A Real Hostage Negotiator’s Advice for President Obama

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Uncle Sam is playing the role of "the economy" here. Photo: Mary-Louise Price; Photos: 20th Century Fox (Speed still), Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images (Boehner), JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images (Obama)

Earlier this week, Speaker of the House John Boehner demanded trillions of dollars in government-spending cuts in exchange for a vote to extend the nation's debt ceiling, prompting White House spokesman Jay Carney to call it a "folly" to hold the nation's economy hostage.

It’s not the first time the White House has accused the GOP of hostage-taking. As the Bush tax cuts were set to expire last year, Obama accused Republicans of "holding middle class tax relief hostage because they're insisting we've got to give tax relief to millionaires and billionaires."

Amid an apparent outbreak of hostage-taking in Washington, we turned to Hugh McGowan, the commanding officer of the NYPD hostage negotiation team for thirteen years before he retired in 2001, for advice on how Obama can negotiate this hostage's release.

Have a SWAT Team Handy
An actual hostage negotiator has one major trump card: a SWAT team waiting in the wings. “It’s the implied threat,” McGowan says. “Talk to me or you have to deal with them.” Though Obama, as commander-in-chief, has a military force of his own, it would be a bit awkward to march SEAL Team 6 into the Capitol and force a debt ceiling vote at gunpoint. “You’d probably be talking about impeachment or something like that,” McGowan observes. Indeed, that would be a poor decision. But Obama could use public opinion as his SWAT team. By framing the debate in a way that makes voters ready to punish the Republicans, Obama can gain leverage with an implied threat of electoral doom if negotiations break down.

Assume the Worst
Obama can’t go into this assuming that the hostage-taking Republicans won’t kill the hostage by ultimately refusing to raise the debt ceiling, which in this case would mean defaulting on government bonds, destroying the world credit markets, and who knows what other unforeseeable dire outcomes. “Other than card playing, in life and death situations, you can never tell if someone is bluffing or not,” McGowan says, “so you always have to treat it as if they’re going to carry out their promise, and you treat it accordingly.”

Deploy Tactical Empathy
To reach a peaceful settlement with Boehner, Obama needs to lower the temperature and ease passions on both sides. One of the ways a negotiator does this is by empathizing with the hostage-taker. “Obama can certainly say, ‘I can see myself in your role,’” McGowan tells us. “‘I understand why you’re making this claim, and I’m sympathetic to it, so I’m going to concede certain things, but other things, we have to be true to our principles.’” It helps if the negotiations are held in private, not through public posturing. “There’s the public face and the private face,” McGowan says, “and if we can have a private conversation with somebody, we can get them to agree to certain things that maybe they wouldn’t agree to if they were up standing on top of the fire escape, yelling, you know, ‘Come up here and I'll kill you.’”

Allow the Hostage Taker to Save Face
Finally, Obama has to allow Boehner and the Republicans to feel as if they’ve agreed to a deal because they wanted to, not because they were backed into a corner. “We’d never use the term ‘surrendering’ to a hostage-taker,” McGowan says. “We would talk about coming out, saving face, the idea that you did the right thing and you came out and we took you into custody. It wasn’t like you gave up and you were a coward and we had to beat you into submission.” In the deal to avert a government shutdown in April, Democrats let Boehner save face by agreeing to just enough spending cuts to allow him to declare victory to his caucus.

Political rhetoric aside, McGowan says the debt ceiling face-off may not have that much to do with actual hostage negotiations. “Usually we’re dealing with people in our circumstances that are not the sharpest people in the world. They have poor skills as far as coping skills, poor communications skills,” he said. “So, it’s not an equal comparison when you're looking at the political world when the people we’re talking about in government are pretty sharp people.” Eh. Sometimes.