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Sports and Politics

2/5/2009
This Mainer has done more than anybody in Maine has even written about doing. Getty Images

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This isn't George Mitchell's first rodeo. Recently assigned as special envoy to the Middle East, Mitchell is already well known for achievements as varied as the Good Friday peace agreement and the Mitchell Report, whose investigation of baseball's steroid problem still has resonance in today's headlines (can you say Barry Lamar Bonds?). The guy's got a resume thicker than Ayatolla Ali's glasses. He's been a majority leader in the senate, a federal judge, an intelligence officer, and the Chairman of Disney. Now President Obama is sending him to the Holy Land to broker an agreement between Israel and Palestine. But (hark!) there are a couple of lessons from his baseball investigation that could serve him well in the Middle East. Let us explain.

Lesson No. 1: You gotta break some eggs if you want to make an omelette (or a peace accord).
The one thing that Mitchell knew when he conducted his baseball investigation (besides the fact that he had a $20 million check to spend) was that eventually he was going to have to name names. It wasn't going to be pleasant for fans, for teams, and especially for the players, but the healing process couldn't begin until it happened. The same is true in the Middle East. Both Israel and Palestine are demanding—really requiring—official apologies from each other and the dialogue won't move forward until some sort of culpability is doled out. Recent studies even suggest that symbolic gestures actually have more bargaining power than material ones in ideological battles like this one. Mitchell, take note.

Lesson No. 2: Make an example of someone.

Regardless of the perceived fairness of the Mitchell Report (it's 409 pages didn't include a single negative drug test), it managed to accomplish a couple of things. It brought down the biggest names in the steroid scandal. Since its publishing, Barry Bonds hasn't found a team that will sign him (and his court case is looking more and more dismal); Mark McGwire found he could count the number of HOF votes he got this year with an abacus; and Roger Clemens, well, that ain't going too well either. While they might have been scapegoats for a bigger issue problem, the league has since become a healthier, cleaner place (Go Rays!). The same will be true in Gaza. Most people agree (even prominent Arab leaders) that Hamas is the most volatile ingredient in the conflict. If Mitchell can quarantine them from the dialogue by pulling their main allies Syria and Iran into talks with Palestine's more moderate Fatah, it'll be a coup not unlike like the players union offering up the names of steroid users.

Lesson No. 3: Beware of the interwebs.
One of the things that has redefined this age-old conflict is the involvement of new types of media. The ideological battle is being waged on YouTube and Facebook as much as it is on the frontlines or in traditional sources of media. During the Mitchell report Senator George had to deal with overheated bloggers leaking names, producing false lists, and just mainly being a pain in the arse. He's going to get that same treatment again, but taking the initiative to create a few neutral places on the web where both Palestinians and Israelis can go to discuss the issue fairly (the Obama method of grass roots organizing) could help mitigate the sensationalist rhetoric people are getting from both traditional sources of information and their Facebook accounts.

Lesson No. 4: You have to be fair.

One of the Mitchell Report critics' main charges is that the report fails to assign blame to general managers, team owners, and league officials who were complicit in steroids' endemic spread (the Mitchell Report even quotes Giants owner Peter McGowan as being aware of Bonds' steroid use; the league never punished him). In the Middle East it'll be a very similar situation for Mitchell: being hired to negotiate between two sides by a party with obvious interests in the matter. In baseball he was stuck between the ownership and the players and he finalized the report without implicating GMs, owners, and MLB management. But he won't be able to persuade the Palestinian people or the government into a long term agreement without getting Israel to some real concessions, like halting West Bank settlers and/or opening up Gaza borders. And that task will be more difficult than getting Bud Selig to crack a smile.