Saturday, March 26, 2011

Coercive Action: 'Yes, because…' or 'No, but…' in a Gray World Part 1 : Deriving a Matrix

Last week one of our FB friends, Usman Ahsan from Pakistan, sent us an interesting article about the Coercive Action in Libya 

It is a clear example of a well-documented analysis of why one should not opt for Coercive Action in Libya. Usman and I ended up debating things because his position was a clear – equally well-founded - ‘No, because……’ and ours was a ‘Yes, but…..’

Unfortunately the bulk of media representatives, politicians and scholars ends up in a Yes or No black-whitish style discussion. But we believe once again (see also our views about other issues)  that international relations are almost never ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ or black-whitish, but almost always ‘grayish’. 

The interesting thing of this specific case (see our Facebook Page for the dialogue with Usman Ahsan and other contributions about the topic) is that a ‘grayish’ position in which you try to weigh all factors involved, will almost always lead to confrontations with most people (!), because the ‘black’s’ don’t like what you say, assuming you are ‘white’ and the ‘white’s’ assume you are just another ‘black one in this disguise’. In other words: a gray point of view doesn’t win you the popularity prize. However, while being accused of being ‘communist’, ‘leftist’, ‘right-wing’, ‘fascist’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Christian-orthodox’, ‘Anti-Christ’ etc. (and we heard them all!) the remarkable thing is that you end up being respected by most of those accusing you. Not immediately, but after some time. When it becomes clear that you ‘say what you think, think what you say and try to do so being cosmopolitan, understanding that we are all humans, albeit with different roots and cultures, but that the things that bind us are far more important than those that separate’. Sounds soft? Well, maybe. But we do not consider softness our biggest quality. Sometimes the result of a ‘grayish’ analysis can be the tough implementation of harsh political, economic or military action.

The Gray World : More cohesion than in a Black-White one

In this and our next paper we will therefore reflect on the issue of Coercive Action using a structured approach that will of course not lead to clear-cut answers for international political issues that are often very much related to very different goal sets of those involved. But what it will definitely do, is to make clear which options are never in the interest of any of the parties involved.

Coercive Action

‘Coercive Action’ (CA) is a nice way of saying that a foreign force (or international forces) directly intervene in the political decision-taking process of a target nation or group of nations. Reasons to do so can be related to the direct local interests of the intervening nations or of the real or alleged interests of the population or a political fraction in the target nations. A combination of both is also possible of course, and very often parties try to ‘sell’ the actions as either in the interest of the international community of nations or – the opposite – totally against these interests.

When analyzing these actions it is important to understand what happened before them. What led to the status quo that in turn resulted in the interference? This is important as it will give us a lot of information about the how and why of the CA. CA is in a way an expensive and very high-risk ‘investment’ project. Its costs are high (both monetary and in terms of other damage, including loss of lives) and its revenues – monetary, political and other – are often highly uncertain.

Only when one tries to define all aspects – and do so from the perspective from not just the ‘actors’ (both CA participants and the target nation) but also ‘interested outsiders’ – at the level of not just the status quo and the CA itself but also the ex-post situation, will it be possible to judge the action. Too often we see flawed analyses in which one or the other aspect is forgotten.
And a complicating factor: to a certain extent any analysis of CA that tries to explain it in some other way than just pure self-interest is tricky, because interference in the internal political process of another nation is in-and-of-itself not correct. Don’t do to another, what you wouldn’t like yourself either. Different political system? OK, but aren’t people free to choose their own political system? Oppressive regimes? OK, but isn’t that first and foremost the responsibility of the people in a nation (even when they might suffer dramatically). Yes and no. Yes, in general, but No to the extent that very often the political status quo in a country should be judged in relation to (previous) actions by the CA nations and/or the rest of the international community.

Take for instance the situation in (post) colonial nations in the Developing World. Very often reigning regimes in those nations are not just the result of the domestic political process as a stand-alone set of events, but also directly related to actions by the CA nations and others in the international community in the periods preceding the CA action. Therefore: the linkage between the nations has to be analyzed as well.

And last but not least: this somewhat abstract analysis seems to suggest a large amount of rationality. But people are human. And humans suffer from behavioral tendencies. And these behavioral tendencies do often imply the importance of psychological and popularity-related factors. Some nations or leaders seem to suffer from popularity issues more than others. 

Two ‘sad’ examples: China and the US are just like Iran top-of-the-world when it comes to the ‘number of executions per year’ statistic. Now, when analyzing reports in the global media about these nations it is clear that the association of China with economic growth, an active population and friendly restaurant owners all around the world has translated into far less attention for the ‘execution issue’ than in Iran. And with respect to the US it seems that we quite often assume that ‘in the land of the free’ with its ‘solid, legal system’ (not our words but just trying to replicate the thinking of those analyzing) those in death row are there ‘because they deserved it’. Again: we do not judge anything but the statistics and note this strange difference between how we treat various nations.

A second example is related to research work of LMG. In international investments we notice that almost every investor – be it a private or institutional one – suffers from a so-called home bias. The home bias implies an overweight of the home country within investment portfolios. Partly this is the result of currency-related factors (‘internationally you suffer from exchange rate risk, domestically you don’t’), but even when correcting for this we see that there is a home bias. And the overweight of the home country does automatically translate into an underweight elsewhere, because portfolios are in the end always equal to 100% of investments. Now, when analyzing the underweights we see that some countries are more often underweighted and to a larger extent than others. When looking at the four most important Emerging economies for instance – the so-called BRIC nations – we see that Russia suffers by far the most under this foreign bias. Again, even when correcting things for all kinds of ‘fundamentals’ (economic and political indicator differences) this conclusion remains.

Summarizing the reflections above, we can create a matrix. This matrix can be used to judge individual CA cases and derive a more general conclusion when applying it more than once.

From abstract to practical: additional considerations

A lot has of course already been written about the intervention in Libya. Actually, there was lots of talks and speculation about it already before the action. And don’t forget: already back in the 80s did Western forces show Khadafi what they could do when using their military striking power. If we would ask 10 different analysts about their opinion, we would get 10 different answers. And without any kind of matrix it is hard to really capture the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of these differences. After all CA is a sad event, one that often goes hand-in-hand with lots of casualties, innocent victims etc. But we believe that a structured approach, applying our matrix might shed light on differences between analysts and lead to interesting conclusions.

One interesting aspect of most analyses is that – and probably this is logical taking into account the ‘demand’ of the public for factual updates of what is going on with bombings during the last few days, hours or preferably even minutes – there is far more attention given to analysis of the CA Event than to the Status Quo period and the Post-mortem. And that can lead to catastrophe, especially when CA parties do not pay enough attention to the Post-mortem. We believe that what happened in Iraq post-mortem was a clear example of a CA action probably well-prepared as far as the action itself is concerned, but very poorly so when taking into account the longer-term, post-mortem factors. Military leaders cannot be blamed, they are not trained to evaluate longer-term consequences in the post-intervention period. But politicians can be blamed of course. They are the ones who are responsible, with the military just being the operational strike force. But in most countries longer-term analyses are already problematic when it is about the politician’s own country, and that holds even more so when it is about politics in some other nation. Especially so, when domestic popularity factors and election cycles have to be taken into account as well! And that does lead us already to one interesting conclusion: 

CA in a country that will require a longer intervention and an even longer complicated post-mortem restructuring phase is almost inevitably not to be advised. Without exception these situations go ‘wrong’ in that the post-mortem is the real killer and not the CA itself.

Therefore: we should incorporate in our analysis the possibility and willingness to work on a ‘smooth’ transition into a solid, stable solution during the post-mortem period. And that is why we incorporate a short-term (ST) and long-term (LT) aspect to that period. For the Status-quo period we do the same thing, because very often longer-term ‘pains’ and ‘complications’ might interfere with shorter-term opportunities. Take for instance in the Libyan case the difference between its shorter-term incorporation within the Western community (be it wholeheartedly or not, and we do not even want to discuss the ‘how’ and ‘why’ at this stage; see more in the part 2 article of this contribution) and its longer-term reputation as financier of ‘terrorism’. We used italics for the word ‘reputation’, because what is considered terrorism by one, is often considered support of freedom fighters by the other. Again: at this stage of the paper we do not want to incorporate our opinion into the analysis. We just want to get a useful framework for analysis in place.

To illustrate the complexity of a CA we highlighted the CA row salmon-colored. Already 12 matrix components to fill in! However, the number of aspects outside the CA period itself is 4 times higher. And that is the problem. We believe that not enough attention is given to the correct incorporation of the period before and after the CA. Flawed analysis before and after provides a perfect guarantee for non-successful interference. Both the Russians and Western Allied Forces know what we mean when presenting the keywords ‘Afghanistan’ and 'Iraq'. 

Also: as you see we reserved just one row ‘ST’ for the coercive event itself. The moment the coercive event takes a longer period of time and more or less gradually translates into an occupation during the post-mortem period the more chance-less things will be. Is this important? Yes it is. It automatically means that Western or other powers' talk about interventions in Iran, North Korea and the likes have nothing to do with CA. It is plain war and probably one that in the end can only have losers. ‘Size matters’, but unfortunately this message did not reach many politicians. Or maybe it did reach them, but they are afraid to communicate it to their voters because of the popularity impact. Assuming that no one wants a war with only losers – be it due to lack of differential fighting power between target nation and CA nations or because of some kind of stalemate within the international community that would imply that CA nations are faced with risks and costs not from the target nation but from non-directly-involved outsiders – this will lead us to the conclusion that some nations are just ‘too big’ or ‘complicated’ for a CA.

In those cases one has to follow other strategies to achieve one’s goals. LMG’s plea for a dialogue with nations as Iran is partly based on this conclusion. If you cannot afford the cost of a war – or simply don’t want that for humanitarian or legal reasons – why then not start the dialogue? Especially not, when it is clear that the Middle East powder keg situation might benefit from it! 

In the next presentation we will apply our matrix to two cases:

  • The actual Coercive Action in Libya that is currently taking place
  • An analysis of the Middle East, based on a ‘what-if’ in case of a bigger-scale actions

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