Does the ‘Obama doctrine’ apply to the Ivory Coast?

Does the ‘Obama doctrine’ apply to the Ivory Coast?

Not 30 minutes after Barack Obama had finished speaking last night, the pundits on CNN, the Tweetosphere, and the blogosphere, were abuzz with talk of a new "Obama doctrine" defined by the notion that the United States — unlike some countries in the world — cannot sit back and watch mass slaughters unfold. Most pulled out this paragraph of the address as a rough definition:

To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and -– more profoundly -– our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.

This rings eerily familiar to those familiar with the "Responsibility to Protect" — an idea that rose from the fires of the Rwandan genocide as well as the bloody civils wars of the 1990s and early 2000s — Bosnia, Sierra Leone, and Liberia to name a few. Affirmed by the U.N. General Assembly in 2005, R2P (as it is known to its proponents) stipulates that the international community has a responsibility to protect civilians when a country’s government fails to do so — or even threatens those very lives itself. 

If you’ve been following my blogging of the Ivory Coast at all in recent weeks, you might think you know what I’m going to say next: If Libya, why not the Ivory Coast? I wouldn’t be the only person to raise the comparison. Mark Leon Goldberg at U.N. Dispatch discussed it today on his blog. 

But in fact, I think those who define the Obama doctrine as a rough equivalent of R2P missed the most important caveats of the speech — which are, in many ways, its crux:

America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country -– Libya — at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Qaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.

Why Libya and not the Ivory Coast? Because in Libya, we had the ability, the opportunity, and the interests — a critical triumverate that made it both logistically feasible and politically palatable to intervene. In the Ivory Coast, almost none of these things are true. This is not a case in which our urge to "do something" is matched by a clear answer for what "something" is.

First, there is no clear tactical way to break the deadlock there; what we have seen unfold in recent weeks shows every indication of civil war, and nothing short of a ground intervention would be likely to stop it militarily. We’re not talking about one agressor — there are armed forces on both sides of this political deadlock that are actively fighting.

The opportunity is not there either; unlike in Libya, in the Ivory Coast, the regional body, the African Union, is far more reluctant to see Western forces bear down. Instead, they’ve asked for a boosted mandate for U.N. peacekeepers on the ground — many of whom are Nigerian. 

Finally, is it politically palatable? Much as it hurts me to say this: No.  A 13 percent increase in the price of cocoa is not going to get Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ Meet the Press threshold for vital interests. It’s just not.

So where does this leave us on the Ivory Coast? It means we have to start being a lot more creative, knowing that no one is going to fly in over the skies of Abidjan and protect civilians. That means we have to use the less-blunt tools in our toolbox: political engagement, financial sanctions and pressure, regional advocacy, humanitarian aid. If the U.N. Security Council can bump up the mandate of the peacekeepers on the ground — and send in the equipment and logistics they need — that would go a long way. If the African Union and the regional block, ECOWAS, can muster more pressure and less accommodation on outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo, that would be great too. 

This is not a do-nothing approach. It is a realistic one. U.S. diplomats are engaged on this issue; those I’ve spoken to are as alarmed and as preoccupied as you would expect them to be by a situation that looks more grave by the hour. But if we are waiting for the White House to fix this problem, we’ll be waiting a long time.

I’m grateful for the attention that Libya has garnered for the Ivory Coast — maybe it wouldn’t have even made page 3 without it. But the Ivory Coast doesn’t meet the criteria of the Obama doctrine as layed out by the president. So it’s time for some hard thinking about better — and more — options. Becuase as I’ve written again and again, on its current trajectory, this thing gets much worse before it gets better.