Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Using BATNAs to understand the situation in Iraq

There is a key concept of negotiation, outlined in Fischer and Ury's Getting to Yes, called the "Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement," or BATNA. A BATNA is the best outcome a negotiator can expect if the negotiation fails. The stronger the BATNA, the stronger the negotiator's bargaining power and the less incentive he has to reach a compromise. An example of this is a job negotiation. If a potential hire has another job offer in his back pocket (good BATNA), he can demand a higher salary from the employer. This is because he can walk away from the negotiation. Now imagine that the employer has also interviewed another job-seeker, with similar skills to the first, who will work for a lower wage. The employer, too, has a good BATNA. What will happen to the original negotiation? It will fail. Both the first job-seeker and the employer have good BATNAs, which will discourage them from making the compromise necessary for hiring to be made. The first job-seeker will take that job offer he had in his back pocket, and the employer will hire that other guy.

Now consider the situation in Iraq. It's clear that a political solution is a necessary component of any peaceful future of Iraq. It's also clear that this solution would involve hard compromises from all parties involved, particularly the Sunnis. It's time to ask if the presence of our troops is hurting or hindering this political solution. They are certainly preventing the current sectarian violence from breaking into an all-out civil war. It's possible, as the administration argues, that this is providing the necessary breathing room for a political solution. But it seems far more likely that their presence is actually hindering the political solution by strengthening the BATNAs of the various factions. An open-ended presence means that the Sunni militias, for example, are free to continue bombing and shooting Shiites without worrying about the consequences of a full-scale civil war which they would almost certainly lose.

One way to address this might be to set a firm timetable for the withdrawal of American troops. This would worsen the BATNAs of the main factions and give them more of an incentive to make the painful compromises necessary for peace. I'm hesitant to fully endorse the idea because it is definitely risky, and the consequences will be terrible if our troops pull out but no agreement is reached. Then we will see what a civil war really looks like. Unfortunately, I don't believe there is a better option available.

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