Cote d’Ivoire and the Obama “Un-doctrine”

Forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara (photo: Reuters, Emmanuel Braun)

Despite the administration’s declarations to the contrary, President Obama’s March 28th speech on Libya sounded suspiciously like a declaration of doctrine on the use of force. Within minutes, commentators were drawing parallels and asking, “Is Ivory Coast next?”

In November of 2010, Alassane Ouattara was declared winner of the elections held in Ivory Coast–elections deemed internationally to be fair and legitimate. The incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, has refused to step down, and the result has been a civil war of increasing violence. Their respective armies have been in a tug-of-war over major towns and infrastructure for the past several months, and violence is reaching new levels, as approximately 800 people were found shot or hacked by machetes in the town of Duekoue last week.

As of now, the situation in Ivory Coast is not a significant threat to U.S. national security, but some speculate that if the same standards were applied in this west African nation as have been in Libya, U.S. forces could easily become involved. Despite President Obama and his staff having meticulously avoided the terms “precedent,” “standard,” and especially “doctrine,” we can only assume the list of justifications for the use of force in Libya that he gave on March 28th, would be the same measuring stick used in other situations.

  • Prevention of massacre (or other defense of “American values”)
  • International support
  • Plea for help
  • Ability to accomplish the mission without troops on the ground
  • No attempt at regime change

Whether these are healthy or legitimate requirements for the use of force, and whether some or all of these requirements are met in Ivory Coast may be debated, but in any case, the Commander in Chief left himself an escape clause in this un-doctrine.

  • “America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs . . . we must always measure our interests against the need for action.”

This is the key sentence that guides a forecast of U.S. involvement in Ivory Coast. In fact, it would not be surprising to learn that language such as this was crafted with Ivory Coast in mind. A need for action certainly exists, and as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned, ┬áthe U.S. is “deeply concerned” about the violence, but you’ll notice it was the Secretary of State issuing the call for peaceful resolution, not the president. You’ll notice as well that the U.S. has not announced any summits, meetings, or forms of legislation on the matter. This is because the administration is measuring the need for action against our interests, just as the president’s speech states. Noble as it may be to desire preservation of innocent life, serious U.S. interest ends there.

Cocoa and Oil are the only significant resources Ivory Coast has to offer. Cocoa is readily available from other sources, and the amounts of oil available for U.S. consumption are minimal. France has significantly higher economic stakes is stability within Ivory Coast, which is why we see an upswing in French troop numbers and action. Stability in the region of Ivory Coast holds little benefit to us, over instability. Even setting aside President Obama’s requirements for international support, a plea for help, and the avoidance of regime change, we are still left with the fact that America’s interest does not match the need.

America is not heartless, and politicians would certainly never want to appear so. The U.S.will continue to be morally supportive of peace keepers, humanitarian efforts, and the success of democratic elections, but the rhetoric will be kept to the minimum, while still appearing appropriate. Barring a catastrophic turn of events (such as the sudden widespread use of biological or chemical weapons, which is unlikely in the region), the U.S. will not commit any military forces to an additional intervention in Ivory Coast. It is much more likely we will cheer from the sidelines as U.N. peace keepers and French troops try to handle the situation.

It was never President Obama’s intention to put the prevention of all inhumanity on the shoulders of the U.S., which is why his speech was crafted so particularly. Such a claim would have been unpopular, unfeasible, and in the end, unjust. We can expect the U.S. to continue being “concerned” about violence in Ivory Coast, but we can also expect the situation not to have a significant impact on U.S. national security, or the use of our military forces.

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