An Era of Intervention?

The ways in which the Libya and Côte d'Ivoire conflicts are resolved could shape geopolitical norms for a generation or more


A French tank crosses General de Gaulle bridge in Abidjan. By Luc Gnago/Reuters

In the spring of 1993, a few months into negotiations between government and rebel forces in Rwanda, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense James Woods prepared for Bill Clinton's arrival at the White House. A veteran of both the Reagan and Bush administrations, Woods had watched the Rwanda civil war take on increasingly ethnic overtones and worried the fragile cease-fire could collapse. So when asked to write out the problems Clinton might face in office, "I put Rwanda-Burundi on the list," Woods told PBS Frontline several years later. But he was told that sectarian violence in the small African nation was not a concern for the U.S.

"I won't go into personalities, but I received guidance from higher authorities, 'Look, if something happens in Rwanda-Burundi, we don't care. Take it off the list. It's not -- U.S. national interest is not involved and,' you know, 'we can't put all these silly humanitarian issues on lists like important problems like the Middle East and North Korea' and so on," Woods recalled. When war resumed, and the war turned to genocide, the U.S. -- along with France, Italy, and Belgium -- sent enough troops to evacuate its civilians, and then left.

Less than a year earlier, 18 U.S. soldiers had been killed and 73 wounded in a short but disastrous mission in Somalia. Invading Rwanda to stop the civil war would have required thousands of foreign troops on extended, open-ended deployments. The Clinton administration decided that intervention was not an option.

Though Clinton personally expressed regret for this many times, the message, captured in countless books and films and ingrained into both political consensus and popular culture, was unmistakable: the world does not care. It does not care about humanitarian causes, about Africa, or about the slaughter of civilians in far-off places with no immediate strategic interest -- at least, not when caring requires much more than a few public condemnations or, at most, imposing some sanctions. As the New Yorker's Philip Gourevitch put it in the same Frontline documentary, "I think that anybody who still believes that the world will not let it happen again, who believes the words 'Never again,' is deluding themselves dangerously."

Today, the U.S. and France are leading two large-scale, primarily humanitarian interventions, both in Africa. While neither conflict -- Côte d'Ivoire and Libya -- has yet resolved, and while their immediate as well as long-term damage are not yet clear, in both cases the international intervention appears to have been of tremendous value for three reasons. The civilian death toll, though high in both countries, would likely have been far higher without the United Nations-approved action. Second, intervention looks like it may be able to drastically hasten what could have otherwise been far longer conflict. And perhaps most importantly, the interventions send an important message to the despots and would-be despots of the world that stealing an election or slaughtering one's own people just became a great deal riskier.

It's impossible to know what would have happened in Côte d'Ivoire without intervention. But the country looked set to at least return to the civil war of 2004, plunging the country that had become an African success story into yet another of the bloody, sectarian-tinged, insurgent-heavy wars that have plagued West Africa for decades. President Laurent Gbagbo, refusing to cede power after losing his election, would have faced little opposition as loyalist forces and mercenaries mowed down one peaceful protest after another. The corpses dumped along roadsides, in a grisly ritual meant to quietly purge the nation of 20 million of all political opposition, would have continued to mount. As Gbagbo nationalized natural resources and as fighting made the cities, once areas of manufacturing and a slowly growing middle class, inhospitable, this once-vibrant African economy would have headed for collapse.

Côte d'Ivoire's economy will likely take years to recover. But the armed conflict, which looked ready to drag on for years and to create sectarian tension between the Muslim north and Christian south that could have lasted even longer, appears headed for an imminent and possibly decisive conclusion after only four months. Gbagbo, now holed up in a bunker for the third straight day, has agreed to negotiate the terms of his surrender and departure. His generals are calling for a cease fire. A United Nations and French assault has crippled his forces and paved the way for fighters loyal to Alassane Ouattara, the rightful winner of the presidential election. Months of U.S.- and French-imposed sanctions have devastated Gbagbo's ability to pay his troops. U.S.-led diplomatic efforts have isolated him regionally and brought the African Union, normally deferential to dictators and loathe to intervene, to take one of its toughest and most unified stands in the body's history. Now Gbagbo, rather than slowly burning his country down through years of war and dictatorship, appears, as the Wall Street Journal puts it, "on the verge of being ousted."

What will happen in Libya is far less clear. Leader Muammar Qaddafi retains power in the west, with the east-based rebels struggling to hold their ground. The civil war may yet stretch on indefinitely, but the wholesale slaughter that Qaddafi promised has been, at least for now, averted, as has his use of the air force to bomb civilians. The NATO-led air strikes have instituted a sort of stalemate; with Qaddafi unable to move his heavy weaponry and the rebels lacking any, neither side is strong enough to make a significant advance. The U.S. and other Western powers are making very public statements about their interest in possibly arming the rebels, and President Obama has authorized the CIA to hit Libyan ground, but this so far appears to be mostly an effort to scare Qaddafi into negotiating.

Under UN-imposed sanctions and the dawning realization that Qaddafi's rule may never again be sovereign, top officials are fleeing the regime, possibly including the leader's own son. Saif, in typically Qaddafiesque fashion, appears to have possibly sold out his own father in offering to negotiate the elder's immediate resignation is Saif can take power. Saif, who appears to be neither less power mad nor blood thirsty than his father, is extremely unlikely to win control over the country in any international negotiation. But the fact that it has come to this signals that the regime is cracking and Qaddafi may be coming as close to willingly ceding power as his twisted mind makes possible. The civil war has so far wrought death and devastation on Libya, but it may yet end with Qaddafi's departure, and the alternative -- non-action -- would likely have been far costlier.

But the greatest affects of these interventions may be felt outside of Libya or Côte d'Ivoire altogether. As the dictatorial regimes of the Middle East face continued popular protests and the nascent democracies of Africa consider how honestly to conduct upcoming elections, massacre and election theft may suddenly look less attractive. For years, African "presidents" have refused to leave office after losing elections, a plan that has largely worked up until Gbagbo. Now, why try to hold power illegally if it only means leaving office in handcuffs -- or a body bag -- rather than gracefully? In the Middle East and beyond, autocrats may now think twice before ordering live rounds or worse fired into crowds. In Yemen, for example, President Ali Abdullah Saleh may be less willing to hold power through violence and thus more likely to leave office peacefully rather than through the civil war that may yet reemerge there.

International norms of the post-Cold War wold, we often forget, are still largely unshaped. Non-democratic rules are inherently brutal and autocratic, but that brutality and autocracy have been reinforced by 20-plus years of international norms telling them that they can get away with bloody, lifelong rule. With swift, decisive international action in Libya and in Côte d'Ivoire, we may be entering a new era where such leaders understand that they are not all-powerful within their own borders. The red lines are still not clear, nor are the repercussions of crossing them. But in this new, emerging system, the red lines do exist, and so do the repercussions. Seventeen years after watching as Rwanda descended into civil war and then genocide, the world seems to be saying, Never again.