Controversies over Syria options driven by analogies, some dangerous

By: Torgeir E. Fjærtoft.

The current (mid September 2013) disagreements over options in Syria can be explained by Daniel Kahneman’s theories about how our minds make decisions, by choosing and interpreting analogies as frames of reference.  This is illustrated by the following news story in EU Observer: “France and US says Syria is not Iraq”

Past failures block options

US Foreign Secretary Kerry and French Foreign Minister Fabius recognize that memories of the failed interventions in Iraq cause skepticism of claims that a new military intervention in the Middle East can succeed. Kerry also acknowledges that invoking US intelligence as proof now carries less weight, whatever its accuracy, after the erroneous claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction prior to the invasion in 2003.

To escape the comparison – in Kahneman’s term “anchoring” – with failed or controversial military interventions, Kerry therefore rejects all analogies to previous campaigns: “– this is not Iraq, it is not Afghanistan, it’s not Libya, it’s not Kosovo”

Wrong analogies block solutions

But then he proceeds to invoke other analogies, those of Iranian and North Korean nuclear threats.

The statements quoted in that article reveal that the US and French foreign ministers, in their rhetoric aimed to persuade skeptical allies, seem oblivious to the risk factor identified by Christopher Clark in his analyses of political failure leading to World War 1, the sinister centennial now approaching.

Clark shows how one of the fatal misjudgments proved to be the attempts to rally domestic support by depicting the opponents’ nature and intentions as more sinister than actually warranted by a sober look at reality. The adversary, for whom the message was not meant, may take it at face value and act accordingly.

By trying to build pressure towards a cohesive coalition, Kerry and Fabius could inadvertently cause unintended escalation and counter moves. Both, in their rhetoric aimed at allies, appear to neglect the new political climate in Teheran and place Iran in the same enemy category as Assad’s Syrian regime. They claim, seemingly ignoring Teheran’s condemnation of the gas attacks, that if Assad does not suffer any consequences, “it will make PyongYang and Tehran bolder in their pursuit of nuclear weapons”.

Did nobody brief them that these analogies would conceivable be interpreted differently in Teheran by those skeptical of the new Iranian President’s more cooperative approach? In the case of Libya, a ruthless dictator gave in to pressure and halted his nuclear program, but was still toppled by intervention. By contrast, in North Korea another ruthless dictator heads a regime that retains its nuclear option and defies the world.

Cooperation narrative is smarter

A smarter US and French strategy would avoid strengthening President Rouhani’s hardline rivals in Teheran. Precisely this could be the unintended consequence of polarization and casting potential partners as enemies.

Cooperation was probably the emerging Iranian narrative until President Bush by his axis-of-evil epithet, starting in early 2002, rebuffed Iran. He brought to an abrupt end the nascent collaboration in Afghanistan against terrorism, drugs trade and Sunni extremism.

With Iran as partner of the West in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria, the currently overwhelming problems would presumably have been more manageable.

Effective diplomacy must change assumptions

Christopher Clark shows how the decision makers that stumbled into World War 1 were caught within the confines of their assumptions. We all are, according to Daniel Kahneman.

Therefore, effective diplomacy must change assumptions by evoking alternative narratives. Kahneman shows that narratives shape thinking to the degree we perceive them as credible. Credibility, he finds, is a function of coherence. The recognition of interdependence, the assumption of “sum-plus” rather than “zero-sum”, can provide coherence to narratives.

By this reasoning, in the currently tense situation the US and French foreign ministers should have invoked more constructive analogies. After all, the actual use of a weapon of mass destruction, by whatever party in the Syrian civil war, is an act of terrorism, a crime. If the gas attacks are seen as terrorism, and as such a universal rather than local risk, it could presumably be credible to invoke the analogy of international cooperation to off-set common threats to humanity, such as contagious diseases, also potentially catastrophic, lethal on a grand scale.

The French foreign minister Fabius, to counter the predictable rejection of the cooperation narrative as unrealistic, could invoke the analogy of paradigm changes in Europe from confrontation and war to cooperation and peace. Visionary leaders of his own country pioneered the change with their former German enemies.

Emotions drive change, both ways

Such analogies of international cooperation against common threats and for peace would produce more positive emotions than those employed by Kerry and Fabius on this occasion.

Emotions are not irrational, but the connection between thoughts and core concerns, our constitutive values. Therefore, emotions, be they positive or negative, may make narratives self-fulfilling. Emotions, more than analyses and arguments, drive change, both ways.