These days, with a new revolution seemingly every week, it can be hard to keep track of current events. Although Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria have dominated the headlines, you might have missed what has possibly been the deadliest conflict of all — the one in the Ivory Coast.
The situation in the Ivory Coast presents a powerful argument for those who oppose international intervention solely for humanitarian purposes.
The United States chose not to get involved, and the conflict has subsided without U.S. intervention.
The dispute in the Ivory Coast started in November, when a long-delayed election was finally held. The winner was opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, and the United Nations, African Union and every Western country recognized him as the legitimate president. Incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refused to give up the presidency. Instead, he took the oath of office and kept his government in place.
Nobody in the international community knew quite what to do. No country was willing to intervene militarily to depose Gbagbo, but without that threat there was little that could be done.
Economic sanctions seemed to punish Ivorians without affecting Gbagbo, who refused to negotiate with international envoys. There were even 11,000 U.N. peacekeepers in the country, but they were powerless to change the status quo.
Not surprisingly, this sticky situation led to violent conflict, and eventually war broke out. Ouatarra’s forces marched last week on the commercial capital, Abidjan, and have now conquered most of the city — except for the compound where Gbagbo is holed up. Gbagbo mounted a fierce resistance, which motivated U.N. and French forces to intervene on Ouatarra’s behalf. Officials hope that Gbagbo can be persuaded to give up in the near future and that most of the fighting is over, but estimates are that more than 1,500 have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced.
From a U.S. perspective, though, war in the Ivory Coast was never a major priority.
Paying attention to conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa has never been an American specialty, and between the revolts sweeping the Arab world and, more recently, the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear meltdown über-disaster in Japan, there has been little room on the front page for yet another case of African civil war.
Without any public interest, there has been very little official interest, either. Although protests in Egypt made the front page and demanded an immediate and decisive response from the U.S. government, the lack of coverage of the Ivory Coast meant the government could get away with dedicating only nominal resources to helping resolve the crisis.
Now that it seems the conflict in the Ivory Coast is winding down, though, the American people can take away more from the conflict than what we actually put into it.
The limited scope of Americans’ attention to the conflict was not a bad thing — there are too many problems in the world for everyone to be educated about all of them. Without public support, however, there is little incentive for the government to get involved.
In fact, even when we do decide to intervene somewhere, there is no guarantee we will have the tools necessary to succeed. In this case, France and the U.N. have been involved in the Ivory Coast situation all along, but simply lacked the credibility and leverage to force Gbagbo out.
The United States remains the strongest country in the world, with the most sophisticated military and largest economy, but that does not mean we can influence everything the way we would like to.
This case is a example of one the hallmarks of President Obama’s foreign policy — insisting our allies and other powers share responsibility for the world’s problems. In his speech on the Libyan intervention, Obama said, “The burden of action should not be America’s alone …[allies and partners should] bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs.”
In the end, it seems the Ivorian conflict played out exactly as it would have had we become involved in the beginning; our role was simply replaced by France. From a U.S. perspective, this is a much better outcome — saving American money, credibility and possibly lives.
All of these add up to produce an argument in favor of realism in deciding how to allocate American resources.
Next time the President suggests an intervention based on idealism or moralism, it might be wise to remember the lessons of the Ivory Coast.
Daniel Charnoff is a senior majoring in international relations (global business). His column, “Through the Static,” runs Fridays.