Let’s Talk: Pirate Episode Hurt Obama’s Negotiating Cred

When guys start to negotiate then get shot in the head: how many will follow them down the road of negotiating with the USA.  This is a good thing (maybe) for the USA but bad for President Obama is he really believes in negotiating.  He won’t find too many partners to play ball with in future talks…..It seems maybe the no negotiation position of past president’s may still work…..


I’m thrilled that the Somali pirates were killed, and the Maersk ship captain is safe. The Obama administration is claiming credit for giving the go-ahead for military action. But this presents Obama with a problem.

There are two choices when negotiating with hostage takers/pirates. One is the Israeli model of no negotiation. The only thing to be negotiated is the life of the hostage taker. Money, free passage, and other benefits are not on the table. The purpose of this approach is to deter further hostage takers, even if it means the death of the hostage.

The other model is the model of negotiating over almost any benefit, as long as the hostage is freed safely. This is the model Obama initially appeared to follow with the pirates. But if one believes the spin coming out of the White House, then negotiation was a ruse to buy time.

The problem is not in this case, which ended successfully, but in the next hostage taking situation. If one is going to follow a negotiation approach, the trust of the hostage takers in the negotiation process is key. If hostage takers believe negotiation is a ruse, then the hostage is in more danger. Words cannot be just words in a negotiation.

So negotiating as a ruse is the worst of all alternatives. It does not have the deterrent effect of the Israeli approach, or the hostage-safety effect of the negotiation approach.

By William A. Jacobson
Associate Clinical Professor of Law, Cornell Law School, Ithaca, NY


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