Laurent Gbagbo, President of the Ivory Coast, has discovered what Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Kim Jong Il in North Korea , Omar Bashir in Sudan, and Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus among others have learned : if a tyrant is strong enough, violent enough, shameless enough and stubborn enough, he (there seems to be a world wide shortage of 'She-Tyrants') will be left pretty much alone. Often, if they espouse the right ideology, or if they make the right commercial concessions, they can find support and funding from ambitious governments like China or Iran. It also seems that Gbagbo has had little difficulty in finding a prominent American public advocate, former Clinton Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Espy. He also has at least one strong African ally in Angola.
Gbagbo is without doubt a bloodstained, ruthless tyrant, who is trying to hang onto power in the face of International Pressure, UN Sanctions, and a strong internal opposition movement. As of December 26, at least 170 people have been killed in the post election violence. There have been reports of mass graves; Gbagbo's supporters are suspected of being responsible for them.
In France, the former colonial power which has long used the Ivory Coast as its main operational base in West Africa, there is near unanimity that Gbago deserves to be deposed, especially as, according to election observers from the UN and the EU, he lost the November 28th 2010 vote to opposition leader Alassane Ouattara. Even Gbabo's old friends in the French Socialist party have deserted him. The Obama administration has also demanded that Gbabo step down.
Ouattara has called for the use of force by the EU, the UN and by neighboring African states to oust Gbagbo. Some West African states have, at least in their communiques, threatened to use military power. A delegation of African leaders will visit, apparently to try and convince Gbagbo to step down. The French media is complaining that the "International Community is impotent." The possibility of a Lebanese type of civil war is very real, Ouattara's militia, Forces Nouvelles (FN), which had been in the north are now deployed in small numbers in the main city, Abidjan. There are enough men and arms on both sides to start a war, but neither side has any hope of being able decisively to win one. Even though Gbagbo has been offered amnesty and the permission to take all his assets, including his stature as a former head if state, with him if he goes into exile, thousands of refugees are now fleeing from the Ivory Coast into the formerly war torn nation of Liberia -- a sign of how successful the new government has been and also how well the Bush/Obama Liberian reconstruction policy has worked. .
By analogy (always admittedly inexact), in 2002 and 2003 the French government and the French left were doing everything they could to stop the US from ousting Saddam Hussein. At the time, Saddam more popular in France than Gbagbo is now: -- compared to Saddam, Gbagbo looks like Nelson Mandela; also, the Ivory Coast controls only a tiny fraction of the world's oil production. Further, at the same time as Bush launched the attack on Saddam, the Ivory Coast was split between the southern part of the nation, controlled by Gbagbo, and the north, controlled by a rebel alliance. France and the UN have maintained a peacekeeping force to separate the two sides. In 2004, Gbagbo sent a Sukhoi Su-24 attack jet, flown by Belorussian mercenaries, to hit an outpost. When nine French soldiers were killed, the French air force replied by wiping out the entire Ivorian air force. In the recent 2010 crisis, the French Defense Minister ruled out, at least for now, the use of the 900 French troops still based in Abidjan to install Ouattara in office. He has threatened, however, to intervene if there is any attack on the thousands of French civilians living in the Ivory Coast.
The Ivory Coast produces something like 37% of the world's cacao, which gives them a stranglehold on world chocolate production. Compared to oil, the riches that flow from the West's addiction to chocolate are hardly the stuff of raw geopolitical power. If global chocolate production were disrupted, hundreds of millions of people worldwide would be unhappy, but the world economy would survive.
Some French intellectuals are saying that only an intervention with UN approval would be legitimate. As with so much about the UN, however, even if a resolution were to pass the Security Council, who would implement it? France says it would not; the local African governments are too weak to launch a major invasion; and UN peacekeepers are neither trained nor equipped to do the job. Without France, no European nation is going to risk its forces' lives in West Africa. That leaves either the US or China. The Beijing government may be trying to increase its influence in Africa, but probably not by invading African capitals; and anyway they lack the power-projection forces needed to accomplish this task.
In spite of America's engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the need to maintain forces in South Korean, the US does have enough spare power to overthrow Gbagbo if President Obama were to give the order. A US Navy Amphibious Ready Group with three or four ships, including a large helicopter carrier, with a 2000-man Marine Expeditionary Unit on board, could do the job. The aftermath would be messy, and the Defense Department would do its best to get the US forces out of the country as soon as possible, but it could be done. This however is extremely unlikely. As an alternative, the US could provide Special Forces support for an African intervention to depose Gbagbo, but that also is probably not in the cards.
In spite of much paranoia, propaganda, and claims that the US wants to oust France from Africa, the US has traditionally followed the lead given by Paris in the Francophone nations there.. The French would not want to see is a new leader in Abidjan installed with US help. So in the Ivory Coast, the French government and a majority of France's intellectual class are in the uncomfortable position of wanting a certain end, but are unwilling to support the means that would give it to them. Meanwhile they fret and complain that Gbagbo and most of his team were schooled in French universities, apparently forgetting that Pol Pot, the murderous Cambodian Communist, was also a product of France's educational system.
Eight years ago, the French and many others, claimed that if the US attacked Saddam Hussein, the result would be a global disaster: the Gulf would erupt; the Arab street would demand that their governments shut off oil supplies to the West, and Saddam would be more popular than Ben Laden. In 2002 the iconic French left wing journalist Jean Daniel wrote that, "The worst outcome would be if a military expedition reinforced his [Saddam's] power or if Western weakness helped him stay in power" -- a perfect example of wanting the ends but not the means.
At the same time, money from the UN's corrupt Oil -for-Food program was finding its way into the pockets of countless Western politicians and anti war activists, many of whom were in France. It is important to recognize, nevertheless, that the support for the Iraqi dictator was not simply due to corruption but to the French elite's idea of what was best for France. Iraq had been an excellent customer for French technology and weapons.* The diplomats at France's Quai D'Orsay saw Saddam's Iraq as a sort of trophy that they had won away from "Anglo-Saxon'" influence. Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait forced France to join in the sanctions regime against Iraq; and President Mitterrand, over the objections of his ferociously anti-American Defense Minister, Jean Pierre Chevenement, joined the coalition that pushed the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait.
After 1991, France's governing elites began to pine for the power and influence that had once flowed from their relationship with Saddam. They constantly pressed for a relaxation of the UN Sanctions; and they condemned President William Jefferson Clinton's 1998 air campaign against Iraq, code named Desert Fox: the 2003 role of France's Foreign Minister at the time, Dominique de Villepin, in rallying the UN against the US is all too well known.
So now in dealing with the Ivory Coast, France and its leaders are faced with a set of unpleasant alternatives. President Nicolas Sarkozy could try and rally a Bush type of "Coalition of the Willing" to enforce the results of the election. Or he could leave it to West Africa's governments, which may either do nothing, or, if they invade, set off a bloody civil war that no one wants. Or Sarkozy could ask President Barack Obama to take the lead. In any event, France's once powerful, direct political influence in Africa would seem to be a thing of the past. France may still have influence in places like the Ivory Coast, but more than ever it needs both US, and, above all, African support
* The claim is often made that US sold weapons to Saddam, but no one seems to be able to describe what exactly these weapons were. No US missiles, tanks, guns or planes were in the Iraqi inventory, indeed the only US systems that had ever been directly sold to Iraq during that period were a bunch of Commercial Utility Cargo Vehicles (CUCVs) normally referred to as Chevy Blazers.