By Griffin W. Huschke, Mayme and Herb Frank Research Fellow
The recent fighting in the Ivory Coat has a familiar ring to it. In the capitol city of Abdijan, the incumbent government denounced by the world community is desperately clinging to power as untrained rebels armed with AK-47’s and RPG’s advance on the government strongholds. But as Foreign Policy.com recently pointed out, Ivory Coast is a much different situation than Libya–few serious policy makers have suggested intervening in the conflict like the recent Western bombing sorties in Libya, which has received a lot more attention from news outlets and foreign policy practitioners. But people are dying in Ivory Coat just as they were in Libya, and in light of the recent speech by President Obama, it seems that the U.S. is leaning towards a foreign policy more focused on protecting civilians from genocide and war than strictly following national interests. So why hasn’t the Ivory Coast seen the same amount of attention and pressure to intervene that Libya has?
It's important to remember that any intervention should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis–laying down a hard and fast doctrine on the responsibility to protect isn’t good for anybody. Even though civilians may be in harms way, sometimes intervention from outside forces do more harm than good. This is especially in conflicts like the Ivory Coast, when there’s already so much confusion about the allegiances of the combatants. Often in these cases its hard to tell the difference between soldiers, militiamen, armed civilians protecting themselves, and children with toy guns playing in the wrong place at the wrong time. Adding a third party without very good human terrain information to the already very foggy situation would only serve to make it more dangerous for civilians trying to stay out of harms way.
But what about Libya–why are those rebels easier to support than the ones in the Ivory Coast? Well, part of it has to do with operational and tactical advantages. Its difficult to hide columns of tanks and supply lines in the Libyan desert, and as the Gulf War boldly demonstrated, the U.S. Air Force has a really easy time picking off armored columns in the desert. Also, the somewhat divided nature of the conflict (generally the rebels have been marching from the East as loyalists have been moving from the West) has thus far lent itself to easier friend or foe identification. The reports from Ivory Coast, on the other hand, haven’t featured many large scale movements of vehicles (probably owing to the country’s small size and mobilizations that occurred before the conflict began), and new from the country have been so confused that any intervention would risk damaging their allies as much as helping them.
There’s been a lot of hype surrounding civilian casualties as there result of NATO interventions in Afghanistan and Libya. As painful as it is to hear reports of mass casualties in Ivory Coast, adding another force in that country would probably only lower the chances for survival for those caught in harms way.