Is aggression any less risky than nonaggression in West Africa?

What role for Western powers in West Africa? Bill Easterly, writing in the Guardian, tells us to take a deep breath and count to ten.

The flurry of the moment is Paul Collier’s proposal that foreign powers give incentives to the Ivoirian army to remove their (arguably) unlawful head of state.

Bill’s point: Collier too calmly and blithely presents us with a risky, unknown, potentially disastrous recommendation. So do many who bandy about a military intervention.

That’s a fair statement. Forget that: it’s a crucial statement. We should write it on our foreheads. Recent history shows us that Western peoples are more than capable of military overconfidence, even delusion, so much so that in the past decade they’ve sent their own sons and daughters into indefinite combat. Twice.

We’d be smart to ask: Just what might we do with the sons and daughters of West Africans?

Even so, if I were the Assistant Secretary of State, or Ghana’s President, I’d lay my head back on the table. I know this is perilous, I’d think. Of course I haven’t clue what the future holds. But is leaving Gbagbo be any less costly or uncertain in its consequences?

Not necessarily for northerners in Cote d’Ivoire. The close colleague of a friend–a northerner, trying to flee to Ghana–just surfaced from detention in a mini-concentration camp run by an ethnic militia, beaten and penniless. He was luckier than some.

What of upcoming elections Sudan, Nigeria, Uganda, and a host of uncertain others on the horizon? I have argued before: the number one threat to continued African stability and growth are the innumerable “new leaders” of Africa who appear unwilling to become Africa’s old leaders. Gbagbo was among the most thuggish, but his peers show great promise.

We cannot advocate against aggression without advocating for an alternative. What is the cost and risk of nonaggression?

Bill has elsewhere argued, vociferously and probably correctly, that democracy and human rights are not an outcome of development, nor a luxury affordable to a few. They are not just essential to economic progress, he says, but are development and progress itself.

The tricky thing with rights and democracy is that they do not necessarily come to those who wait.

If you let me be sloppy with my history, I would venture this: most of us who enjoy rights and democracy owe them to cabals that took enormous, callous, possibly careless risks. Those who succeed we call nation-builders. The ones who fail we call war criminals. (Remember: both Bill and I write from a nation who puts a former child soldier turned genocidal populist on its twenty dollar bill.)

My point is not that aggression is the way to go. If you’ve read my previous posts, with my limited understanding of the politics, I lean towards more peacefully making Gbagbo, and Cote d’Ivoire, pariahs (though even here I fear the terrible risks for Ivoirians).

On reflection, one of the reasons I lean in this direction is that I don’t believe the West, or Cote d’Ivoire’s neighbors, are capable of decisive, consistent, principled, and resolute action—aggressive or not. In a different world I might easily succumb to the view that, along with a large coalition of Ivoirian citizens and politicians, rights and freedoms must be seized, even at great risk and cost.

But we live in a world where dithering and inconsistency are the norm even in nations of strategic Western interest. And one where we look back on previous West African interventions in their neighbors are see the cure as worse than the disease. But as we dither and inact, let’s not assume than nonaggression is any less risky or consequential than the alternative.

Except, that is, for us.