Is Ivory Coast really a great model for international intervention?

Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara spoke about his country's violent electoral stalemate Tuesday at a meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Fred Dufour/AP
Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara poses on the TV set of French channel TF1 prior to an interview that was part of the evening news broadcast last week, in Paris.

Before he got to the Palestinian statehood part of his United Nations speech today, President Obama mentioned the West African nation of Ivory Coast as a prime example of international intervention done right. He applauded the will of the "international community" to get involved in a messy situation.

But who precisely got involved, and when, is pretty important to the analysis.

The fact that French forces, in cooperation with the UN, played a pivotal role in ousting renegade President Laurent Gbagbo in April led to a flurry of anti-interventionist commentary about ex-colonial meddling in African affairs.

And if the Obama administration sees Ivory Coast as the perfect argument for international intervention, the country's president sees it differently.

It turns out Alassane Ouattara, sworn in as president of the Ivory Coast after a violent showdown with his predecessor, is no fan of the African Union.

He has in the past criticized the AU for dithering while the stalemate dragged for months after he won last November's election. He spoke yesterday of the AU's failure during a meeting with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

ECOWAS [The Economic Community of West African States] can mobilize troops and could have really intervened into the scene” – just as it had once threatened to do – “but the matter was taken to the African Union," said Ouattara, arguing that that AU has no capacity to intervene militarily on the ground. "We gave it time, from November till about February/March. We had the capacity, with my associates, to really remove Gbagbo by force. So we have a dilemma. Should we wait for the ECOWAS and the UN, or should we move on, on our own?”

"We finally made the decision, after the African Union steps did not come to fruition, we decided to move on,” Ouattara concluded. “In three days actually, the army took over the whole country, except in Abidjan, where Gbagbo had concentrated his force.”

Ouattara still needed the help from the UN and the French to take back the capital, and take out Gbagbo. And maybe that final assault needed all the institutional maneuvering that came before it.

Thomas J. Bassett, a professor of geography at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Scott Straus, associate professor of political science and international studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, made that point this summer in a piece that ran in the magazine Foreign Affairs.

The key message of their article is this: The AU and the regional body ECOWAS consistently backed Ouattara throughout most of the crisis – a notable fact because prior to this, no one would have accused either group of consistency.

That commitment to honoring Ouattara's victory at the ballot box, in turn, “shrank the space for diplomatic maneuver for Gbagbo,” which made his life harder not only in the circles of international power brokering, but on the ground: The Central Bank of West Africa, which backs the country’s currency, cut off Gbagbo’s money supply, argued Mr. Bassett. The UN Security Council unanimously approved the military action that helped take him out.

These are not small things, even if they do take four or more months. It was, the Foreign Affairs article suggests, a perfect example of regional pressures successfully levered, military manpower legitimately deployed, objective mercifully achieved.

But for Ouattara, the lesson of his eventual ascension to power is not that the wheels of international bureaucracy sometimes turn just as intended.

The lesson he draws is something decidedly less fashionable: “Domestic problems should be taken care of by domestic forces.”

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