A chapter of this stimulating and original book begins with Isaiah Berlin's remark that “few things have done more harm than the belief...of individuals or groups that...they are in sole possession of the truth...and that those who differ from them are...wicked or mad.” A belief to which some Western democratic leaders, as well as despots and religious fundamentalists, are prone.
One of the authors' starting points is the public recognition by the octogenarian Robert McNamara that during the Vietnam War the US did not, as they put it, “understand empathy...did not know what was in the minds of the enemy.” They argue that such “empathy” including with the irrational factors behind violence and retaliation, is essential for peace-making.
Gabrielle Rifkind's background as a psychotherapist helped to inform her active interest in conflict resolution, especially in the Middle East. Giandomenico Picco is a UN diplomat who did much to negotiate the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the end of the Iran/Iraq war and the release of hostages hed by Hezbollah in Lebanon. They both believe that understanding “the psychological and historic narratives of particular groups” - a lucid chapter on “the Taliban mind” is one of many examples – is vital to conflict resolution. And – not nearly a universal view as it should be – that “the primary aim” of external intervention should be to “contain the violence and provide framework for negotiations.”
They point to missed opportunities, including the international failure to engage with Hamas after its election victory in 2006. And they lament the lack of “mechanisms” for what might just have worked at the outset of the Syrian revolt: a US Russian initiative promoting internal dialogue without demanding Assad stand down. And might have led in turn to an elusive Iranian-Saudi understanding that may yet be needed to reduce the Sunni-Shia conflicct.
A passage praising US envoy George Mitchell, suggests there are lessons in the Northern Ireland peace process “to be learnt about the role of a third party in establishing a framework that has a clear endgame in which the goalposts cannot be constantly shifted” - something the US has arguably failed to go in respect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Indeed, it would be interesting to hear Rifkind and Picco on the factors which have inhibited Western powers from doing more to coax Israel to make peace with the violence-shunning Mahmoud Abbas. That they leave us wanting more is a tribute to a book that, if nothing else, should be prescribed reading for any new leader of a military power.
This review was orignally published in the 21 July 2014 edition of The Independent.