Cote d’Ivoire coup? Points I find persuasive and not.

Yesterday I blogged Paul Collier’s proposal that regional powers (and the West?) encourage the Ivoirian Army to remove Gbagbo from power. There were many good comments, plus an excellent post from Wronging Rights.

Here are some thoughts after reading the commentary. First, something to keep in mind: I know far more about Cote d’Ivoire’s neighbors, where I’ve worked for years, than Cote d’Ivoire itself. But underinformed as my thoughts are, I think it makes sense to discuss these as general principles for international action.

The world’s best defense against stolen elections, coups and wars is consistent, pre-committed, and predictable actions and principles. The fact that the West and the AU have generally done exactly the opposite may account for some of the current mess.

Unpersuasive: “A coup would be less legitimate than a UN-sanctioned intervention.” I think both have questionable legitimacy (at best), especially in the eyes of Ivoirians. In principle, it’s not obvious to me that it’s any less legitimate for the UN to support one over the other (though the powers and process might only exist for direct UN military action).

Either way, could action by a nation’s police or military actually be more legitimate? On principle, I tend to favor action by domestic rather than outside institutions. This will vary from nation to nation according to their constitution, but who, if not the nation’s police and military, are ultimately charged with upholding laws violated by top government officials?

Wronging Rights (rightly) goes to the Ivoirian Constitution and suggests there’s no role for the military in this case. This is definitely the right avenue for investigation, bringing us to…

Partly persuasive: “Let Ouattara give the Constitution a try here.” I agree. The specialists will need to weigh in here, and I am surprised (along with Wronging Rights) not to have seen so much talk of invasions and coups without a more thorough analysis of the domestic legal situation.

Of course, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Constitution was woefully unclear here, especially if the Constitutional Council exercised powers it does not possess (e.g. throwing out the northern electoral results).

If only extra-constitutional mechanisms are available (say, because Gbagbo has corrupted the judiciary, or because it’s a big giant unclear mess), it’s not clear to me why sanctioned (i.e. non-covert) coups are any less legitimate than military invasion.

I remain predisposed to actions that involve domestic rather than foreign institutions. To go against extra-constitutional options, you’d have to make the next point…

Partly persuasive: “Letting Gbagbo stay is preferable to both coups and invasions.” This is probably true if we consider only the well being of Ivoirians, and only this election. But I think what this incident shows is that leaders take their cue from the experiences and actions of neighbors. Zimbabwe and Kenya set (ill?) precedents for Cote d’Ivoire, and the continent might be worse off if leaders feel they can cling to power by refusing to acknowledge an electoral loss. This is one of Collier’s main claims in his book, and it is a persuasive one.

So to argue against intervention is (I would say) to accept more incidents like this one in the near future. This is a hypothesis only. Nevertheless, to argue against coups and invasion you would need to either argue against this hypothesis, or argue that the continental ramifications are not worth the risk of intervention. Those cases could be made (here is one), but I have yet to see a fully persuasive one.

Partly persuasive: “The dynamics of a coup could be as or more messy than an invasion.” Good reasons this may be true are here and here. Frankly, I think either have a good chance of ending in disaster. The only correct way to argue this point, however, is to specify why intervening is worse than the alternatives. Almost no one did so.

Basically: no one gets away with emotional dismissing of options, and no one gets to take an option off the table without explaining the rationale for a better one. Think about the opportunity cost.

Finally, what I might find most persuasive, but have not heard: “Cote d’Ivoire is for the Ivoirians, and only extra-legal actions driven by civil society have any hope of legitimacy.”

I find it hard to believe anything will look legitimate ex-ante. This is a sea of bad options. But no one, least of all the UN, ought to get behind a movement that does not have broad-based citizen support and (ideally) momentum. The absence of large-scale street protests, concerted action by civil society, or even an insurgency is the best argument against international extra-constitutional action. I don’t believe a peacekeeping force or coup can install a government capable of governing peacefully without a social movement to back it up.

Most of all, though,  I’m glad I don’t have to be the one to make this terrible decision.

Update: As I thought about this in the shower (I really do make this stuff up as I go along, folks), it occurred to me that the best argument against military intervention or sanctioned coups is that, over the next five years, the world can make Gbagbo’s life difficult enough that no neighbor will want to repeat his move. This might or might not include an ICC indictment (perhaps left sealed for a little while, with a promise that it will disappear if he is gone by the next election?).

Undoubtedly, however, pariah status for Gbagbo would mean pariah status for the nation, and with it economic stagnation and possibly suffering. A hard choice.