Monday, February 28, 2011

The Unrest in Côte d'Ivoire, and Why it Matters

Last November, Côte d'Ivoire held its first presidential election in ten years. It was supposed to help unify a country that had suffered through more than a decade of unrest and civil war.

Instead, the election has done just the opposite. The current president, Laurent Gbagbo, nullified the victory – certified by independent international observers – of a longtime prominent opponent, Alassane Ouattara, and has vowed to stay in power by any means necessary, defying calls from the international community to step down. How the international community reacts to this flagrant abuse of power will have an impact throughout West Africa – a region only just beginning to emerge from civil war and political upheaval – and will speak volumes for how a rising Africa ranks as a global international issue in the 21st century.

With President Gbagbo still commanding the loyalty of the military and Mr. Ouattara backed by the rebellious Northern provinces and the leader of the rebel New Forces militia, Gulliame Soro, Côte d'Ivoire is on the brink of renewed civil war. Being one of the wealthier countries in West Africa and one of the largest sources of cocoa and coffee, an unstable Côte d'Ivoire would have negative repercussions throughout Africa and the world.

The situation has been deteriorating rapidly since the results were announced in December. Hundreds have died from clashes between President Gbagbo’s and Mr. Ouattara’s forces and between police and unarmed protestors. Thousands more have fled to neighboring countries, some of which, like Liberia and Sierra Leone, have only just recently emerged from their own civil wars and whose stability remains fragile at best. Moreover, the price of cocoa and other commodities have skyrocketed in light of the current unrest and the potential for future civil war.

Currently, President Gbagbo has the advantage on the ground, with thousands of Ivorian troops confining Mr. Ouattara and his rival government in a small section of Abidijan, the nation's largest city. Only an 1000 man contingent of UN peacekeepers stand in the way of Mr. Ouattara and several hundred of his trapped forces from being overwhelmed.

But despite having his opponent surrounded and outgunned, President Gbagbo’s hold on power is growing increasingly tenuous. The international community has universally recognized Mr. Ouattara as the new president and has strongly condemned President Gbagbo’s heavy-handed actions. The Central Bank of the West African Monetary Union has denied President Gbagbo access to Côte d'Ivoire’s state funds, and the World Bank has frozen $800 million in expected financing, both of which threaten to starve President Gbagbo of enough cash to pay the military and other loyal officials. UN forces refused to leave the country after being ordered to do so by President Gbagbo, and the UN continues to supply and reinforce its contingent protecting Mr. Ouattara’s position in Abidjan. Now, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional economic group with a military arm, is threatening to send an intervention force to remove President Gbagbo from power. Moreover, the New Forces remain at large and is poised to make a move should President Gbagbo escalate the situation further.

The international community likely hopes that, faced with dwindling cash reserves and the possibility of ECOWAS or rebel attack, the Ivorian army will abandon President Gbagbo, which would force him to step down. But this outcome is not so clear-cut. Past ECOWAS interventions in conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere were never a decisive force on the ground. Nor did they bring about a quick victory, but rather got bogged down for years and caused significant collateral damage to property and civilians. Moreover, Nigeria, the most powerful member of ECOWAS, is nearing highly-charged elections of its own, and so may be reluctant to commit wholeheartedly to an intervention force.

An ineffectual ECOWAS intervention would produce a long, drawn-out stalemate at best and, if it doesn’t cause a full-fledged civil war, would exacerbate the divisions within Côte d'Ivoire that led to civil war in the first place.

The causes of Côte d'Ivoire’s troubles are rooted in the tensions between the rich, cocoa-growing, urban, Christian, and coastal southern regions and the poorer, Muslim, more rural, and more foreign northern regions. Throughout the late 1900s, Côte d'Ivoire experienced significant immigration, especially from neighboring West African countries, due to its economic prosperity from cocoa and coffee exports and the political stability imposed by longtime dictator Félix Houphouët-Boigny. The tensions between the “native” Ivorians and the immigrants (especially the Burkinabé from neighboring Burkina Faso) came to a head during the last elections, in 2000, when the very same Mr. Ouattara was barred from running due to suspicions of his nationality. President Gbagbo, following a chaotic disputed election, emerged as president. He did little to alleviate the ethnic tensions, which provoked a mutiny of hundreds of soldiers from the north across the country in 2002, leading to the formation of the New Forces and the beginning of civil war.

Whatever the outcome of the current standoff, such tensions have been stoked again. The situation is further exacerbated by the current economic woes the country is suffering as a result of the standoff, with movement in and out of the country hampered. The greatest fear of ECOWAS countries is for another civil war to break out, as that would mean reduced trade with and more refugees from Côte d'Ivoire. In addition, Liberia and Sierra Leone in particular are worried, rightfully so, that renewed civil war in Côte d'Ivoire could provide a haven for militants seeking to destabilize either country, both of which went through their own civil wars that only ended in the last decade.

For West Africa, then, the situation in Côte d'Ivoire is a looming disaster, but also an opportunity to demonstrate resolve and solidarity on the world stage. West Africa will need real leadership to transcend short-term considerations in order to collectively address a threat that will negatively impact all of the countries in the region. If it is able to make good on its word and send a sizeable, well-funded, and well-equipped ECOWAS force, it will be an impressive, even inspiring, culmination of a decade’s worth of progress in the region: to have gone from being awash in civil wars – with many countries even funding and arming rebels in neighboring countries – to being able to collectively police the region.

For the rest of the world, the situation in Côte d'Ivoire is an issue that must be addressed adequately to show that the international community, when acting collectively, still has the teeth to uphold its interests abroad. But if it wants to ensure success, the international community will have to take an additional sweeping measure: a boycott of Ivorian cocoa and possibly other exports. Taxing exports is how President Gbagbo is getting most of his revenue from at the moment. It would hurt world markets too, but it could prove the decisive blow to President Gbagbo’s finances. Perhaps then the threat of an ECOWAS invasion will be enough to dispel President Gbagbo of his remaining supporters and avert a full-fledged civil war.

Note: This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of American Foreign Policy, a Princeton monthly foreign policy publication.

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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Confronting Iran: An Intermediate Approach

For the United States and Israel, Iran’s nuclear program is reaching an especially critical phase. Eight years after Iranian dissidents in London publicly revealed information detailing Iran’s covert nuclear program, the rogue state shows no signs of backing down on its nuclear activities. Indeed, this August, with Russian help, Iran’s first nuclear power plant, Bushehr, became operational. While Iran insists that the plant is only for generating electricity, the plant will also reportedly produce plutonium, which can be used in a nuclear warhead, as a byproduct. This new development comes even as Iran utilizes facilities at Natanz, Qum, and elsewhere to enrich uranium, inching ever closer towards nuclear breakout.

This past July, the United Nations passed the toughest round of sanctions yet against Iran, and the United States and the European Union added sanctions of their own. The UN sanctions focus on targeting financial institutions doing business related to Iran’s nuclear weapons program or with certain branches of the Iranian ruling elite, particularly the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the US and EU sanctions target additional areas, such as technological assistance.

Few expect the new sanctions to force change in Iran’s behavior, however. The UN sanctions, although stronger than previous ones, fall well short of being crippling, due to opposition from Russia and China, two of Iran’s main trading partners. US sanctions target shipments of gasoline – perhaps the commodity most vulnerable to sanctions due Iran’s extremely limited refining capacity. However, China and Russia have refused to take similar action, severely weakening any impact the US measures could have. Even many Obama administration officials are conceding that voiced pessimism; as CIA Director Leon Panetta remarked, “Will [the sanctions] deter them [Iran]from their ambitions with regards to nuclear capability? Probably not.”
As Iran’s nuclear program proceeds forward, the United States faces a set of difficult options. It could try to forcibly remove Iran’s nuclear program – both to ensure regional security and punish Iran for so long defying the international community – or work to contain Iran so as to counteract the additional regional leverage a nuclear weapons program would afford that nation. Neither is by any means a slam dunk, and both would fundamentally alter the Middle East. In addition, there is the very real prospect of Israel taking unilateral action against Iran – while a nuclear Iran would be problematic for the United States, for Israel it could be an existential threat – adding another dimension of complexity to this deepening crisis.

Large strategic decisions aside, however, the United States does have several intermediate options it can pursue to ratchet up pressure on Iran, particularly with regard to sanctions enforcement. While few disagree that past and current sanctions could and should have had more teeth, upon closer inspection, it is clear that enforcement of the sanctions has been lacking as well. The United States has taken surprisingly little action against violators of its sanctions, and it certainly could do more work searching for such violators. Part of this has to do with cost and bureaucratic inefficiency, but a lot also has to do with the inherent difficulties of enforcement. Nevertheless, the Obama administration could put more resources into enforcement as an intermediate way to ramp up pressure on Iran.

Doing so will not be easy: even the most stringent sanctions are hard to enforce. Penalizing offenders can be costly, especially as black markets for sanctioned goods often develop after bigger, legitimate offenders are punished. Moreover, even if a country like the United States were successfully to cripple trade of a certain good to another country, that country could still get that good from the United States through a middleman; for example, nuclear power plant material could leave a US port bound for a country in South Asia but, once in that country, could then be shipped to Iran. In the past, businesses evaded US and UN sanctions by doing business through Iran via businesses in nearby states, the UAE being a prominent example.

Tracking what businesses that receive initial shipments do with the material they receive is one of many challenges facing a host of export control agencies within the Defense, State, and Commerce Departments (among others). Certainly, beefing up these efforts would help strengthen the sanctions regime against Iran. Indeed, in recent months, the UAE and several other Arab nations have started cooperating more with the United States with export control efforts as the specter of a nuclear Iran grows more pronounced; Arab nations are threatened by a nuclear Iran too.

Should Iran, despite current efforts, reach breakout capacity, the United States has another card to play. The US could enact the ultimate enforcement mechanism: a naval blockade of Iran. Under such a blockade, the United States could forcibly stop ships and check cargo for sensitive material and barcodes or serial numbers that most companies put on their products to identify if such material was shipped from a US port. This would be necessary because, to enforce US sanctions, the United States can only stop US ships (though as a member of the UN Security Council, the United States could also enforce a blockade on behalf of the UN sanctions as well).

Such a blockade would be no easy feat. It would require a substantial number of ships and personnel to search every single commercial vessel going to Iran. Such an aggressive and debatably legal action might also provoke backlash from the international community, so the United States would do well to consult extensively with the Europeans, Russians, Chinese, and others before it undertakes such an action. Moreover, without cooperation from countries neighboring Iran, particularly Russia, there would be no way to enact a total blockade against Iran (though perhaps if President Obama’s “reset” diplomacy with Russia works as planned, the latter may be more willing to help with such an action). Nevertheless, if the United States were to undertake such a blockade, or simply threaten to do so, it would send a clear message to Iran that the United States would be willing to use force if necessary to thwart Iran’s nuclear program. Conveying this intention to Iran could cause it to rethink its options; faced with the likely prospect of U.S. military action, the Iranian government would be more likely to decide that abandoning its nuclear program to maintain its power would be better for it than trying to resist concerted U.S. military.

In this way, a US blockade would strengthen the sanctions regime against Iran while demonstrating that the United States would be willing to move beyond negotiations and diplomacy if necessary. A similar gambit worked against Cuba and may have prevented a Soviet-American WWIII; perhaps now such an intermediate move could resolve this current crisis.

Note: This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of American Foreign Policy, a Princeton monthly foreign policy publication.

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