WASHINGTON – When reporters needled her for details of delicate Israeli-Syrian talks 15 years ago, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright replied: “Sometimes talks, like mushrooms, do better in the dark.”
That homespun axiom proved true again Wednesday with the revelation that a year and a half of secret White House negotiations had produced a historic agreement to normalize relations with Cuba, a spy swap and prisoner release and plans to start removing trade barriers in place for 50 years.
Even in this age of smartphone photos and tweets, almost any breakthrough between longtime adversaries is possible only if it’s negotiated quietly, say diplomats who have been involved in some of the most delicate negotiations of the past four decades.
Top-secret diplomacy preceded Henry Kissinger’s clandestine trip to China that ultimately resulted in normalized U.S.-China relations, as well as the 12 days of talks at Camp David that yielded a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. Almost every tangible step forward in Mideast peace talks since then — the Oslo accords, the Wye River Summit — happened only after secret meetings in third countries with intermediaries and negotiations known just to a handful of people sworn to secrecy.
It’s also true of smaller successes since President Barack Obama took office: secret talks with the Taliban to open an office in Qatar and later to release an American soldier, and with China to reach a climate deal.
Secrecy in itself doesn’t guarantee success, of course; the two sides also must have convergent interests. Secrecy also is much harder to maintain in an era of WikiLeaks, instant news and the ability of anyone who spots a diplomat in a foreign airport to report it on Twitter.
Especially with longtime adversaries, “where there’s a long period without sustained direct contact between parties, there’s clearly a benefit in beginning the process of direct diplomacy quietly, to see if there’s a foundation and to build a process of give-and-take,” William J. Burns, who retired in October as deputy secretary of State after 33 years in the Foreign Service, said in a telephone interview.
Burns spearheaded secret U.S.-Iran talks in Oman last year that paved the way for a preliminary nuclear accord, a first step toward a final deal that’s still being sought. Burns, who remains a senior adviser in the Iran talks, acknowledged that keeping things quiet is “more difficult to do in this day and age, with the 24/7 news cycle and the information-technology revolution, but there are still benefits in beginning a process that way. It can still be done, and sometimes there’s no alternative to doing that.”
That’s especially true when the distrust is profound and the divisions date back many years, with a history marred by war, attempted coups or revolutions: the U.S. and Cuba; the U.S. and Iran; the U.S. and North Korea; Israel and the Arab world; India and Pakistan.
“If you’re talking about real adversaries, they have domestic constituencies that look at any concessions to the other side as being almost a betrayal,” said Dennis Ross, who served as a Mideast peace negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations and was Obama’s first senior adviser on Iran. “The only way to ever justify those concessions is with something very tangible to prove they’re worth it. But if you get exposed early,” before the deal is done, the political cost at home makes it impossible.
In 1993, late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin secretly gave Ross and Secretary of State Warren Christopher a confidential commitment that Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights and return the territory to Syria if Israel’s security needs were met.
Rabin told the two Americans to make it clear to Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, the late father of the country’s current leader, that the offer was top secret: “If it comes out, I will deny it, and it will disappear,” the Israeli leader warned them, recalled Ross, who is now counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Keeping sensitive talks under wraps requires restricting that knowledge to the tightest circle possible and making all parties understand that any leak could bring the collapse of the effort. Ross says that only a handful of people knew about the secret negotiations he was part of.
In the case of last week’s Cuba deal, even experts in the government and some of the most senior officials who’ll be implementing the policy weren’t informed of the talks until near the end, according to U.S. officials involved who spoke on condition that they not be identified.
A breakthrough would have been impossible without a direct channel between the White House and the office of Cuban leader Raul Castro, successor to his brother, Fidel, according to a White House official who discussed the negotiations on condition of anonymity.
The Cuban Foreign Ministry didn’t have the power to release Agency for International Development contract worker Alan Gross, who was freed in the deal, and Cuban negotiators made clear that they wanted their interlocutors to be at the White House, the official said.
Keeping talks quiet isn’t enough to close a deal. In the effort that Albright and Ross worked so hard to keep secret in the 1990s, the talks between Israel and Syria ultimately failed. Both sides in any tough negotiation also must have complementary needs and enough incentive or urgency to make a deal.
“Diplomatic agreements are not much different from good marriages, business proposals or friendships: They require a balance of interests,” said Aaron David Miller, a Mideast peace negotiator for U.S. administrations over 15 years who traveled secretly to Israel and Sweden to meet with Israelis and Palestinians.
“Each needs to get something to rationalize and justify to their respective publics that the risk was worth taking,” said Miller, vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “It’s under those conditions that the tactic of secret diplomacy makes sense. Otherwise, you could practice negotiations for years and have nothing happen if the other conditions aren’t there.”
If one party decides the talks are no longer working, the airtight secrecy can fall apart. Ross recalled that when Palestinians leaked that he and Miller were on a secret trip to Sweden in 2000, he realized that they were frustrated and no longer as committed to the peace process.
Secretary of State John Kerry is a vocal proponent of quiet diplomacy. Throughout his efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the table, Kerry has remained adamant with his aides and reporters that he wouldn’t reveal any details of the discussions.
In the talks to halt Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, too, Kerry and his negotiators have said leaks do nothing to help them make a deal. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that her job is to “be as transparent as possible with the public without putting at risk major diplomatic or policy initiatives.”
Governments can be rocked and even voted out of office if controversial secret talks are exposed too soon or without any perceived success, especially in places such as Israel and the Palestinian territories or India and Pakistan, where enmity runs deep.
Bruce Jones, a former United Nations diplomat involved in Middle East peace and Kosovo negotiations, said that one pitfall with secret talks is “to fail to take into account the reality of public reaction at home and leave yourself vulnerable to getting a deal that you can’t implement. We run the risk that we cook up a deal in a small room and when it goes public, there won’t be support for it.”
That’s a risk with any Iran deal, and also with Cuba, because of strong minority views against any accord that carry an outsized influence, said Jones, deputy director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “The flip side is if you take existing opinion as a constraint, you’re never going to move the needle.”