Ivory Coast is a learning moment for the US

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.

Julia Vann | Daily Trojan

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.

5 replies
  1. Likelle
    Likelle says:

    I agree with the previous comments. This is just the Beginning. What is happening in Ivory Coast is not about Gbagbo and Ouattara as it is
 constantly reported in the press. The fight in Ivory Coast is 
a fight about Africa’s real independence 
from colonial powers, which are known in modern terms as the international 
community (France, the UK, the U.S., and the UN secretary general). 
 A pro-Gbagbo defeat in Ivory Coast will set the fight for 
real independence in Africa back many years.

    The International community is using a strange election that took place 
in Ivory Coast last November to put Mr. Ouattara, who is now known in many places
 in Africa as the exported president, in power. The election took place in 
two rounds. Even Ouattara’s people accepted that Gabgbo 
won the first round by some margin. In the second round, the Ivory Coast’s constitutional 
body in charge of the election results declared Gabgbo the winner, 
but a UN-backed commissioner declared Ouattara
the winner from the Ouattara-election headquarters. I do not know a single president in 
the so-called French-speaking Africa who has won any elections of any sort 
in which the opposition recognizes him or her as the winner. The famous international 
community was asleep as usual in July 2009 in Congo and 
in August 2009 in Gabon. The international community suddenly 
woke up in November 2010 after the Ivory Coast election. Yes, the Gulf of Guinea, along with the deep water 
of the Gulf of Mexico and the coasts off Brazil, has few oil resources still to tap for production. The upper part of the Gulf of Guinea 
and the deepwater of the lower part of the Gulf of Guinea are the modern prizes. What will the fight for scare oil resources look like?

    Gbagbo has spent all his adult life in opposition to modern colonial rule, 
whereas Ouattara was a member of this ruling class. 
Lots of Africans have high hopes about President Obama, and I guess it cannot be worse. 
What happened to the slogan “Africa’s future is up to Africans”?

    Ouattara has never been a militant for democracy in any form that I can find. Surprise, surprise. He spent his time either in the non-democratic pre-Gbagbo government or in the IMF, another source of African decline. Now the international community 
has found a committed democrat, in the form of Mr. Ouattara, whom Africa can do 
without and for whom is worth killing score of Africans.

  2. Steven Green
    Steven Green says:

    Having been in Ivory Coast during the start of the civil war in September 2002, the same one that brought out many of the North-South tensions that are at work there today, I can tell you that French military involvement in their former colony is nothing new and has very little to do with Obama’s policy of getting other NATO members to do their part.

    This was post-911, pre-Iraq, with Bush as president, and the civil war trapped about 200 foreigners, mostly Americans, at a school just outside Bouake where the fighting started. As a Canadian living at the school, I recall looking forward to the American Marines finally showing up to get us out of there.

    They didn’t.

    Actually, a small contingent of them made it as far north as Yamoussoukro, but they didn’t dare enter Bouake.

    Instead, it was the French Foreign Legionnaires who brought us out of Bouake and to Yamo, dropping us in American hands who then took us to Abidjan.

    The French never actually left Cote D’Ivoire during the past 8 years, partly because of the large number of their own that were in the country. And they have intervened numerous times, but mostly to protect their own interests, at one point even attacking Gbagbo’s air force after an attempted strike on French assets. They have also protected Ouattara during this whole mess, but have been leary of directly attacking Gbagbo, perhaps because they are already seen as interfering too much in their former colony.

    And no, it’s not over yet. Gbagbo still clings to power. Abidjan is still a mess. The international community, including France, is still mainly protecting their own interests. But if anyone does decide to finish him off, it will be the French, not because Obama did or said anything, but because they take care of their own problems.

  3. c250
    c250 says:

    First off, the Ivory Coast conflict is not “dying down.” It’s escalating. You just can’t read about it because journalists are trapped under their beds in hotels for fear of militias coming to kill foreigners. An untold number of people are being killed by death squads going door to door in Abidjan and Western Ivory Coast has devolved into a massacre. It will continue to be a massacre for months, even after Gbagbo leaves his bunker. I wouldn’t be surprised if Western Ivory Coast — which has been effectively a conflict zone since the first Liberian civil war — continues to be a hotspot of violence for another decade.

    Meanwhile, it may be months before we know what actually happened in Ivory Coast and how many people were actually killed.

    One of the problems with the world wide web is this kind of wikipedia journalism. I respect this piece, the author got most of the story right — but his point is wildly wrong.

    Ivory Coast boiled over precisely because the international community — including other African states — *didn’t* get involved. It’s not like, “Oh, America ignored this conflict, and wow, it went away. Maybe we should ignore more conflicts.” That little syllogism is a mess to unthread.

    If American had cramped down earlier on Gbagbo, had taken out the heavy weapons his militias used to kill hundreds in Abidjan and untold hundreds — maybe thousands — more elsewhere, there may have been peace by now.

    If America had deployed more election observers to Ivory Coast in both rounds, and supported the Carter Center more, there would have been a more clear verdict on the vote.

    What if America had set up relief corridors for refugees? Or played a more active role at the UN to nudge Russia into OKing an Ecowas military intervention?

    I’m not necessarily saying America should have intervened in Ivory Coast, although Obama could have definitely spent a few more of his precious minutes talking about it, if only to dignify the loss of life in the country. But saying “America ignored Ivory Coast and now it has subsided” is a bit like saying “Oh, American ignored Rwanda and now it is one of Africa’s fastest growing economies.”

  4. djabolo
    djabolo says:

    i wonder why most of us are stupid and idiot even when we have a master degree. if i was not , 2 years ago in ivory Coast i would believe that story… i guest most of the western media tell the story the same way, the way wesrtern corporation want us, outsiders, to know it……. Now a day, UN and NATO are used to protect big corporation interest under the pretext they want to say lives. CACAO IN IVORY COAST, OIL IN LIBYA there are always idiots ready to play their games such as those tribes in Cote D’Ivoire and Bengazy Libya. VIVE COCA AND OIL

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