Symposium Book Club – Conversation with David Matz About Lawrence Wright’s Thirteen Days in September

This is part of the “virtual book club” discussing readings for the symposium at the University of Missouri on October 7:  Moving Negotiation Theory from the Tower of Babel Toward a World of Mutual Understanding.

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David Matz suggested the book Thirteen Days in September: The Dramatic Story of the Struggle for Peace (2014) by Lawrence Wright.  Here’s David’s summary.

This is a magnificent account of the negotiation at Camp David One between Carter, Begin, and Sadat.  This is a journalistic account of the facts, but it is written, as the title suggests, as a drama.  Indeed, Wright had written a play on this topic before he wrote this book.  And the book reads as an unfolding drama, and works as a good drama works on the reader, even as the outcome is well known.  One can say that Wright uses the structure of drama to frame the existence of the negotiation, the impasse that defined most of it, its breakthroughs, and the agreement it finally reached.

The dynamics of the play are driven by will-power, a commitment to honor, the temptations and pitfalls of courage, vivid memories, the fear of failure, the lifelong habits of struggle with menacing enemies, the perceptions of politics infused with violence, the feelings that go with the exercise of power and the pains of frustration, and the mystery of what can change one’s own mind, and what can change the mind of the Other.  Wright’s book suggests that these feelings are not just background to the negotiation.  They are the negotiation.  They are what drive the negotiators.  Enacting these feelings is what negotiators do.

John:  This really is an enjoyable book by a writer who knows how to tell an engaging story.  It has one chapter for each day of the negotiation, and the chronology is interspersed with quite detailed portraits of the three heads of state and their principal advisors as well as accounts of events leading up to the negotiation.  (Of course, this was a mediation, though it is often referred to as negotiation and I follow this custom below.)

Like so many stories where you know the general outline and the ending, it is still fascinating to learn more about the characters, see how things unfolded, and discover the dramas and turning points.

The portraits of all three heads of state seemed unflattering (at least to me — more on that below).  Jimmy Carter comes off as a naïve, messianic president who proceeded with the negotiation against the advice of his top advisors and with little idea about how to mediate.  According to Wright, Carter “believe[d] that God wanted him to bring peace [to the Middle East], and that somehow he would find a way to do it.”

Menachem Begin was a stubborn former terrorist who led a previously minor political party and unexpectedly became prime minister as a result of a scandal in the ruling Labor Party.  His CIA profile described him as “secretive, legalistic, and leery of radical change.  History, for Begin, was a box full of tragedy; one shouldn’t expect to open it without remorse.”  (Wright’s words).

Anwar Sadat seemed like a romantic dreamer who also had a strong stubborn streak.  According to the CIA, he was a “visionary–bold, reckless, and willing to be flexible as long as he believed his overall goals were being achieved.”

I started reading this book when I was having my conversation with Sanda Kaufman about Raiffa who she said assumed that people understood the dynamics of decision-making, including the importance of planning and understanding the counterparts’ perspectives.

From Wright’s account, it seemed clear that neither Begin nor Sadat had done any of this.  They came to the negotiation with wildly unrealistic expectations and little sense of the others’ perspectives.  Indeed, Begin and Sadat expected the negotiation to fail quickly and had little idea of what the other wanted or might accept.

Carter made a series of “rookie mistakes” as a mediator.  Of course, international mediation, especially when the US is the mediator, is quite different from most other mediations.  So we shouldn’t expect it to conform to norms of our domestic legal and political disputes.  Even so, I suspect that many people in our community would think that Carter’s apparent naïveté about mediation was stunning.

He started assuming that he would mostly conciliate, bringing the two sides together, and they would readily negotiate on their own.  In fact, the two sides had radically different positions and the initial conversations were predictably inflammatory and led to a downward spiral of recriminations.  As a result, Begin and Sadat did not meet again until the very end.

As in the play, A Walk in the Woods, much of the work occurred away from the negotiation table, on walks, bike rides, or informal visits in people’s cabins.  And much was done by the lieutenants rather than the heads of state.

When Carter found, to his surprise, that mere conciliation would be ineffective – and actually counterproductive – he switched his approach 180 degrees.  He apparently lost control of his emotions at times, pressed both sides very hard, and threatened both sides with the loss of the benefit of relationship with the US if they did not make concessions.  The parties finally agreed under the pressure of a deadline that Carter imposed.

The Camp David negotiation is famous for use of the “one-text” procedure in which Carter circulated drafts to both sides, received reactions, and modified the text for further reactions and revisions.  This process was repeated until the twenty-third draft, which was accepted by both sides.

The idea to use this process apparently came from a conversation between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and his friend and neighbor, Roger Fisher.  Who knows what would have happened if they didn’t have this relationship?

This negotiation is widely cited in DR circles to illustrate interest-based negotiation reflecting Israel’s interest in security and Egypt’s interest in sovereignty over the Sinai Peninsula.  The agreement provided that Israel would relinquish control of the land but it would be demilitarized, giving Israel some security against attack from Egypt.

When reading this book, I expected to find a “Eureka” moment when someone – presumably Carter – would have a flash of insight.  However, it appeared to be a generally-understood principle early in the negotiation.

By contrast, a major sticking point was whether Israel would retain a number of settlements in the Sinai, a concern that had significant symbolic value to both sides.  Wright’s account of the negotiation looked nothing like interest-based negotiation in our favorite texts.  Instead of an open discussion of both sides’ interests and an effort to find a solution satisfying their underlying interests, there was a lot of pushing and shoving through insistent demands and brinksmanship up to the very last possible moment.

David, you have a lot of experience in this region and know these conflicts well.  Would you elaborate or modify anything in my summary of the book?  Or in the book’s account of the process?

When you discussed my Negotiation Framework article, you raised some good questions about my analytical approach.  I want to ask some of the same questions about this book and your perspective about what we can (and can’t) learn from it.

You noted that my study was based on lawyers’ accounts of their negotiations, which suffer from biases due to faulty memory, self-serving interests, personal categories, etc.  You cited Wright’s book as an alternative approach, suggesting that it is a better way to learn about real negotiations, based on descriptions by more detached authors.

You certainly were correct that the data in my study was subject to the biases you mentioned.  I think that these biases exist in Wright’s book as well as some additional biases.

He certainly had access to lots of documentation, historical analysis, and interviews, which helped provide a detailed account of this single case from multiple perspectives.  Yet these sources often are riddled with their own biases.  Presumably he had great access to material reflecting certain perspectives (especially the Americans’) and less about others’ perspectives.

Many official documents are drafted with an eye to how they will be perceived by outsiders, which may not be an accurate reflection of the reality.  Wright based some of the book on interviews with participants, who may intentionally or unintentionally shade their stories to reflect their interests.  Public figures typically are very concerned about their public images and, not surprisingly, give self-serving accounts.  Many of the critical events were unrecorded private conversations, which are hard to verify.

In addition, Wright had some biases of his own.  First and foremost, as a writer, he wanted to tell a good, coherent story.  As a result, most of the details of the negotiation were omitted as they presumably would bore readers to tears.  With the benefit of hindsight, the events in his story fit into a fairly neat narrative, especially when one chooses what details to include or not.  Of course, life is pretty messy, especially in complex situations like this.  What facts did Wright choose to credit and include and what did he discredit or omit?  The book doesn’t present much, if any, data reflecting differences in perspectives about what actually happened at Camp David and the actions of various individuals.  Presumably participants and scholars disagree about some of this.

Also, Wright is an American with his particular perspective.  If he was an Israeli, Egyptian, or Palestinian, would his story be different even if he had access to the exact same sources?  I assume so.

My point is not that Wright’s analysis should be disregarded because of biases such as these.  Rather, as I argued in our earlier conversation, no methodology is perfect and thus the best we can do is to “triangulate” using multiple research sources and methods and candidly considering how biases may affect our observations.  What do you think?

You also asked if it made sense to analyze whether data fit our models and, if not, to develop a new or revised model.  I think that theoretical models, frameworks, concepts, etc. are necessary parts of knowledge.  Without them, life is just a series of unrelated stories from which we can’t generalize or learn how to deal with future situations.  Certainly, theoretical concepts can blind us and prevent us from seeing things we don’t expect.  Indeed, I argue that our traditional negotiation models do just that.  But I think that the solution is not to abstain from theorizing but rather to improve our theorizing and recognize its limits.  What do you think?

David:  John, here is my response to your note about Wright’s Thirteen Days in September.  I will respond pretty much in the sequence of your note.

First, a general thought. I am impressed and delighted with how differently you and I read the book. That testifies to the richness of the text and to my general sense that we, as a profession, have a lot to learn from getting as close as we can to real accounts of real negotiations.

You quote my earlier note on this book which lists my reading of what made the parties change their minds, starting with will-power and ending with mystery. That list still looks good to me.

You see the account of three leaders here as “unflattering.”  I see them as heroic, each in his own way.  The key observation is the obvious one: they entered a negotiating process that all the wise observers, and the staffs of each, said was doomed to failure; they stayed with it way beyond a rational allocation of executive time; they reached agreement; and that agreement has weathered enormous storms for 35+ years with no end in sight.  That is a successful negotiation by any standard.  Wright’s account makes clear how much each contributed to that success, so the Nobel Prize was the least the world could do for them.

You are not moved by Carter listening to the word of God.  Messianism has certainly gotten lots of people in trouble and killed; but I read Wright to say that Carter’s religion kept him at the table and kept him pressuring the others, especially Sadat, to do the same.  Carter gives the credit to God; I don’t see why we shouldn’t.

Everyone who ever knew him found Begin to be just as difficult, very painfully so, as Wright describes him.  But it was Begin who made the big concession (closing the Sinai settlements) that broke the logjam.

Sadat initiated the 1973 war to change Israel’s mind, visited Jerusalem with the same goal, and urged something like Camp David.  He played his negotiating cards and got what he wanted.  He knew his life was on the line when he did these things, and he was assassinated in part because of these things.  That’s pretty impressive.

Sadat came to Camp David with a goal and a strategy.  His secret memo to Carter made clear that he did have an idea of what Begin would accept.  Carter’s staff took Sadat at his word that he would make no deal that left out the Palestinians.  Carter thought Sadat would finally sell them out.  Carter was right.  I agree with you about Begin: he seems to have come solely to keep Carter on his side and paid little attention to what Sadat would need, until well into the negotiation when he did learn and change.

I am not sure I would see stunning naïveté in Carter as mediator.  He started with the very conventional view that the deal has to be worked out by the parties and he shouldn’t get in the way.  It took him less than two days to radically revise his thinking, a flexibility that I think deserves a lot of credit.

By the by, it is often said that international negotiating is very different from domestic stuff, and Saadia Touval wrote a great piece showing how neutrality is very different in the two settings.  Still, I see a lot of similarity.  I think close analysis of real cases would show the dynamics and effective tools to be not so far apart.

Note again:  Carter, and Carter alone, entered the process believing that the parties were not actually so far apart in what they would accept, and, in the end, he was right.

It is true that much of the hard negotiating work took place away from the table, and a lot of that was among the staffs of the three players.  But that was exactly Carter’s hope in holding the meeting at Camp David.  More, he orchestrated some of that away-from-table talk.

Your paragraph about the pressure Carter put on the parties is of course quite accurate. There was indeed a lot of temper-losing during thirteen days, but the isolation from the press, and Carter’s pressure to keep them there and working allowed the emotions to go up and to come down.

Carter did, of course, use the single text.  But it might be worth noticing that he used it like a hammer.  When one side failed to budge, Carter hit him on the head with the single text.  I am not complaining.  If a single text works as a hammer, excellent.

I am not as familiar with the use of Camp David as an example of interest-based bargaining.  I am more familiar with such a use regarding Kissinger’s mediation of the end of the 1973 War and the Israeli encirclement of the Egyptian Third Army.  Alas, such an interest-based analysis is false to the facts. (I wrote about this in article, How Much Do We Know About Real Negotiations? Problems in Constructing Case Studies, 9 International Negotiation 359 (2004).  In the same vein, I wrote What Really Happened in the Negotiation?, as Chapter 17 in the first Rethinking Negotiation Teaching volume.)

You do seem to agree that CD was not a place of interest-based bargaining, and much more a place of “pushing and shoving,” and brinksmanship.  Also a place that produced an enduring agreement.  I think we should take careful note of that, and ask: how did these people ignore pretty much everything we teach and still pull off one of the great negotiating accomplishments of the twentieth century?

I agree that any author, whether participant or observer, will bring biases of all kinds to the writing of an account of a negotiation.  But not all biases are equally problematic.  The point of a memoir is to describe how the author saw things when they occurred.  A good outsider, and Wright is among the best, looks at multiple sources for as many key moments as he/she can, and uses them to cross-check each other.  That is a great deal more reliable than a memoir.

I am not sure what you mean when you say that Wright doesn’t give us “differences in perspective” among the players.  I thought he hammered the hell out of their differences in history, personality, politics, and self-perceived needs.  Indeed, as I read the book, I thought that he overdid their differences, merging what they said with what they thought.  (A mistake Carter did not make.)  I wondered if he emphasized their differences to make more dramatic their twists to finally reach an agreement.  But that’s me mind-reading Wright, not a profitable line of thought.

Your last paragraph raises quite beautifully an issue we don’t address enough.  What is the role of theory in our work?  I’ve already gone on too long, so let me say just this.  I believe our several theories have gotten in our way as much as they have helped us out.  I think we would do well to pay more attention than we have to detailed accounts of real negotiations and to do more inferring from what actually happens.  In a case like this, inferring might just find that pushing and shoving have nothing to recommend them but success.

John:  We could go on at great length about various points, but I will just try to clarify a few things.

Like you, David, I’m glad that we have such rich differences in perception about this book.  For me, this is a caution about over-confidence in any methodological approach as illustrated by the fact that we – and an author – might describe the same descriptions of individuals as flattering or unflattering, for example.  It also suggests that people should read this fascinating book and do their own analysis.

We may differ based on whether we analyze this situation by focusing primarily on actors’ reasonable prospective analysis of the potential for successful negotiation or our retrospective analysis of the results.  You think that the results of the negotiation were very good and seem to think that the individuals ultimately acted wisely after taking some strong positions, which is not unusual in negotiation.

My reading of the book made me think that this negotiation was extremely risky – possibly making things a lot worse for everyone if it failed – and that the negotiators generally didn’t seem to go into the negotiation with realistic ideas about the situation and how they might reach agreement.  Fortunately, they did reach agreement, but there seemed to be a great risk that the whole thing would blow up, which actually almost happened at Camp David.

Looking back, I am inclined to think that the result was a net positive in that it has provided a measure of stability by virtually eliminating the risk of an Israeli-Egyptian war, though the book suggests that this agreement laid the foundation for the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  It is hard to know what would have happened if they hadn’t reached the agreement but I suspect that the result would have been worse.  But even this uncertain assessment has the benefit of hindsight and I am dubious about using that as a primary basis for analysis.  Of course, you think that the protagonists generally acted wisely, so I gather that you do not view this purely based on a retrospective analysis of the results.

Let me clarify my statement that the book doesn’t provide much data reflecting differences in perspectives about what actually happened.  It certainly describes differences in individuals’ perspectives and positions during the negotiation.  My point is that I wonder if various participants would agree to Wright’s characterizations – and I suspect that some would tell a different story of significant parts of this negotiation.

My point about the negotiation not seeming to be an interest-based process was to note that the actual process was different than popular images of interest-based negotiation, not to criticize Carter’s failure to follow the theoretical model.  While Carter seemed to me to be naïve, at least initially, I assume that many of his interventions, especially later in the process, were appropriate even though they were not what many of us like to think that mediators should do.  (You know a lot about this situation and seem fairly confident about your analysis.  I know much less, even after reading this book, and I am less sure.)

Getting to Yes popularized the story of this negotiation as being a principled negotiation by focusing on interests of sovereignty and security in coming up with the agreement to demilitarize the Sinai.  Of course, the agreement reflected these interests but the process sounded very different from the idealized version of the careful analysis of interests and options described in GTY.  The problem, in my view, is the way that many people in our field romanticize the theoretical model.  You and I agree that many of our “theories have gotten in our way as much as they have helped us out.”  This is one reason why I share your preference for analysis of detailed accounts of actual negotiation processes – to get more realistic understandings with less distortion due to our theoretical lenses.

David:  One of my teaching slogans is that all negotiating moves can be dangerous, including doing nothing.  The issue here is whether the danger of trying was greater than the danger of not trying.  All three major players thought the risks were worth it.

You suggest that “fortunately” they reached agreement, and I agree, luck as always plays a role.  But, as you have already gathered, I want to give the parties, all three of them, the major credit for success.  Of course they made mistakes, but fortunately negotiating, like hitting in baseball, does not require 100% mistake-free play.  They were good enough.

The only reason we teach negotiation, or anyone wants to study it, is so the student can become better at it.  And, although we say a few other things, the measure of getting better, the measure the world cares about, is whether we come to agreement more often.  So I don’t see a way around measuring success by the outcome.  This of course raises the ancient conundrum about knowing what to do when you can’t know the result when you have to act.

Back to square one:  the most interesting scholarly work to be done now, in my judgment, is to find real negotiations and figure out why certain steps resulted in one party or the other changing position.  That will give us some groundwork for understanding what might work in other situations.

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