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How Much Are Your Choices Affected by your Priors?

May 5, 2011

By Fiorenzo Conte

Rory Stewart talks about the Libyan intervention in the London Book Review:

(There are) three arguments against action. Four fears about inaction. And a background of guilt, law and moral obligation. Each position has its own historical analogy. If you oppose intervention, you call it ‘another Vietnam’. If you support intervention on national security grounds, you call the opponents appeasers and invoke Munich. And you could still do a ‘replace all’ and instead of Libya insert Zimbabwe, Darfur or for that matter Abyssinia, the Hejaz or ‘the Kingdom of Caubul and its dependencies’. Here more than ever what seems to matter is not detailed knowledge of the country concerned but a basic attitude of mind: a high optimism, a reactionary pessimism and very rarely anything in between.(..)

The basic positions remain black and white. Do it or don’t do it, but no halfway houses. And therein lies the danger.

The broader point that I take is that when it comes to making decisions about political solutions to political standoffs the choice is more often based on priors than on the understanding of the context. For instance, in the case of Libya the debate was built around the binary opposites military intervention vs. non intervention. What was missing in the debate was the proposition of civilian measures with political purposes more appropriate to the context. Ivory Coast offers another example. In the aftermath of the civil war the U.N. imposed upon the country “winner-takes-all” elections. This strategy hinges upon the aprioristic conviction that elections must follow suit in a post-conflict context. Never mind that the country was fractured between North and South and that elections would have only fueled the tensions generated by this fracture. Elections are a priori good for a post-civil war country. Yet, a third, more appropriate way for the fractured country would have been more desirable. As Mamdani explains:

The three protagonists, Henri Konan Bedie, Alassane Ouattara and Laurent Gbagbo could have been prevented from contesting for state power through a transitional arrangement that embraced all three egos but with a caveat preventing each one of them from participating in future elections as they laid down the foundations to reorder the Ivorian society. […] The combined experience of the three is a national asset that must not be left polarized to the disadvantage of the country. This is what the UN has denied the people of Cote d’Ivoire.

The lesson for any actors involved in political resolutions is that neat solutions rarely square with reality. One should not impose interventions on the basis of its own priors, regardless of the context. Rather solutions should be derived on the basis of the actual current situation. Had the UN and France done this, Ivorian people would, perhaps, not be paying the price of the post-electoral violence today.

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