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The other African war we were supposed to stop

Believe me, I know: You have no bandwidth for the Ivory Coast today. But that may be exactly why the situation in this West African country — far from the geopolitics of Libya and the human tragedy of Japan — is going south so quickly. It looks increasingly like outgoing President Laurent Gbagbo has made ...

ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images
ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

Believe me, I know: You have no bandwidth for the Ivory Coast today. But that may be exactly why the situation in this West African country — far from the geopolitics of Libya and the human tragedy of Japan — is going south so quickly. It looks increasingly like outgoing President Laurent Gbagbo has made a calculation that the world just doesn’t have enough free hands to stop him if he pushes the country back into war.

Once upon a time, the world was supposed to intervene — militarily if necessary — to ensure democratic transition and prevent conflict in the Ivory Coast. These days, the momentum is gone. And in fact, the closer this country comes to civil war, the less interested anyone is at getting involved. I get it; geopolitically, the Ivory Coast doesn’t hold a candle to the Middle East. But how about all of West Africa — all of which is threatened by the current conflict? 

This is the real thing. In a message on state television last night, Gbagbo — who has refused to step down after losing an internationally certified election in November — asked civilians to get involved in the fight to "neutralize" his opponents. That’s about as close as you get to saying pick up your machetes and join me. Or forget machetes; Ivory Coast is still heavily armed from its civil war last decade. Gbagbo certainly hasn’t been shy about using military force lately; his forces are thought to have been behind a mortar attack on a market yesterday that left 40 people injured. Earlier this week there were reports of his using helicopters and tanks to mow down suspected opposition supporters. 

The optimist watching this situation might argue that Gbagbo is turning to military force because he is running out of other options — or more specifically, he’s running out of cash. He’s trying to play every card he can before folding his hand.

That’s not my read of Gbagbo, however. This is a man who doesn’t know how to fold. Nor do his opponents, for that matter. Opposition supporters of the president-elect, Alassane Ouattara, have the moral high ground for backing the democratic process. But the formal rebel troops who remain loyal Ouattara are already involved in fighting in rural Ivory Coast, where they are taking territory from government troops. 

The more the conflict escalates, the fewer consequences there are — for Gbagbo and for any rebel forces who also perpetrate atrocities. France today says it wants more sanctions. But that’s kid stuff. 

Speaking about Libya’s conflict this afternoon, U.S. President Barack Obama warned that the words of the international community would "ring hollow" if we didn’t intervene to protect civilians in Libya. These are promises we’ve made before.

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