Negotiator Shares Insights on Iraq


On Tuesday, October 31, David Seibel, co-founder and President of Insight Partners, a Boston-based conflict management company, spoke to a crowd of approximately 60 students in Hauser Hall on the topic: “Insight from Iraq: Notes from Baghdad.” Seibel spent 10 days in Baghdad in late March 2006 conducing training sessions on negotiation, effective communication and mediation skills to newly elected members of Iraq’s parliament.

Seibel is associate faculty at Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation, and at Georgetown University Law Center. His work in Iraq was sponsored by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. NDI works for free and fair elections and aids transitional governments. Seibel explained the NDI mandate, which is not to make copies of the U.S. system, but to support the creation of democratic institutions.

Iraq has held elections, but leaders in the country are still deciding how the parliamentary process will function. Seibel found a number of challenges during Insight’s training of parliament members. “Participants kept saying ‘We have no political experience,'” said Seibel. Participants also admitted that they did not know how to negotiate and lacked tools for influencing other people. This was a product, he explained, of the lack of a true political process under Saddam Hussein.

“We weren’t allowed [to take part in politics],” one participant told Seibel of his experience during that era. “We were punished for expressing interest. There was a high risk in working with other political parties during Saddam’s regime.” Seibel explained that the Hussein regime reinforced this “culture of following. Follow tribal leaders. Follow Saddam. Don’t be a part of the process.”

Seibel said that American soldiers report seeing this fear to act in training Iraqi police forces. Trainees only act on explicit orders and are hesitant to deduce orders. “Soldiers are frustrated,” said Seibel, “because if the police chief says something ridiculous, they’ll do it anyway. If an order is not precise, people will not take the initiative out of fear.” American forces are trying to address this mindset in order to make Iraqi law enforcement more effective.

Insight tried to answer a number of questions in their work: How do you influence strategically when you have no experience? If you are part of the Sunni coalition, how do you make your voice heard to Sunni leadership? How do you represent your constituents?

Seibel wanted to do diagnostic work before planning the trainings, but it was not logistically feasible. “We went in a bit blind,” he said. “Once I got there we threw out our entire plan.” Language barriers were one issue since participants had varying levels of English ability. Insight ended up using English-Arabic interpreters, which slowed down the presentations. Insight presented a series of one-day programs with each major stakeholder group, including Sunnis, Shi’ias, Turks, and Syrians. The one-day programs were used as preparation for a 2-day multi-party session where each group sent a handful of people.

Safety and logistics were a problem for the Insight team. On the second day of the multi-party session, a car bomb outside prevented a third of the participants and the interpreter from getting into the session. The Kurdish participants could not make it to Baghdad because the available airline canceled all its flights. “Logistics in Iraq were a huge obstacle to making this successful,” said Seibel.

In the one-day program, participants were introduced to negotiation concepts, and did exercises about gauging interests of different parties and then identifying the available options. In the multi-party session, the group did several other exercises, including a common one about oil pricing; a subject whose irony was not lost on the Iraqi participants.

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