Thursday, December 16, 2010

Mediators with bombs?

In my field, Conflict Resolution, we have one strand of theory and thinking that I believe falls outside the purview of what our field is and should be, and that is the notion of "mediation with muscle," a term used to describe a mediation/negotiation style that is backed by a mediator's potential (and therefore threatened) use of harm toward some recalcitrant party.

This is not a true mediation at all, nor is such a person running such a process a mediator, in my view. One who plays this role is a sort of Godfather figure, an arbitrator who is first overseeing his squabbling charges in "frank and open" discussions and then twisting arms as needed to get a working arrangement. This was the role undertaken quite often and most spectacularly by the recently deceased Richard Holbrooke, architect of the "Mediator/Bomber" model.

Holbrooke was never to my knowledge a mediator, always simply a hardball negotiator, even when he sat in the mediator's chair and so-named himself. The best detailed history of his career is by political scientist Stephen Zunes. Zunes plumbs many sources, putting into context a career that is devoid of much diplomatic finesse and long on straightforward military threat. Holbrooke's own ego-saturated book arrogates unto himself a paternalistic militaristic approach even evident in the title, To End a War. Since, as Zunes pointed out, Holbrooke (and partner-in-war-launch Strobe Talbot) actually brought the US military directly into the Balkans wars, and since Holbrooke supported Bush's illegal invasion of Iraq, we see the actual picture a bit more clearly. Start a war when in the US national interests as defined by elites like Holbrooke, stop a war when that war interferes with US national interests, almost always conceived of by the owners of the war economy. Obviously, when dealing with Croat neo-Nazis or Serb genocidal outlaws (who, for example, killed at least 7,500 unarmed civilian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica),
Holbrooke's methods were usually regarded as realpolitik, but to simply play militaristic power games in the name of justice is outside the ambit of Conflict Resolution and mediation.

Am I happy Holbrooke is dead? Of course not; I wish he were around to tell others about the errors of his ways, which is purportedly what was begun on his deathbed. I hope for the peace conversion of Robert Mugabe, Joe Lieberman and others, not their deaths. But the instant revisioning of warmakers' lives, most emetically after the deaths of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, is simply inappropriate, misleading, and poor education for the young idealists who are learning how to become involved in carrying conflict management forward. When we assume the US is an honest broker of peace even as it moved forcefully into the number one weapons exporter position, we buy into the same working oxymorons that Zunes brilliantly reveals.

Even more germane to our hopes for nonviolence is that such "mediators" discount and dismiss civil society virtually entirely in favor of elite war masters. First in Holbrooke's 1995 Dayton process and then in Ramboulliet in that January-March 1999 preparation for war, Kosovar nonviolent civil society leader Ibrahim Rugova was not even given a seat at the table (indeed, Holbrooke was the one who hoisted the KLA into prominence, as his famous photo with one of their fighters documents).
Leaving nonviolent leadership twisting is not a mark of a mediator, but of a hawk awkwardly pasting on some dove's feathers. The challenge to nonviolent civil society is how to overcome those massive forces, and it will take evermore wise and dedicated efforts to do that.

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