage with Hamas as a naive risk to national security rather than a potential opportunity. She recounts her experience as a Jewish woman travelling to secret destinations for discussions with Hamas leadership:

Hamas showed respect and some appreciation that we had taken the trouble to try to understand the world from where they stood. I do not want to sound like the foreign minister for Hamas when telling their story, nor do I want to be seen as having gone “native.” When telling a human story, it can easily sound as if you have been taken in. One does not need to agree with how a group thinks, but it matters to understand why they think as they do.

Rifkind repeatedly returns to the point that empathy and understanding is vital to negotiations – just as it is in most relationships – but it doesn’t equate to support or endorsement.

As Australia’s military heads off again to fight evil and extremists, Canberra policy-makers could ponder Rifkind and Picco’s extensive treatment of the psychology of conflict in the Middle East in chapters on political Islam and personal accounts of thirteen successful negotiations with Iran.

They argue that the West has “been insensitive to the growing Shi’i–Sunni divide that had begun to envelop the whole region from the late 1970s.” All the region’s conflicts since then have had “a sectarian dimension with historic roots but with a modern vision,” they write, yet the competition between the Saudis and the Iranians has been “well outside the deeper understanding of the West.”

Beneath the surface of extreme and rigid ideologies they see “fear, humiliation and profound anxieties.” Airstrikes won’t resolve the situation:

[I]f the senior leadership of any insurgent group is wiped out, those left in charge are often politically immature and inexperienced, and do not have the skills to succeed when dealing with “the other,” including the ability to look at options. It is often the youth of the leadership that is hardened, inexperienced and lacks the maturity to negotiate around the table.

Discussing the toxic relationship between Iran and the United States, the negotiator and the therapist lament how the “ghost of history” means any new behaviour is met with suspicion and mistrust. As much as Iran, the United States has “been driven more by ideology than any serious commitment to how you shift relationships between enemies.” To illustrate the mindset, they quote the sardonic Five Rules of Negotiating with Iran, penned by former US ambassador John Limbert in 2009:

1. Never walk through an open door – instead, bang your head against it
2. Never say yes, or else you look weak.
3. The other side must be seen as infinitely hostile, devious and domineering.
4. Anything the other side proposes contains a trick; the only purpose for the other side is to cheat.
5. If any progress is made, someone will come along and mess it up.

Little wonder that Barack Obama’s early overtures to Iran were as strongly attacked in Washington as they were in Tehran.

Rifkind and Picco offer fine vignettes of specific peace efforts: the intimate secrecy of Oslo, the long process of building basic trust that inched to peace in Northern Ireland, the missed chances and noisy choices of the Clinton administration’s rushed effort in the frantic media spotlight at Camp David. These tales from the diplomatic trenches feed the therapist’s argument that to understand people is to understand geopolitics. States as well as people must be open to new identities and new understandings of the history that drives their actions and their anger. Realpolitik doesn’t hold all the answers for what happens in conflict, nor in the human heart.

Much is packed into this 266-page version of War and Peace, and not all of the threads tie neatly. The effort to give sense and shape to the analysis is unbalanced by the noise and sensations crashing through the Middle East. The headlines as the book was being written were about Syria, just as today they are about Iraq. The authors offer thoughts about what went wrong in the West’s approaches to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Several times they reach for the idea that the world has been wrong to focus on what the United States has been doing in the Middle East – that the real story has been the unleashing of that struggle for dominance between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The region running from Lebanon to Pakistan, they write, seems headed for a long period of huge instability and violent political awakening. Even a modern-day Tolstoy would struggle to get all that into one small volume.

Based on the experience of the last decade, the book suggests the West needs to recognise that it doesn’t have all the answers for what ails the Middle East. The plea is for fewer drones and more diplomats – but not cumbersome forms of international negotiation based on “complex bureaucracies, circuses of diplomats, frequent flyers around the global terrain with insufficient evidence of success in the resolution of conflict.” Big institutions are central to war and peace, yet bureaucracies become stuck in the fog. To seek a way out of conflict is to try for something new, to embrace new thoughts. That is not what the big beasts do.

Picco and Rifkind say negotiators need the trust and backing of leaders and institutions, because it is the politicians and bureaucrats who must try the fresh ideas, seal the deals and make settlements or ceasefires work. In seeking that new path, though, peace-makers must have some freedom from the constraints of power and the demands of politics – they must be “more nimble and agile” with the “flexibility to act with both heft and speed.” The necessary qualities are of the highest order because the task is so exquisitely difficult. Peace-makers may find that when the fog lifts they are in the middle of no-man’s-land being shelled by all sides.

The penultimate paragraph of the book goes back to the basics of what humans are and what we do:

War as a solution, with its pathology, creates a madness of irrationality and paranoia, in which the worst aspects of human behaviour are stimulated. Such fights for survival stimulate the kind of aggression that magnifies hatred and perpetuates the most destructive aspects of mankind.

To grapple with this reality is to ask governments and leaders to understand themselves as well as their people. It is a counsel of maturity, seeking emotional as well as political intelligence. The diplomat and the therapist end with the thought that peace-making is not a technique, but the triumph of those with the will to do better and the courage to try – “a vision that understands both geopolitical power struggles and the complexity of the human mind.” •