Let's Mask a Deal

How you look at things.
April 16 1999 3:30 AM

Let's Mask a Deal

Diplomatic doublespeak for negotiating with Milosevic.

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Three weeks ago, when NATO launched its airstrikes against Yugoslavia, President Clinton swore off further talks with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and ruled out a ground invasion. Since then, events have obliged Clinton to rethink his options. Last week he floated weasel words that would let him wage a ground war while calling it something else. This week Clinton's aides are floating weasel words for the opposite scenario: negotiations.

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Now that everyone has declared Milosevic a war criminal and has agreed that the United States' manhood is at stake, the "N word" is verboten in Washington. On Sunday's talk shows, pundits asked various U.S. officials how they could even "contemplate negotiating with Mr. Milosevic after what he's done." The officials dutifully ruled out the idea, all the while sketching concessions by which Milosevic could persuade them to halt the bombing. The operative question is no longer how American representatives could dare negotiate with Milosevic. It's how they're doing it already while pretending not to by masking it in less polite terms. Here are the various characterizations, in ascending order of preference.

1.Cutting a deal. This is the most noxious formulation, slung as an insult by hawks such as the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal. "This man who is engaged in this massive ethnic cleansing," Standard publisher Bill Kristol spat on This Week--"We're going [to]cut another deal with him? ... They cannot cut another deal with Milosevic." Warnings against "cutting a deal" are invariably accompanied by descriptions of Milosevic as a "war criminal." The implication is that cutting a deal with a criminal is unethical, if not illegal.

2.Negotiation. U.S. officials hate this word because it connotes capitulation. They've learned to deflect it by juxtaposing it with "bombing." When asked on Face the Nation whether the United States would "negotiate" with a "war criminal," Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott sternly replied: "We're not negotiating with Milosevic. We're bombing him." U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia Christopher Hill likewise told CNN: "We're not negotiating right now. We're conducting an air campaign." The false, glossed-over premise that bombing and negotiation are incompatible goes unchallenged.

Indeed, in this case, the bombing is part of the negotiation. While hitting Milosevic over the head, NATO is offering terms under which it is willing to stop. Conversely, Milosevic is offering lesser concessions. Though NATO rejected his initial offer, the latest proposals by Germany and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan--which would suspend the bombing in exchange for partial compliance with NATO's demands and would put the United Nations, rather than NATO, in charge of settling the conflict--suggest there will ultimately be a compromise. A few days ago, when a reporter asked about the N word, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart answered, "We have a military objective now, which is to bring President Milosevic to meet these conditions that we have laid out." By calling this objective "military," Clinton's aides obscure its negotiatory aspect.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

3.Diplomacy. Like negotiation, this word smells of weakness. Again, administration officials deflect it by contrasting it with a tougher word: "force." "Fourteen months ago, when Milosevic started this crisis, our policy was one of diplomacy backed by force," Talbott argued last weekend. "Now we have force backed by diplomacy." Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her spokesman, Jamie Rubin, are fond of the same formulation. But the contrast between "diplomacy" and "force" is just as deceptive as the contrast between "negotiation" and "bombing." NATO hopes to bomb Milosevic to the table. Therefore, force is still serving diplomacy.

4.Political solution. This is the administration's code word for "deal." Clinton says he wants a "political solution." Albright and Rubin want "a political settlement" and a "political framework based on Rambouillet." Toward that end, Albright welcomes Russia's "support for dealing with the problem in a political way." Last week, when a reporter asked whether the United States wanted Russia to undertake "diplomatic mediation with Belgrade," Rubin replied, "I would put it a little differently. ... The Russians have been part and parcel of our effort to try to find a peaceful solution." Rubin expressed hope that the Russians might succeed in "convincing the Serbs to turn around" and "accept our conditions." But diplomacy? Never.

5.Harder and harder. Part of the indignity of negotiation is the implication that during the bargaining NATO will offer more and more concessions. So, American spokesmen tailor their words to create the opposite impression: that NATO will offer fewer and fewer concessions as the conflict wears on. As Defense Secretary William Cohen put it Sunday, "every day that goes by" with further evidence of Milosevic's "brutality" would "make it far more difficult to deal with him."

Last week, a reporter asked Lockhart whether it was "right for an American negotiator now to sit down with Milosevic to try to cut some deal." Lockhart replied that such a scenario "gets harder every day. But I am not going to ... rule anything out." The reporter pressed: "But it's not off the table yet?" Lockhart answered: "Dealing with him gets harder." When asked whether "at some point" dealing with Milosevic would "become impossible," Lockhart scoffed, "I am not going to spell out a timetable or what he has to do." Refusing to "spell out" demands or to "rule anything out" is a classic negotiating posture--which Lockhart effectively obscured by repeating the word "harder" five times during the exchange.

6.Demands. This is the administration's favorite description. Confronted recently with a coarse question as to whether the United States was "willing to talk to Milosevic," Lockhart stonily replied, "The NATO alliance has made demands, and he needs to meet them." Lest anyone confuse these demands with negotiation, Albright insisted, "We're not trying to please President Milosevic. ... The goal of this is to be able to get him to understand these five demands that the international community is making." American officials also speak of NATO's "terms," "conditions," and "requirements." There was only one slip-up last week, when Rubin referred to them as "our position."