Monday, June 13, 2011

The Intervention That Worked?

Last week, I was surprised to read a headline in The Atlantic: In Côte D'Ivoire, a Model of Successful Intervention. I was interested in hearing this thesis out. Unfortunately, the author, Marco Chown Oved, did not write a convincing or coherent article.

Oved bites off a sizeable assertion, and is given barely two pages to both summarize the conflict and support his argument. The writing suffers in a number of ways, blasting through these complex, multifaceted issues in quick sentences trading in trite phrases. Loosely-defined terms and jargon either muddle the assertions or come off as insensitive.

He even skips clearly defining what exactly he means by intervention. As France has always been on the scene, and UNOCI was established in 2004, he seems to narrowly embrace the term as the military operation which neutralized Gbagbo in his bunker. In skipping over both the decades-old origins of the conflict, as well as the blood on the hands of the victors as much as the vanquished, he sets a very low bar for commendation that the article suggests for the French, the UN, and Ouattara.

For certain Oved doesn't mean to imply the legitimacy any violence, or be so calculating about the loss of human life, but in structuring paragraphs around the tired bromides of realpolitik, he understates the severity of the human and societal harm, and suggests that Gbagbo's removal by the French was an orderly denouement to a theatrical story, rather than an unfortunate, uneasy dissipation of a terrible circumstance--with potentially serious, lasting consequences.

In the end, Oved fails to provide any example of how this could be a positive model for foreign involvement in the affairs of other states, or persuasively argue that the post-election period in Cote D'Ivoire is anything other than another horrible, disappointing episode of state failure in West Africa, one that the rest of the world didn't pay enough attention to.

The portions in blue below are excerpts from the article, with my comments.

But unlike what happened in Libya -- or in Iraq or Afghanistan -- the intervention in Côte d'Ivoire worked.

Côte d'Ivoire...stands as an instructive case study in international intervention, one which was swift, decisive and -- most importantly -- avoided what would surely have been a far-worse outcome.

If this article's definition of "international intervention" is merely employing superior weaponry to force an end to a violent standoff, then maybe this could be "an instructive case study." And even in that narrow definition, surely Libya shows that the use of massive firepower is not enough to unblock a stalemate. Iraq and Afghanistan?

These sentences also ignore the larger, more structural questions of the earlier opportunities for the UN, France and others to intervene, and their complicity and contributions to the situation in the first place, which stretch back for years.

While the French military operation which extracted Gbagbo from his hideout succeeded in apprehending him, and led to a gradual deceleration of the violence occurring throughout that city and country, it was not "swift" nor "decisive" -- it was slow and indecisive. The UN, already on the ground for years, did not protect civilians to the extent that it was formally authorized to do nor that it had the military force to-- the peacekeepers once again did not keep the peace. No consequences pressured Gbagbo as he stalled for time in the New Year, with the country's economy collapsing as he sent negotiators away empty handed and foreign powers dithered.

Lastly, not here or anywhere else in the article does Oved discussion the problematic association with French power that will continue to undermine Ouattara's legitimacy, and feed into conspiracies about foreign control of Cote D'Ivoire's government and economy.

These "death squads" would threaten and beat their targets, later returning to take the person away. Bodies began to turn up around town. City morgues, ordered not to release any corpses, filled up with bullet-ridden bodies, the tell-tale stench perceptible from blocks away.

It's hard to say when the case for a military intervention can be made, when exactly things went from deplorable to unacceptable. Between December and March, life in the city continued as best it could. People learned to cope with the roadblocks and the heavy security presence, the disappearances and the occasional body on the side of the road. The world, however, started to take notice once the killing came out into the light of day.

Yes, it is hard to say--maybe instead of saying "its hard to say," Oved could have explored this issue a little, especially if this episode is supposed to be "instructive." Also, people "cope" with the flu, not disappearances, the occasional body, or killing-- especially when they themselves are the bodies piling up in the morgue or on the side of the road. What a thoughtless choice of words.

Incidentally, by putting "death squads" in quotation marks, the author implies that these were not, in fact, death squads. Surely he doesn't mean this.

While the UN mission has been operating under its most aggressive rules of engagement, known as a "Chapter 7" mandate, since it began in 2004, it had routinely avoided intervening in the post-electoral crisis. Local mission chief Choi Young-jin simply certified the results showing that Ouattara had won, and then sat back and hoped Ivorians, and later African mediators, would be able to work things out. But with hostilities in the open, and no clear resolution in sight, UN and French forces swung into action...

Had the rebels been left to their own devices, Gbagbo's heavily armed soldiers would have almost surely turned Abidjan into a bloodbath.

What is the threshold to declare that Abidjan was not already a "bloodbath?" The UN stood on the sidelines of an increasingly ridiculous, dangerous, and violent situation. They did sit back, they did not swing into action. To praise the UN and French actions is to set a very low bar for satisfactory performance when foreign entities have the power to alter the course of a stand-off.

Now, almost two months later, the streets of Abidjan are bustling. The marketplaces have reopened and life is returning to normal. Pro-Gbagbo police officers are back on patrol, working for their new president. If it weren't for the bullet holes on the facades of buildings and the torn election posters yellowing on lampposts, you could almost say that every trace of the crisis has been erased.

You could almost say that, but that would be horribly insensitive and inaccurate. The statement ignores the collective, household and individual trauma, both physical and psychological, caused by collapse of the economy and the society. Also, the presence of thousands of missing and dead family members, and of tens of thousands of international refugees, is here excluded from the accounting of the "trace of the crisis."

Men, women, and children are hungry, sick, injured, and traumatized. Too fearful to return home. Jobs, farms and homes are gone. Months of education, nutrition, health care and general welfare have disappeared.

Life is "returning to normal" most probably because people need to eat, and trade, and earn money, to survive-- they cannot afford to stay at home and grieve; they need to make some hard currency in the market to feed their families.

This passage comes off as lazy, taxi-on-the-way-to-the-airport journalism. I was startled to read it from someone who reports to have spent a full year in the country.

While the ongoing reprisals and revenge killings carried out by the new president's forces are a serious problem, they amount to neither an illegitimate power grab nor an attempt to drag the entire country into war. Justifying war is a dangerous thing, and the estimated 3000 deaths will remain a national trauma. But in Côte d'Ivoire, a military operation put the breaks on an escalating situation that was turning out far worse. It was an intervention we might learn from, especially before attempting regime change again.

These sentences diminish very serious issues given cursory mention. Murders perpetrated by ethnic discrimination will have continued detrimental pressure on both urban and rural Ivoirian society. This passage doesn't entertain the degree of likelihood that future violence or conflict will explode from these simmering tensions and need for reprisal-- a fresh source of division and anger which can last across generations.

If there was a polemic to be taken up here, it might be that this absolutely was an attempt to drag the entire country into war. Seemingly, Oved doesn't define the post-election conflict as a country-wide war. Again, what are the thresholds for definition here?

It took less than two weeks. It removed Gbagbo from power only once it became evident that local opposition could not. And in doing so, it prevented those missiles in Gbagbo's basement from being employed against innocent civilians.

Cote D'Ivoire has been disintegrating for years, and has been divided in two for nearly a decade. The election took place four months ago. The economy began to shut down in the early months of 2011. The mass exodus of urban and rural communities to safety began about the same time--the majority of which have not returned to their original homesteads; a huge number of whom continue to strain the already-meagre resources of eastern Liberia. Massacres took place in both Abidjan and the Liberian frontier over the course of a month.

What took less than two weeks is for French military forces to extract Gbagbo from his city-center redoubt. This ended the preposterous schizophrenia of the country having two presidents, and left a damaged, weakened country in its aftermath. Yes, this is better than if no helicopters had taken to the skies, if Gbagbo were allowed to rule.

But to wrap it up so neatly, to roll the credits over the scene, fade to black, is to miss many of the lessons that could be learned from this horrific conflict.

Cote D'Ivoire is surely a model of instruction on international involvement and intervention-- but probably not at all in the way Oved suggests.


Our Man in Africa said...

Some valid points, but I think you'd best say 'the UN peacekeeping force was founded in 2003'. As your link clearly indicates, UNOCI was formed in 2004.

MM Jones said...

Thanks for clarifying-- I hadn't appreciated the differentiation between MINUCI and UNOCI until you pointed that out.

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